The president of Colorado State University grew up a Cubs fan on a farm in rural Illinois, so he knows to a certainty that no matter how promising things look, they can always go horribly wrong.
As Tony Frank and his wife, Patti, stood on the CSU sideline in the final minutes of Saturday’s Rocky Mountain Showdown in Denver, they were the last to celebrate. When green-shirted Rams personnel leaped in the air at an apparent interception by strong safety Trent Matthews with just over a minute to play and the Rams up five, Frank watched warily as the interception was nullified by a roughing-the-passer penalty that gave Colorado a first down at the Rams’ 47. Could it all still slip away?
“As a Cubs fan, we’re always skeptical, right?” Frank told me afterward, aware of our shared affliction. “As long as Steve Bartman’s out there, you’re never sure it’s over.”
“Did you see him anywhere?” I asked.
“Well,” Frank said, smiling, “maybe a hallucination here or there.”
CSU’s recent haplessness on the gridiron has been the blink of an eye compared to the Cubs’ historic run of pity and sorrow, but Frank, who was named the school’s 14th president in June 2009, was hoping for a sign that he, his new athletic director and new head coach were headed in the right direction. He got it with the Rams’ 22-17 upset of the Buffaloes to open the college football season for both schools.
The celebration by CSU hands old and new was reminiscent of the Sonny Lubick years, when every victory over Colorado was a triumph by the little brother over the big brother. As CU’s disconsolate student section streamed out of the Broncos’ stadium, the Rams went to the northeast corner to celebrate with their small but raucous student section, as if to announce that CSU football is back.
“I know that maybe they’ve been a little down about not being able to really give those students something to cheer about, so I was kind of excited when they ran over there,” said first-year coach Jim McElwain, now 1-0. “I mean, that was kind of cool, wasn’t it? It wasn’t planned.”
For most of the first half, it looked as if the Rams would be thoroughly overmatched. When McElwain inexplicably declined to punt on fourth-and-1 at his own 47-yard line trailing 7-3 in the second quarter, he set up a short CU touchdown drive that made it 14-3.
“Stupidest decision ever, isn’t it?” McElwain said.
But what was your thinking behind it, I asked him.
“I don’t know, but my dad was looking down and saying, ‘Boy, Jimmy, you messed that one up,'” he said.
“I guess the biggest thing is showing faith in your guys. I have faith in them. And I told the defense, ‘Look, if we don’t get it, I’ve got faith in you to stop them.’ So it’s about showing trust in your guys. And you’re going to see on video, we came off a double team too soon getting to the second level, which, always block the line of scrimmage first. I’ll beat myself up over it, but I know this: Our guys knew that we trusted them.”
On CSU’s ensuing possession, CU went for an early knockout, putting on a punt block. They didn’t get there and, to make matters worse, return man D.D. Goodson muffed the catch.
“We were supposed to fair-catch it and obviously we didn’t do that,” said CU coach Jon Embree.
CSU had new life at the CU 20 with 33 seconds remaining in the half. They needed only seven of those seconds for quarterback Garrett Grayson to hit a wide-open Dominique Vinson for the touchdown.
“Half the guys heard one call, the other half didn’t,” Embree said of the blown defensive coverage.
Even after the extra point was blocked, CSU went into the locker room at halftime back in the game, trailing 14-9.
When they came out after intermission, neither team looked quite the same. The Rams drove 89 yards on their first possession, culminating in a brilliant misdirection screen pass for 32 yards and the touchdown that gave them a 16-14 lead.
McElwain, in his second riverboat gamble of the afternoon, called for a “bunt onside kick” in which his kicker bunts the ball — kicks it softly on the ground directly in front of him — runs alongside it for 10 yards and falls on it. It worked, too, except the officials said they never blew the whistle to signal the ball was ready to be kicked. That’s a delay-of-game penalty. So McElwain was 0-for-2 on riverboat gambles, but he signaled that life as a Rams football fan just got a lot more interesting.
On the Rams’ next possession, running back Tommey Morris fumbled at his own 15-yard line. The stage was set for another reversal of fortune, this one to benefit Embree and the Buffs.
On third-and-goal from the Rams’ 3, Buffs tailback Malcolm Creer tried to reach the ball over the goal line as he went down. The ball hit the ground and bounced into the air. CSU defensive back Austin Gray grabbed it in stride and raced 100 yards the other way for an apparent touchdown. Upon further review, officials ruled Creer’s knee was down before he lost control. Instead of a possible 23-14 CSU lead, the Buffs were back in business.
