Jacob from Mountain West Connection took some time to answer some questions I had about the upcoming meeting between the Minnesota Golden Gophers and the Colorado States Rams. Here is the summary of our correspondence:
Question 1: Even for the most avid college football fans, it's hard keeping tabs on all 125 or so FBS programs in the nation. For some of Gopher faithful who are less educated in the ways of Colorado State football, what's an accurate five sentence summary of the current state of the program and expectations for the 2015 after losing your starting quarterback to the draft and your coach to the ESS EEE CEE?
Answer: Despite a new coaching staff and numerous high production players leaving the program via draft or graduation, expectations are high as ever. It has been a long time since CSU has seen sustained success in football, you would have to go back to Sonny Lubick's heyday in the late 90's, but it appears the pieces are in place for a return to former glory. Ex head coach Jim McElwain built a strong foundation before leaving for the Florida Gators, and another highly touted SEC offensive coordinator in Mike Bobo has what it takes to make CSU a consistent MW title contender. A senior laden defense looks to be its best in many years under the tutelage of Tyson Summers, while Bobo brings an offense from Georgia that consistently ranked top in the SEC. If the players are able to pick up the system quickly, another 10-win season isn't out of the realm of possibility.
Question 2: Since Eric Decker graduated in 2010, Gopher nation has been starving for a consistent receiving threat our of the wide receiver position to complement a very competent running game. The Rams appear to have one of the best receiving threats in the nation in Rashard Higgins. What makes him so good? (Note: This question was asked before the report of a sprained ankle came out.)
Answer: Higgins really is the complete package. When you look at his success, what stands out is his field vision. He is not overwhelmingly fast, but is excellent at getting defenders off balance. This is evident in his production in the screen game. He shows patience letting his blockers get in front of them, then turns it on to break free of the first wave of defenders. In addition to this, he is a very clean route runner and rarely drops the ball.
Question 3: Even with Garrett Grayson distributing darts all over the field last year, it appears the Rams averaged about 34.4 pass plays and 33.5 run plays per game indicating an incredibly balanced offensive attack. Do you see this distribution changing at all this season and in particular during the match up against the Gophers. Or should we expect a similarly balanced offensive game plan from the new head coach Mike Bobo?
Answer: I expect Bobo to continue the balanced offense going forward. His Georgia offenses always well balanced, consistently ranking in the top 40 in rushing and passing yards. The split this season will really be decided by the play of new quarterback Nick Stevens. If he struggles, I expect more load to be put on a strong offensive line and the stable of running backs In regards to Saturday's game, I think Bobo will use the short passing attack and up tempo offense early to try and tire Minnesota's front seven and go run heavy in the second half. Expect a completely scripted, pass heavy first drive to test the Minnesota defense featuring screens, slants, and quick outs. Despite scoring 65 points against Savannah State, CSU's longest passing play was a 35 yard touchdown. If I put a percentage on it, I would say by the end of the game it would probably be 60/40 pass vs. run.
Question 4: On the other hand, Minnesota averaged 19.5 pass plays and 46.1 rush plays per game last season. This year the distribution is expected to be similar with perhaps a few more pass attempts due to the implementation of a no-huddle offense when circumstances call for the hurry-up. What strategies do you think Colorado State (ranked 82nd in rushing defense according to S&P+ ratings in 2014) will deploy to stop the methodical rushing attack Minnesota is likely to implement during Saturday's game? Are there any key defensive players that could turn the tide in the Rams favor?
Answer: It is tough to tell the strategy Defensive Coordinator Tyson Summers will employ come Saturday as he only has one year as a DC on film. In that one year he was very successful at Central Florida, leading the Knights to a #5 ranking in running yards allowed. Expect six men in the box on almost every play with an emphasis on stuffing the middle and forcing the play laterally. The Rams have a lot of depth at defensive line that Summers will rotate in and out to preserve stamina against a tough Minnesota offensive line. Here are some players to watch
i. Martavius Foster -The former JUCO tight end may have found his stride at defensive tackle after a couple years of position changes. Foster was constantly in Savannah State's backfield, tallying three sacks and adversely affecting the Tigers run game all afternoon. Stopping the run game starts in the trenches and he will need to hold his own.
ii. Cory James - James may be the best defensive talent on the field if it does not always show in the stats. James speed and size makes him a difficult player to block and he will play a key role in the Rams pass defense.
iii. Kevin Pierre Louis - The senior safety is easily the bruiser on Colorado State's defense. He finished third in tackles last season and had 8 in the season opener with several big hits. His presence is vital in stopping running backs from getting past the second level and ripping off big plays. Summers puts an emphasis on the strong safety to offer run support, and no one on the Rams is better.
Question 5: The Big Ten often prides itself special teams play, especially punting. Both Minnesota and Colorado State rated very highly in FEI special teams rating last year (12th and 27th, respectively). Do you foresee a game on Saturday where special teams may become a key to victory or is this just me looking for crazy angles to the rather straight forward proposition of whoever plays better will win?
Answer: Absolutely. If there is anything to be worried about after a 65-13 victory, it is the Rams' kicking game. Bobo rotated three different place kickers on kickoff duty, with varying results. On eleven kickoffs, there were only two touchbacks while three traveled out of bounds for an illegal procedure penalty. The coverage was good on the kicks that were returnable, but those mistakes are wasted yards that can make the difference. Freshman PK Wyatt Bryan went 1-2 with a 42 yard miss in addition to a missed PAT. Senior punter Hayden Hunt did not need to be used Saturday, but he has been solid for three years and will likely not cause worry against Minnesota. On the return side of things, the Rams are very talented. Starting kick returner Deionte Gaines did not have the chance to return a kickoff, but returned a punt for 26 yards. In 2014 he led the Mountain West in return yards with 24 yards a return. Punt returner Joe Hansley averaged a modest 9.7 yards per return last year and has a touchdown return in his name. Also worth noting is backup kick returner Jordon Vaden who returned a fourth quarter kickoff 100 yards before pulling a Desean Jackson and dropping it before stepping in the end zone.
Question 6: Lastly, what is your "official" prediction for how this one unfolds?
Answer: Prediction: Rams - 24 Minnesota - 21 No matter how the game unfolds, it will be entertaining and a good early season test for both teams. I expect a defensive affair as two talented secondaries prevent giving up big plays in the passing game and offer good run support for the front seven. The onus for the Rams will be controlling the tempo on both sides of the ball. Bobo will likely utilize the no huddle, quick passing game to neutralize Minnesota's strong front seven while Tyson Summers will need a game plan to keep the Gophers run game from dictating the game. If Colorado State struggles to stop the run and lets Minnesota control the clock, this game could quickly get out of hand.
Jacob seems to have a lot of confidence in the Rams' abilities. A big thank you for all the great in-depth information. Hopefully it will make for an exciting matchup on Saturday afternoon. Thank you for your time Jacob and good luck!