Colorado State could have and probably should have beaten San Jose State on Saturday night.
One week after getting bullied by Boise State in a completely one-sided game, CSU looked like a different team this weekend. As 24 point underdogs the Rams went into CEFCU Stadium and gave one of the more experienced and athletic teams in the Mountain West all they could handle.
Playing against the best scoring defense in the conference, a group with multiple future pros in the front seven, the Rams put together their most balanced performance of the season with 469 yards of total offense. The defense made a ton of plays and gave the team a shot to pull off the major upset as well.
The problem was that despite everything that went well for the Green & Gold, on a night where CSU showed significant improvement in some areas, penalties and an inability to capitalize in the Red Zone, the same things they’ve struggled with all season, ultimately cost the Rams the chance to leave California with a win.
In four trips to the Red Zone the Rams produced just 3 total points. So despite driving up and down the field, creating a variety of explosive plays and dominating time of possession, CSU still failed to score 20 points for the first time in 2022.
After going one for four in the 28-16 loss, CSU’s Red Zone efficiency of 44% for the season is ranked dead last in the country. 131 of 131. And after getting flagged 13 times for 101 yards on Saturday night, the Rams are now averaging 89.4 yards in penalties in league games, the most in the Mountain West by a decent margin.
That’s the thing that is going to leave Ram Nation flustered — while SJSU certainly deserves credit for the explosive plays they were able to create with the passing game in the second half — it’s not like CSU could not hang with them. The Rams went punch for punch all game long.
In the end it was just basically death by a thousand paper cuts. Not every mistake was necessarily fatal in the moment, but they added up over the course of four quarters and eventually came back to kill the Rams.
Ultimately the experience was probably more painful for the fans than if CSU would have simply gotten their butts kicked by a great team. Having hope only to have it collapse in your face is definitely a gut punch.
As we have talked about all season though, it takes time to learn how to be a winning team. Sure, you can make plays, but you also have to be disciplined and know how to handle key situations. You’ve gotta execute in plus territory and in the fourth quarter, when the margins for error are extremely thin. That is what truly defines a winning program — it’s not just about how much talent you have on a roster or the highlight plays that you can make — it’s about being able to compete and respond through the inevitable challenges of a game.
As complicated as we try to make this sport out to be, football really comes down to which side can display the most composure and execute with consistency. While the Rams clearly do have talented playmakers to be excited about, collectively this team showed their inexperience in this loss. It’s an unfortunate way to go down, but it’s also a growing moment for a group that is trying to do something really difficult.
Turning around a losing football program is not a simple process, particularly when you are relying on so many first and second year players. Factoring in the injuries to the offensive line adds a whole other set of challenges too.
What we have seen from the 2022 Rams though is that while this program is far from a finished product, this is a locker room that has talent and guys that play with a lot of heart. They may not have the number of bodies you’d ideally have at the FBS level, however, watching Ayden Hector snatch the ball from an SJSU receiver or Tory Horton bring down a catch while the DB is literally pulling his arm back, it’s clear to see that these guys want it badly.
In total Horton had a team-high nine catches for 196 yards and a touchdown. The junior wide receiver was not the only Ram to produce a big night either. Justus Ross-Simmons had three grabs for 84 yards and showed off his ability to create after the catch. Running back Avery Morrow went over the century mark for the fourth time in 2022 with 124 yards on 17 carries as well (7.3 AVG).
Perhaps the most encouraging thing on Saturday was that despite struggling to protect the quarterback, Clay Millen was able to make a ton of plays through the air. A couple of his throws on third and long were exactly what Ram fans envisioned when they pictured how CSU would look running the Air Raid. His growing chemistry with the young receiving corps has been a welcomed sight since coming back from injury too. Hopefully he is okay after leaving the game in the fourth quarter for an apparent concussion evaluation.
It may not always feel like it but this team is heading in the right direction. The staff is going to have to be able to hit on a couple of crucial areas with the 2023 class, including adding depth at corner, linebacker and to the offensive line. But there is certainly talent to build around.
If the Rams can simply stop shooting themselves in the foot in 2022, the opportunity to pull off a fun win or two down the stretch still even presents itself this fall. A bowl game may be out of the realm of possibility at this point, but a victory over a rival could do big things for this team’s confidence heading into the offseason.
Three weeks left to continue working on the foundation for the future of the program. We’ll see how the Rams can respond.