A year ago, Colorado State’s football team got off to a slow start and never recovered.

The Rams didn’t qualify for a bowl game for the first time in six years and finished with a 3-9 record, including 2-6 in Mountain West play.

Fast forward to 2019 and CSU is on the brink of having back-to-back disappointing seasons. The Rams have lost three of their first four games, but have been competitive in all of their setbacks.

Colorado State always has talented players, especially on offense, and this year is no different. Utah State wide receiver Siaosi Mariner is expecting a motivated CSU squad when the Rams travel to Cache Valley this weekend for their Mountain West opener.

“They’re a real good team,” Mariner said. “They’re very athletic, they’ve had a few games get away from them early on in the season. Their defensive backs fly around, they play a decent amount of man, so we’re going to see some man coverage on the outside. I’m definitely excited for this matchup.

“They come into Maverik Stadium and they’re in a 1-3 position, so I feel like they’re on the ropes to either have a great season or let it all slide downhill, but it’s definitely going to be a (challenging) matchup for us, so I’m excited to go into this one.”

Although the Rams have had their fair share of early-season struggles, one of them has not been moving the football. A balanced CSU offensive attack currently ranks third in the Mountain West and eighth among all FBS teams in total offense (552.2 yards per game).

The Rams racked up a whopping 694 total yards in their last game, a heartbreaking 41-35 setback to Toledo at home. CSU got down to the Toledo 2-yard line on the final play of the first and second halfs.

“What it looked like was a lot of guys that were dejected and disappointed, a lot of tears,” CSU head coach Mike Bobo said of the loss to the Rockets. “That means those guys care. How you move past it is realizing that we’re playing one of the top teams in the conference this week in Utah State, and we’ve got to play them on the road, so it’s a big challenge.”

CSU received some bad news a couple of weeks ago when standout quarterback Collin Hill blew out his left knee in a loss at Arkansas. It’s the third time in his collegiate career Hill has suffered a season-ending knee injury. The first time was against USU in 2016.

Fortunately for the Rams, they didn’t skip a beat at the signal caller position. In his first career collegiate start, Nebraska transfer Patrick O’Brien completed 32 of 52 passes for 405 yards, one touchdown and one interception against the Rockets. The physical 6-foot-4, 240-pounder also added 27 rushing yards and a TD on six attempts.

“If you sit back and look at the quarterback as whole ... he runs plenty good enough to at least get your attention, for sure,” USU head coach Gary Andersen said of O’Brien. “But, he’s a gunslinger. He has no problem throwing to the opposite hash eight or nine times. In college football, that open side hash is something that is mostly defended by the inability of a quarterback to make that throw consistently or get it there fast enough to cause you issues as a defensive scheme. This kid, you have to account for that.”

O’Brien has arguably the best 1-2 duo in the conference to throw the pigskin to, but 6-foot-6, 218-pound junior Warren Jackson might not play. Jackson, who ranks second in the MW in receptions per game (7.7) and fifth in receiving yards per game (81.8), is injured and has been listed as “doubtful” for Saturday’s game by Bobo.

Jackson is coming off a monster performance against Toledo in which he snared 12 catches for 132 yards and one TD.

The other half of the talented CSU tandem is 5-8 freshman Dante Wright, who averages an impressive 16.7 yards on 21 receptions. Wright ranks third in the Mountain West with 87.5 receiving ypg.

Another weapon in the CSU receiving game is Auburn transfer Nate Craig-Myers, who has only five catches on the season. However, one of them was an impressive 45-yard Hail Mary at the end of the first half against Toledo that had Andersen gushing during his weekly press conference.

“(O’Brien) lets it rip about 50 yards, a Hail Mary, and they caught it at the half-yard line,” Andersen said. “Didn’t score, but they caught it at the half-yard line. He outjumped everybody and said, ‘that’s my ball.’ It was a helluva rebound. He got it. He went up and got that rebound.”

“Craig-Myers is going to have to play a bigger role in our offense,” Bobo asserted of the 6-2 wideout.

The Rams have a very good running back in senior speedster Marvin Kinsey Jr., who exploded for 246 yards on 23 carries against Toledo. Unfortunately for CSU, Bobo listed Kinsey as “doubtful” for Saturday’s contest. No. 5 is averaging 139 yards on the ground an outing, which is good enough for the No. 2 spot in the Mountain West.

CSU’s second-leading rusher is Wright, the explosive wideout, who has averaged 13.6 ypc and scored twice on seven attempts. Junior Marcus McElroy, a big back at 228 pounds, has rushed 17 times for 87 yards.

The Rams have two returning starters in the offensive trenches in senior right guard Jeff Taylor and sophomore right tackle Barry Wesley. Nouredin Nouili is the go-to left guard and he became the first true freshman to start on CSU’s offensive line in a season opener in at least 30 years.

CSU has struggled defensively in 2019 as it ranks 123rd out of 130 FBS teams in rushing defense (239.5 ypg on 6.4 yards per attempt) and scoring defense (40.2 ppg). An already shaky Ram defense might be short-handed against the Aggies as starting defensive tackle Ellison Hubbard was listed as “questionable,” as was back-up DT Toby McBride. Second-string cornerback Andre Neal has also been injured.

Not having Hubbard would be a significant blow. The junior ranks second in the Mountain West in sacks with 3.5 and is also CSU’s leader in tackles for loss with 4.5.

Senior safety Jamal Hicks is currently CSU’s leader in tackles with 35. Hicks finished third on the team with 93 stops a year ago.

Sophomore linebacker Dequan Jackson is second on the squad with 26 tackles, while senior defensive end Jan-Phillip Bombek is second in sacks (2.5) and TFL (3.5). Three CSU players have accounted for all eight of the team’s sacks, and the Rams have yet to pick off a pass this season.

The Rams have a very good punter in Ryan Stonehouse, who garnered first-team all-league and second-team All-America honors in 2018. The junior is currently the MW leader in punting average this season (48.3) and has already boomed six 50-plus yarders.

CSU has used three different kickers this fall. Freshman Cayden Camper has been the best so far as he has been successful on 4 of 6 field goal attempts, including 2 of 2 from 40-49 yards. Senior Braxton Davis has booted 17 of his 26 kickoffs for touchbacks.

Senior Anthony Hawkins has averaged 23.9 on his seven kickoff returns for the Rams, whose primary punt returner is the aforementioned Wright.


Twitter: hjtrebek

Jason Turner is a sports reporter for The Herald Journal. He can be reached at jturner@hjnews.com or 435-792-7237.