There have been recent rumblings on a official visitor from this past weekend and we give the latest…
2013 Gildan New Mexico - Col St 48, Wazzu 45
Here's The Deal … Welcome back to the postseason, Wazzu. You too, Colorado State.
Scoff if you must at this first-ever meeting between the Cougars and the Rams, but it represents a significant step forward for both programs and their second-year coaches, Mike Leach and Jim McElwain, respectively.
Washington State is appearing in a bowl game for the first time since 2003, turning back a decade of futility by reaching the necessary six wins for eligibility. The Cougars didn't just feast on speed bags either to get to this point. They defeated USC and Arizona on the road, and locked down a spot in the New Mexico Bowl by outscoring Utah. This is a crucial step forward for a program flush with youth, but it's also a just reward for the seniors who had to endure the dark days of the Paul Wulff era on the Palouse.
Colorado State, like Wazzu, has improved by three games over last season. In other words, McElwain is well ahead of schedule in his rebuilding plans in Fort Collins. The Rams got better as the 2013 campaign progressed, finishing the regular season 5-2 behind a ground-based offense that progressively built a head of steam. McElwain wants football in December to become the norm, a dramatic shift in culture for a school that last played a bonus game in 2008.
Players to Watch: Leach is calling the shots, so naturally the Cougars will air it out … plenty. No one has attempted more passes than Wazzu, a challenge for a Colorado State D that ranks 109th nationally against the pass. QB Connor Halliday has an assortment of quality receivers, including Gabe Marks and budding star River Cracraft in the slot. However, no quarterback in America has been picked off more times than Halliday, and it's not even close. He'll need to pay particular attention to big FS Trent Matthews, who leads the Rams with four interceptions.
The Rams' best defense against Leach's pass-happy offense actually lines up at ‘Buck', a hybrid in the front seven. Shaquil Barrett is a game-changer in the front seven, a hard-charging pass-rusher with the motor to change the tempo of a game. He leads the Mountain West with 20.5 tackles for loss and a dozen sacks, playing to the whistle on every snap. Halliday is erratic when he's under pressure … and Barrett is well aware of it.
A star was born in Fort Collins this season. RB Kapri Bibbs, a first-year JUCO transfer, began the regular season as a third-stringer. He ended it with 1,572 yards and 28 touchdowns on 254 carries, despite not entering the lineup until the seventh game. The speedy, one-cut runner ought to see plenty of daylight against a Washington State defense yielding 4.4 yards per carry. Bibbs has benefitted from running behind all-star C Weston Richburg and a veteran Colorado State O-line.
Colorado State is especially potent when QB Garrett Grayson is on target, locating WR Rashard Higgins and H-back Kivon Cartwright. The Cougars, though, will present challenges with an opportunistic defense that produced the second most takeaways in the Pac-12 during the regular season. S Deone Bucannon and CB Damante Horton are the chief ball-hawks of the secondary, each picking off five passes. Wazzu needs to generate more pressure, which is no small chore against the Ram front wall.
Washington State will win if … Halliday makes good decisions.
The Cougars can win if their quarterback isn't perfect. What they can ill-afford is for him to be careless, trading promising drives for demoralizing turnovers. When Halliday threw for more touchdowns than interceptions in a game, Washington State went 5-1 this season. When he didn't, the team was 1-5. Wazzu's return to the postseason was erected on the passing game and the ability to create game-changing turnovers. If either of those blueprints for success fails it, winning in Albuquerque becomes a tall order.
Colorado State will win if … it has success running the ball on first down.
The Rams are most effective when Bibbs—and Chris Nwoke and Donnell Alexander—are gashing defenses, taking some of the heat off Grayson to be a focal point of the offense. Colorado State is determined to wear down the Cougars with long, draining drives that keep Leach's skill position players idle on the sidelines. The Rams have to average five or so yards per carry, driving the middling Washington State front seven off the ball. It's when the passing game has to do too much and is forced into third-and-long situations that CSU has struggled. On play-action, though, Grayson can hurt defenses with help from his tight ends and receivers.
What Will Happen: In a classic matchup of contrasts, Wazzu's passing game will outplay the run-first Rams.
The Cougars are the more battle-tested team, having lost to SEC champ Auburn by only a touchdown and run the Pac-12 gauntlet. They're a good road team, one that'll be stoked by a postseason appearance. Yeah, Washington State will have problems containing Bibbs and the Colorado State ground game. But, the consistent Halliday will show up in Albuquerque, dissecting the Ram defensive backfield en route to a Washington State victory and a coveted winning season for the first time in a decade.
Prediction: Washington State 37 … Colorado State 30
Line: Washington State -4 o/u: 65
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