FORT COLLINS — After a Wyoming touchdown late in the third quarter of Saturday’s game, Cowboys quarterback Josh Allen walked to his team’s bench and let out a primal scream, declaring, “I will not be denied. I want this too much!”
On the opposite sideline, Colorado State players sat in near-silence, most of them staring blankly at a scoreboard that read: Wyoming 38, Colorado State 17. It was an eerily similar scene to one in CSU’s season opener against in-state rival Colorado. There was no anger. No impassioned sideline speeches. No will to win. The Cowboys had knocked it out of them.
Twice this season CSU has faced its biggest rivals on national television, and twice they have been thoroughly beaten and embarrassed. In front of a sellout crowd in the final Border War at Hughes Stadium, the Rams were gut-punched by a team they had dominated the previous three years. To rub it in that much more, Wyoming players took off toward the south end zone before time had expired to get their hands on the Bronze Boot. In reality, they probably could’ve done it about 20 minutes earlier.
As CSU players trudged their way over to the east side of the stadium to sing along with the band to the school’s fight song, an overwhelming look of defeat crept across their faces.
No one outside the 100 or so players, coaches and support staff that were in the postgame locker room will know what was said after the game, or what fingers were pointed at who. It’s unlikely that any of what transpired Saturday night will be in the next episode of “The Grind,” and CSU may not wear its alternate gray uniforms again for the rest of the season. Players and coaches will talk about learning from their mistakes and putting this game behind them, but in reality, this game and this feeling will stew in the minds of this program for days to come. They can give all the lip service they want, but this one hurt.
And it should.
Up 14-3, CSU had a chance to step on Wyoming’s throat. Instead, they let the Cowboys claw back into the game with a series of turnovers, defensive lapses and mental miscues that have plagued the Rams under second-year coach Mike Bobo.
A second-quarter fumble from freshman running back Marvin Kinsey turned into an easy touchdown pass from Allen to Tanner Gentry on the very next play.
A botched screen pass turned into a pick-six by a defensive tackle of all people.
The decision to insert backup Faton Bauta in the red zone after Collin Hill marched the Rams to the Wyoming 6-yard line led to two incompletions that forced CSU to attempt a chip shot field goal. Instead of coming away with the game-tying touchdown, kicker Wyatt Bryan bungled a 24-yard field goal and gave Wyoming the momentum it needed to drive 80 yards and take a 14-point lead midway through the fourth quarter.
And finally, an awfully-timed 14-yard punt from All-American Hayden Hunt set the Cowboys up at the CSU 37-yard line, where Allen capped off Wyoming’s comeback with an 18-yard touchdown run where he was virtually untouched to put the visitors up 38-17.
What looked like an opportunity for CSU to grab a win and some momentum before heading into a tough two-game stretch against Utah State and Boise State quickly became a nightmare the Rams never woke up from.
At 2-3, with two of its toughest opponents this season in the next two weeks, Bobo and his program are facing a crossroads right in the face. These players, and even this young coaching staff have faced this type of adversity before, but never with this much inexperience at key positions.
Under Jim McElwain, CSU sat at 2-4 six weeks into the 2013 season. Behind Kapri Bibbs, Garrett Grayson and a bend-but-don’t-break defense, the Rams won six out of their last eight games, including a thrilling 48-45 win over Washington State in the New Mexico Bowl.
In 2014 CSU was on Cloud Nine following a resounding win over Colorado, only to be handled by Boise State on the road the very next week. The Rams ran off nine consecutive wins following the loss to Boise State, including an improbable come-from-behind win over Boston College.
A year ago at this time, CSU also sat at 2-3, smack dab in the middle of a brutal three-game stretch against Utah State, Boise State and Air Force. Following a 41-10 blowout loss to the Broncos on Oct. 10, CSU won five of its final seven games to sneak into the the Arizona Bowl under rookie head coach Mike Bobo.
What has defined Colorado State in its most recent run of success has been its resiliency. So far this season, that type of fight has only been seen in spurts. For two halves against UTSA and UNC, the Rams looked like a bowl team. Their defense played sound, aggressive football. The offense moved the ball at will against lesser opponents. Even against Big Ten foe Minnesota, CSU hung in and fought for four quarters.
Against Colorado and Wyoming, that will quickly disappeared. Adversity hit and CSU closed up shop. If CSU’s performance on Saturday night is any indication of what’s to come the next few weeks, this team could very well find itself at 2-5 heading to Las Vegas for a road tilt with UNLV. Some of their mistakes can and should be attributed to youth. But as Bobo and his players pointed out, at this point in the season, some of the mistakes are simply inexcusable.
The next two weeks will be the defining point of Colorado State’s season and Mike Bobo’s tenure to this point. With what should be a near-sellout crowd for homecoming on Saturday, CSU has a chance to right the ship against a tough but beatable Utah State squad. If they can, they'll carry some momentum into what will be a brutal road test at Boise State. If not, CSU could find itself on the wrong end of another blowout at the hands of the Mountain West's premier program.
There’s plenty of blame to go around, and ultimately, the majority of it will fall on Bobo’s shoulders. It’s a bottom-line business, and the bottom line is, CSU hasn’t gotten it done three times this year. Some of that falls on the coaching staff and the team's preparation. But ultimately, it's the players who handle things between the white lines.
The Rams have seven games left, four of which they are likely to be favored to win. A bowl berth is still very much within reach but if they’re going to return to be playing into late December for the fourth straight year, they’ll have to turn things around in a hurry.
If they don’t, they’ll find themselves very familiar with the feeling they had Saturday night.
InsideTheRams.com Digital Editor Keegan Pope can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @ByKeeganPope.