Before each Minnesota football game, GopherIllustrated will ask five questions of an opposing beat writer. This week, we spoke with Colorado State beat writer Ryan Kraus of InsideTheRams.com (Fort Collins, Colorado) to preview the Gophers' Week 3 home game against the Colorado State Rams of the Mountain West conference.
1) Colorado State seemed to have struggled a bit early on, but what are the expectations for the Rams this season after starting to get on track last Saturday with a victory over Northern Colorado?
RK: The Rams had a nightmare start to the season, getting dismantled by rival Colorado in the opener, 44-7. CSU could hardly move the ball on offense, while the defense got shredded for most of the night. 2015 starting quarterback Nick Stevens, a second team all-Mountain West selection last year, started that game, but threw for just 31 yards on 6 of 20 passing. In week two, CSU rolled out Georgia transfer Faton Bauta, who did not fare much better. He threw for just 82 yards and had fans booing, although the team used solid defense late to top UTSA at home, 23-14.
CSU's staff did everything it could to hold onto the redshirt of true freshman Collin Hill, but Rams head coach Mike Bobo had enough in week two and inserted Hill in the second half in relief of Bauta in week two. He started his first college game last week and was sensational, throwing for four touchdowns and rushing for a 51-yard score, all in the first half. Now, that came in a win against FCS foe Northern Colorado, but Hill was night and day better than the other two quarterbacks. The rest of the offense has steadily improved over the past two weeks, as has the defense. Expectations for the team coming into the season were a bowl game appearance and I don't think that has changed. The Rams are about on par with what you saw from them last year, but I would say Hill is already a much better passer than Stevens and Coleman Key a year ago against UM. That said, the Gophers obviously pose a much greater test to gauge Hill and the rest of the team's growth.
2) There's been quite the quarterback carousel so far for the Rams as they've already played three quarterbacks, but they've look to have found their guy in Collin Hill. What makes the true freshman the best option for Colorado State?
RK: I won't go into too much depth on this, because there is no need to overanalyze the situation. Simply put, Hill has been much better than the other two. Stevens severely disappointed in week one, missing his receivers on a consistent basis, while throwing a pair of interceptions. The Rams had five consecutive three-and-outs under his direction. Bauta is more of a running threat, but his severe inaccuracy equated to an anemic passing game.
Hill looks the part of a pure thrower and passed with flying colors in his first start. The former three-star from South Carolina is big, has a strong arm and is very accurate for a first-year player. And while he isn't a dual-threat, he has enough athleticism to move around the pocket. He broke off a 51-yard scoring run last week, but don't expect him to look to run consistently. Perhaps his greatest assets are his intangibles. He's extremely bright, confident, works hard on and off the field, and does what coaches ask of him. He really has a great blend of physical and mental tools. He's simply inexperienced, which will no doubt lead to freshman mistakes. We just haven't seen them yet.
Bottom line, CSU looked explosive offensively with Hill at the helm. Under the direction of Stevens and Bauta, CSU labored severely just to pick up first downs.
3) The Rams put up 47 points in their performance last week against Northern Colorado, what's going to be the keys for the offense if they're going to try and duplicate that performance on Saturday?
RK: Well, CSU actually looked good for once on offense last week. As I've said, that was due to Collin Hill starting at quarterback. But he has only faced UTSA and Northern Colorado as a collegiate quarterback. Obviously, his first real test will be this week. Minnesota is much bigger, faster and smarter, so CSU can't rely on moving the ball with nearly as much ease.
The Rams have a solid rushing attack and they'll have to lean on that against UM. CSU's offensive line has to give them a chance to run with some success, as well as give Hill enough time to make plays with his arm. I'd expect CSU to resort to a horizontal passing attack - mainly short-to-intermediate throws to get Hill into a rhythm and attempt to get the Gophers a bit off balance defensively. CSU used jet sweeps, screens and swing passes to move the ball on the edge, and I think they'll have to pick up chunks of yards that way to help the running game.
With Hill now at QB, CSU has a better chance to succeed downfield, too. I just don't know that they want to chance too many deep throws on the road against a reputable defense, especially with a true freshman quarterback. The Rams will need running backs Dalyn Dawkins, Izzy Matthews and Marvin Kinsey to make plays to set up Hill in the passing game.
4) What are the strengths of the Rams defense and who are a few names to keep an eye on for the game this Saturday?
RK: The primary strength is their linebackers, and namely Kevin Davis. The senior middle linebacker is in line for an all-conference season having recorded 32 tackles, three sacks and two forced fumbles this year. Fellow inside 'backer Josh Watson is a tackling machine, although he had a rough opener against CU.
The defensive front has been up and down. They had six sacks against UTSA, but for the most part, have not been able to create a consistent pass rush this year. They held UTSA to -1 rushing yard, but struggled against CU. The Gophers will be a huge test, as UM features much bigger backs. The Rams' front should put up a fight in the run game, but depth is an issue.
CSU's biggest weakness right now is its secondary. It is young and they've played very inconsistent football through three games. Safety Jake Schlager is tough and reliable, and nickel Braylin Scott has had an interception in each of his last two games. But the cornerbacks have been beaten consistently and defensive coordinator Marty English hasn't really found a rotation there that he likes. All in all, CSU's defense is a work in progress.
5) What are the keys for Colorado State if they're going to beat the Gophers, and what's your score prediction for the Colorado State vs. Minnesota game, and why?
RK: CSU will have to play a strong game in all three phases and the Gophers will need to have a few costly mistakes for CSU to win. The Rams could have won last year at home, but the atmosphere will be much different on the road this time around. I actually like the poise of CSU's freshman quarterback - he doesn't seem to get rattled easily. However, he hasn't played on the road in a Power Five environment like he will on Saturday.
Keys for the Rams will be a plus-two or better turnover ratio, getting a strong run game going, and limiting big plays from Minnesota's offense. The Gophers should have success running the ball, but CSU can't afford any big plays over the top.
Ultimately, that's asking a lot from a team that is a work in progress. Hill passes for a pair of scores, but so does Leidner. The Gophers' defense and rushing attack are too much for the Rams, as
Prediction: Minnesota beats CSU, 38-21.