In fact, both coaches thought the ball had crossed the plane of the goal line before Creer lost control, meaning the play might have been ruled a Buffs touchdown instead of a Rams touchdown. But officials said Creer’s knee hit the ground before the ball crossed the plane or came out, so the Buffs were awarded a fourth-and-goal at the Rams’ 1, still trailing by just two.
Embree eschewed the field goal that would have put CU back in front, if only by a point. When I asked him why, he replied:
“Because I didn’t think it was going to be enough, to tell you the truth. I thought we were going to need touchdowns if we were going to win.”
What he called was a play fake into the line and roll out by his quarterback, junior transfer Jordan Webb. CSU read it and pressured Webb, who had to retreat behind the 10 and finally heave the ball out of the end zone.
“We felt it just gave us more options,” Embree said of the play call. “We had three options on that — a run and then two guys to throw it to. They did a good job of defending it. But we felt that was better for us. Our backs, Tony (Jones) was out with a shoulder and then Malcolm got dinged a little bit on (the previous play), so we just felt like our best option at that point was doing that.”
Still, the Rams took over at their 1-yard line. Although they made a first down, their ensuing punt gave the Buffs excellent field position at the CSU 35. Four plays later, CU’s Will Oliver kicked a 30-yard field goal and the Buffs had a 17-16 lead.
This is when McElwain, Nick Saban’s offensive coordinator at Alabama the past four seasons, brought out his Alabama playbook. Not counting his quarterback taking a knee on the last two snaps of the game, the Rams ran 16 plays in the fourth quarter. Thirteen of them were running plays.
Despite the Crimson Tide’s reputation for conservative offense under Saban, McElwain likes to point out that ‘Bama tended to throw more than run through the first three quarters of games. But in the fourth, having beaten down the opposing defense, they would “run to win.”
That’s what the Rams did to the Buffs. After possessing the ball for more than 6 minutes on their first series of the fourth quarter, McElwain’s bunch faced a third-and-13 on the CU 34. That’s the very edge of field goal territory, particularly for a college kicker. Nine out of 10 coaches would attempt to throw for the first down in that situation. McElwain called his seventh consecutive running play. I asked him why.
“We were in that (field goal) range,” he said. “I mean, let’s face it, we weren’t throwing the ball well. It’s not like Joe Namath was out there slinging it around. But Garrett did a great job, he did a great job of managing the game. What we ask our guys to do is let the people around you help you be successful because of how they’re playing, because of how hard they’re working. We just felt right there, look, our defense was playing pretty darn good. And that look in their eyes, I felt really comfortable with our defense.”
The running play gained three yards. On fourth-and-10 from the 31, McElwain sent out sophomore kicker Jared Roberts, who drilled the 48-yard field goal with 10 yards to spare. The Rams were back on top, 19-17.
McElwain’s defense, the one with that look in its eyes, forced the Buffs into a three-and-out. That’s when the “run to win” philosophy paid off. The first running play produced a 37-yard scamper from Donnell Alexander. It led to another field goal and the final 22-17 margin. After that, all CSU had to worry about was Steve Bartman.
“We did not play a good football game by any stretch of the imagination,” McElwain said. “Plain and simple, we have a long way to go. And this, at the end of the day, as good as it is for Colorado State, for our students, our faculty, our fans, it’s great. But at the end of the day, it was one game. And as excited as I was for them, they have to realize that we have a long, long ways to go before I consider us a decent ball squad.”
The story is pretty much the same for the Buffs except they didn’t get to celebrate going 1-0.
“Obviously, we didn’t play good enough,” Embree said. “We had too many turnovers. We talked about that, protecting the ball was going to be a key for us in a game like this. We didn’t do it and they were able to take advantage of it. And we weren’t effective running the ball. So we’ve got to get that fixed, because it’s been too long now, too many games of us not being good running the ball. So we’ll get that figured out.”
On the field afterward, CSU’s new leadership soaked in the unfamiliar feeling of winning a showdown with a big brother.
“It’s a great start for the coach and the staff and the players,” said Frank, the school president, his smile as wide as anybody’s. “It’s fantastic. It’s good for the fans. It’s nice to have a good competitive game back in Colorado college football.”