Season ends with a dud

What started off so promising ended with utter disappointment. After spending much of the year in the national rankings, climbing as high as No. 13, the CSU Rams ended the year with their two worst performances, and out of the top 25.

A 17-3 loss to Texas Christian in the Liberty Bowl on New Year's Eve was the poorest offensive showing for the Rams all year. They managed just 89 yards rushing -- compared with 197 for TCU -- for their lowest total of the season as TCU outgained CSU 338-149.

It was well-known going in to the game that TCU featured a strong defense, especially against the run. But it didn't appear to fit the bill at first, as CSU star running back Cecil Sapp busted off runs of 59 and 25 yards on the Rams' first two possessions.

As if to show it was just toying with CSU (10-4), the TCU defense clamped down from thereon as Sapp could muster only 22 more yards the rest of the way.

"They are one hell of a defense, they are very athletic. I've got to respect them because of what they've done all year," Sapp said.

While still recording a 100-yard day -- his ninth of the year, which ties a school record -- Sapp didn't receive much help. Quarterback Bradlee Van Pelt played possibly the worst game of his career, completing just four of 19 passes for 24 yards and an interception. Worse yet was his nine rushing attempts that went for a minus-6 yards.

The chances were there. Trailing 7-0 just after halftime, a stalled drive resulted in a 46-yard field goal from Jeff Babcock. On the ensuing possession, two Sapp runs carried CSU to the Horned Frogs' 22. But two penalties and lost yardage on third down forced a punt.

It appeared the Rams' offense was maybe paying the Rams' defense back for its sad showing a month before in the team's regular season finale against UNLV. That game, which CSU lost 36-33, saw a normally stiff defense allow 390 yards on the ground, 222 of those going to freshman Larry Croom. The Rebels' starter, Joe Haro, ran for 126.

But other than these final two games, CSU was a relatively strong, well-balanced team that deserved its No. 13 national ranking. The year included convincing wins over conference rivals BYU and Air Force, and early non-conference victories against Virginia and Colorado, both teams which finished in the top 25.

Ambitious non-conference scheduling was the theme this year for CSU, as non-Mountain West foes also included UCLA, Louisville and Fresno State, all teams that went to bowl games. While the Rams' other two losses were to UCLA and Fresno State, they had realistic chances to win both games.

Conversely, CSU had realistic chances to lose both games against Virginia and CU. Both games came down to the final play, with Virginia fumbling on the 1-yard line and CU just missing a pass in the endzone.

So as with any other year, there are plenty shouldas, wouldas and couldas from the 2002 CSU football season. A 10-4 mark isn't bad for a team that faced eight bowl teams.

Looking to next year, the biggest loss will be at running back, as Sapp will graduate on to the NFL. The offense will also lose guard Morgan Pears to the NFL, and its second-leading receiver, Joey Cuppari.

On defense, safety David Vickers and cornerback Rhett Nelson depart from the secondary, while defensive ends Pete Hogan and Wallace Thomas leave the line. Part-time starter Doug Heald will be gone from the linebacking corps.

Thus, the seeds are planted for next year. With many key players returning, the Rams will be primed to avenge this year's late-season collapse.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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