Colorado State football is 5-6 and just one win away from reaching the postseason.
After five consecutive losing seasons where CSU never won more than four games in any single year, with a victory over Hawaii on Saturday night, the Rams would not only double their win total from a year ago, but also give themselves a chance to win a bowl for the first time in 10 years.
Looking at the jump in offensive production — the Rams have doubled their points per game from 2022 — it’s not surprising that the Green & Gold have had more success than they did in year one under Jay Norvell.
The growth in the trenches, specifically in pass protection, has been a major reason why the Rams have been a much better team. Redshirt freshman quarterback Brayden Fowler-Nicolosi unleashing the big-play potential of the offense has been big, too. As has the production from Tory Horton, Dallin Holker, etc.
While it’s easy to focus on the offense, which again, is definitely much improved, it’s been the defense that’s really stepped up down the stretch and allowed the Rams to be in competitive games.
After allowing an average of 467 yards and 25 first downs per game over the first seven matchups, CSU has cut that down to 307 yards and 19 first downs per game over the last four. The Rams have also cut the amount of points allowed per game from 34 to 23 during the same stretch. And in 2023, that’s playing winning defense.
Norvell said it himself after the loss to Wyoming, this is a league where you have to be able to score in order to win. With how the defense is currently playing, though, there is less pressure on the offense to try and do too much. Most nights it’s not going to take a 50-point explosion in order to come out on top. If the unit simply does their job, the Rams are going to be right there in the fight.
Helping lead the way for CSU on the defensive side, safety Jack Howell (106) and linebacker Chase Wilson (102) each surpassed 100 tackles this season in Saturday’s victory over Nevada.
According to CSU, Howell is the third defensive back in school history to record multiple 100-tackle seasons, joining Ron Cortell (1986, 1987, 1988) and Bill Kishman (1967 and 1968). He is the first DB to do so since defensive stats became official in 2000 though.
Although more common at linebacker, Wilson’s production should not be understated either. His 102 tackles are the second-most by any linebacker in the Mountain West (third-most overall). And his 8.5 tackles for loss only trails Mo Kamara (16.5) for the team lead.
“I’m just so proud of him,” Norvell said of Wilson. “He’s such a passionate guy. And he brings that to the whole defense. Jack is the same way, and Henry is the same way. They’re right down in the middle of our defense.”
Sitting at the podium on Saturday, Wilson and Howell each praised the lord for their successes and credited their faith as major sources of inspiration.
“All the glory to God,” Wilson said. “I’m a God-fearing man and I would be nothing without him.”
“Same as Chase,” Howell added. “We’ve got a strong connection and we go to bible studies together. And I think that really drives us.”
Howell also made sure to point out that while the achievement is something that will bring him individual recognition, defensive success takes a collective effort. If the big boys in the trenches are not filling gaps, if the linebackers are not spilling fits, it’s going to be much harder for someone like him in the secondary to make plays.
“I owe this to my teammates, just as much as it’s a credit to me,” Howell said.
Not to be out-done by his fellow Colorado natives, Henry Blackburn is another local player that has really stepped up for the defense in 2023. The former Fairview HS star is fourth on the team in total tackles (72), third in tackles for loss (7) and he leads the Rams in interceptions (3).
In Saturday’s win, Blackburn set the tone by picking off A.J. Bianco’s first pass attempt of the afternoon. He later caused Bianco’s second turnover as well, when he absolutely destroyed the Wolf Pack QB on a perfectly-timed blitz.
After all of the outside noise that the senior from Boulder had to deal with as a result of his hit on Travis Hunter, seeing Blackburn go on to have a big year has been a neat storyline for Ram Nation to follow. That whole situation was not easy for anyone in the locker room, but especially for Blackburn, who got vilified unfairly for a hit that didn’t even warrant a targeting call.
A lot of guys in Blackburn’s spot would have let a challenging situation bring them down. Not him though. All he’s done is make plays all year long.
“Henry has been that guy,” Howell said of his running mate in the secondary. “He’s a really special player.”
Howell continued, praising the versatility of Blackburn’s game and the way he’s able to make an impact anywhere on the field. On one play he will come downhill like a freight train and smack a running back in the chest. On the next one, though, he may make an incredible play on the ball to record an interception.
“I’m just happy that the cards have fallen in the right place for Henry to kind of get the spotlight shined on him this year,” Howell said.
“Henry is such a leader to this team. He’s always hyping everyone up. He’s always getting us right. And for him to be able to be making the plays that he is, and having the season that he is, nobody deserves it more than him.”
Just like he praised Wilson and Howell for their heart, Norvell praised Blackburn for playing the game the way it’s supposed to be played.
“He’s very physical. He’s very passionate. He’s very tough. And I love him for that,” Norvell said.
“That’s the way we want to play defense here at Colorado State. And he has had a tough year. He’s had a lot of tough things happen to him off of the field. You know, a lot of them were out of his control. And I think he’s handled it really well. It never really fazed him as a player, as a leader, in the way he attacks practice or with anything else. I’d take 10 like him. He’s just a classic safety that loves to run and hit, and he loves his teammates. He brings that passion every day and it rubs off on everyone else.”
Five straight years of losing has been hard on everyone in Fort Collins. It was the first thing Howell brought up when asked about being part of CSU’s growth as a program. And I guarantee you that making a bowl would mean a lot more to these guys than any type of individual glory.
While racking up stats may not be their focus in the bigger picture — and it’s honestly a good thing that it’s not — the reality is that the guys from Colorado have really been big for the Rams this season.
It’s one thing to slap state pride on a t-shirt and wear the flag colors in your uniform, these guys have taken that mantra to the next level.
Hopefully they are rewarded for their effort with the first bowl bid of their college careers.