When Mike Bobo first arrived at Colorado State, one of the first aspects he installed as head coach of the Rams was "The Fourth Quarter" offseason training program. The grueling regimen headed by strength coach Ryan Davis was meant to simulate the grind of the actual football season in order to prepare players to fight through adversity and finish strong.
The preseason program was surely one of many factors propelling the Rams to a 7-5 overall finish after starting the season 2-3. But beyond that, it serves as a perfect metaphor to what Bobo has preached throughout his entire CSU tenure: finish strong, regardless of circumstances.
On Saturday night at San Diego State in CSU's regular season finale, the Rams did just that. As a matter of fact, they dominated.
CSU jumped out to an early 14-0 lead on screen passes to Michael Gallup and Detrich Clark. The Rams never looked back, thrashing West Division champion SDSU, 63-31 on a rainy night at Qualcomm Stadium.
Gallup capped off a sensational season with three receiving scores and Nick Stevens, who has rebounded superbly since returning to the starting lineup, threw four first half touchdown passes.
College football's third all-time leading rusher, Donnel Pumphrey, was held to just 53 yards on 18 carries. The icing on the cake was senior Robert Ruiz's 91-yard punt return for a score - CSU's longest punt return touchdown in school history.
From start to finish, the Rams set the tone in ending SDSU's 10-game home winning streak. CSU dominated the trenches, created big play after big play and finished strong. What had been a consistent issue during the first half the season was erased entirely in the final six games, as the Rams learned to put together strong performances from start to finish.
The Rams picked a good time to heat up, with a fourth consecutive bowl game now on the menu.
This is the CSU offense many were anticipating entering the season. Most were expecting a dominant rushing attack.
Most were expecting an effective pass offense to compliment the running attack, even with a brand new receiving corps.
And many were hoping for an improved defense, even with the youth up front and in the secondary.
The Rams' rushing attack is finishing the season as arguably the top in the conference. The three-headed monster of Dalyn Dawkins, Izzy Matthews and Marvin Kinsey, Jr. has been spectacular, especially over the past two weeks. Each went over the 100-yard mark against New Mexico, while Dawkins and Matthews both finished above the century mark in the win over SDSU. The dominant offensive line that many analysts expected from CSU has finally reached full steam and the Mountain West hasn't been able to stop it.
What's even more encouraging for CSU is the passing game, which was nonexistent through the first two games of the season. Nick Stevens was benched for poor play after being stymied by a talented and veteran Colorado defense. A quick look at the numbers:
Nick Stevens' numbers through the first 5 games, including a start against CU and one series in a backup role against UNC: 7-of-21 for 40 yards, 0 TDs, 2 INTs.
Stevens' final 7 games following Collin Hill's injury: 101-of-144 for 1,451 yards, 14 TDs, 1 INT.
It's truly been one of the most remarkable turnarounds I've ever seen from a quarterback in a single season.
At receiver, Michael Gallup was a solid option to start the year. He caught 4 passes through the first two games, but struggled with drops and bobbling catches. Since then? 66 receptions for 1,126 yards and 11 touchdowns. In the season's final 10 games, Wyoming was the only opponent he did not score against and he caught at least one touchdown in the final 7 games.
The offensive line has finally developed to become one of the best run blocking units in the conference. They're nearly as good in pass pro. Nolan Peralta is a punishing fullback. Jeff Taylor is a bulldozing sidekick fullback in jumbo sets. Depth has also improved, with Colby Meeks and Trae Moxley filling in nicely for injuries and/or the poor play of Paul Thurston and Nick Callender, respectively.
Over their final five contests, CSU averaged over 47 points per game. Not bad for a team that could hardly gain a first down to begin the season.
Defensively, the Rams have had their ups and downs. At times, Marty English's group couldn't even get stops. At others, they made quality quarterbacks look average and top tailbacks appear subpar.
For all the inconsistencies, the defensive front has gelled at the right time. Arjay Jean is a future pass rush fiend. Richard King, Toby McBride, O'Shea Jackson have all shown flashes, while Jake Buys, Darnell Thompson and Josh Lovingood all return next season.
Kevin Davis has performed at an all-conference level. Some youngsters are waiting in the wings for their chance, while the team is also hopeful of senior leader Deonte Clyburn's return in 2017.
Jamal Hicks' instincts were on display last night as he created the game's only interception. He has a bright future, as does blossoming corner Robert Awunganyi. In all, the Rams will return a boatload of experience to next year's defense, an attribute that limited their performance earlier in the season.
If you're a Ram fan, last night was fun. Real fun. It was a long-awaited culmination of an up and down season full of a roller coaster of emotions. CSU sent out Hughes Stadium in style, and now they're riding high into bowl season with a dominant road win over arguably the conference's top team.
Oh, and what a way to up the momentum with two of their biggest recruiting weekends ever in store for the first two weekends in December.
A lot to look forward to for the Rams in the month of December. And, of course, a lot to look forward to in 2017 with the opening of the new stadium and a boatload of returning talent.