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In order to get a good start on what could be the school's longest football season ever, the Rams - pre-season favorites in the Mountain West Conference - need to continue the run of success in season openers under Head Coach Sonny Lubick.
CSU is 7-2 in openers under Lubick, losing Sonny's first game against Oregon in 1993, and last year's opener against Colorado. In between, they won seven straight (including two over the Buffaloes.) Colorado State's last opener on the road came in 1998 in another preseason game, the Black Coaches Association Classic. The Rams scored 23 unanswered points at Michigan State to comeback and win 23-16, and went on to finished 8-4.
A win over Virginia is far from a given. The Cavaliers are expected to be a factor in the Atlantic Coast Conference this season under second-year head coach Al Groh.
Groh came back to his alma mater after a stint as the head man with the New York Jets. He brought with him a multiple offense that put the ball up an average of 37 times a game last season. Virginia shattered the school record by throwing 451 times, gaining more than twice as many yards through the air (2,868) as on the ground (1,272).
The key guy is wide receiver Bill McMullen, who set a school record with 83 receptions a year ago. The 6' 4" McMullen, who scored 12 touchdowns and had over 1,000 yards in receptions, poses serious match-up problems for Ram cornerbacks Dexter Wynn (5' 10") and Rhett Nelson (6' 0"). The Cavs will also steer some balls in the direction of junior Michael McGrew, who has been impressive in pre-season camp. He had 31 catches last year, including 21 in the final seven games.
Groh and offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave (a Grand Junction product and a former Denver Bronco QB) want to balance the offense more this season. They want to take some of the pressure off junior quarterback Matt Schaub, who has made steady progress from a year ago, when he threw 240 passes. To do that, the Cavs will have to discover a running game. They ranked dead last in the ACC, and 101st nationally in rushing offense, averaging just 106 yards per game. The ball carrying should be split among several players. Alvin Pearman, who led the team in rushing (371 yards) as a true freshman, is back. He'll share carries with sophomore Marquis Weeks. A pair of true freshmen, Wali Lundy and Michael Johnson, are likely to see action as well.
The young, inexperienced offensive line is anchored by senior is right tackle Mike Mullins. They will have to improve quickly for the Cavs running game to flourish.
The Rams will be out to re-establish their own ground game this season, and the Cavs look to be a good fit for that. Virginia's run defense was 94th in the nation a year ago.
In fact, the Cavaliers were 93rd in the nation in total defense a year ago, after being 98th in 2000. Since 1998, they've given up 30 points or more in 19 of 36 games. Groh installed a new 3-4 defensive scheme, and in year two, he expects better results.
For their part, the Rams are preparing for a top quality opponent.
"We have had the chance to put most of our stuff in," Lubick said. "Now it's time to look at the Virginia stuff. We have three more days next week to work on it, so hopefully that will be enough.
"As a coach, you are always worrying if you are doing the right things, doing enough of certain things. Our job as coaches is to prepare the players and put them in the right situations."