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(Sports Network) - Two teams hoping to get off on the right foot in 2010 collide in Denver this weekend, as the Colorado Buffaloes and the Colorado State Rams lock horns in a Rocky Mountain showdown at Invesco Field.
Colorado State head coach Steve Fairchild has high hopes for his club this year and considering how poorly the team closed out 2009, the only way to go is up for the squad. After winning three straight to open the campaign, beating the Buffs, Weber State and Nevada, the Rams hits the skids with nine straight losses and that means the program is tied with Washington State with the third-longest losing streak in the nation heading into the 2010 campaign. Needless to say, CSU went winless in Mountain West Conference action with eight setbacks in as many matchups.
As for the Buffaloes and head coach Dan Hawkins, they too struggled last year and managed just three wins overall as well. Victories over Wyoming, Kansas and Texas A&M did little to satisfy the CU fan base and that's why Hawkins is again on the hot seat. The squad played a couple of close games down the stretch, but still the Buffs ended with a three-game losing streak and dropped five of their last six overall as they finished 2-6 in the Big 12 Conference.
In terms of the all-time series, the Buffs own a commanding 59-20-2 advantage over Colorado State heading into this week's meeting. Colorado is 5-4 in games played in Denver, but last year with the meeting being played in Boulder, the Rams slipped by with a 23-17 victory to snap a two-game slide in the series.
Coach Hawkins had to make a very difficult decision heading into the new season, whether or not to stick with his son, Cody, as the starting quarterback or insert junior Tyler Hansen into the position. While it might not have been a popular choice around the Hawkins dinner table, the staff decided to go with Hansen after he threw for 1,440 yards and eight TDs last year. Hawkins will still see some action from time to time, but his 10 TDs against 11 INTs a season ago left many doubts as to his ability to lead the group on a consistent basis. Even though the passing attack had as many turnovers (18) as it did TDs, the real concern for the Buffs has to be the running game after it ranked 11th in the conference and 113th in the nation with a mere 87.9 ypg in 2009. Rodney Stewart returns as the leading rusher for the group after putting up 804 yards and scoring nine TDs, but after him the production dropped off severely a year ago and the coaching staff has to figure out a way to change all that.
Except for the shutout win against Wyoming early in the season, the defense for the Buffs was frequently beaten and battered by opponents. The run defense was ninth in the Big 12 and 80th in the nation overall with 161.2 ypg allowed, although a big chunk of that came from Toledo which ran up 305 yards and scored three times on the ground. Then again, the Buffs did hold Kansas to minus-eight yards rushing, so it all balanced out for the most part. The defensive line has just one senior in Marquez Herrod, the good news being that he led the team in sacks with six, and quarterback hurries last season with 10 and was very active on third-down plays for the unit. The pass defense was rather solid for the Buffaloes in '09, yielding just 201.8 ypg to rank fourth in the league and 34th nationally, but much of that was due to the fact that opponents found it easier to run on Colorado than anything else. Holding down the secondary will be senior cornerbacks Jimmy Smith and Jalil Brown who combined for 25 pass breakups and will again be tested this year.
Coach Fairchild plans to shake things up right out of the gate as his team takes the field on Saturday, opting to go with freshman Pete Thomas as his starter at quarterback. Then again, with Fairchild saying he might insert as many as seven true freshmen into the game in one capacity or another, perhaps this decision isn't so unusual after all. Last year, the passing offense for the Rams ranked seventh in the MWC and 76th nationally, so there is clearly plenty of room for improvement. Running back Leonard Mason, who led the team in rushing last season with just over 75 yards per outing, has managed to get back onto the practice field after suffering a hamstring injury on the eve of fall practice, but he's still a few spots down on the depth chart that shows former UCLA running back Raymond Carter as the leader at the position heading into the opener. Some new faces at key receiving positions probably means fullback Zac Pauga, who was third on the team in receptions per game, will see significant action come his way.
According to the depth chart for the Colorado State defense, the starters are comprised of all upperclassmen except for Broderick Sargent at right end, which means this group should be improved over last year when they ranked eighth in the MWC and 87th in the nation in pass defense with 235.7 ypg allowed. A big part of the problem was that the front line wasn't getting enough of a push in the trenches and rarely did the Rams really challenge the opposition in the backfield. In fact, the team ranked sixth in the MWC and 94th nationally in tackles for loss with just under five per game. The group fared a bit better with two sacks per game (third in the MWC, 53rd nationally), but of their 24 quarterback takedowns, four came against Wyoming in the season finale and another four versus this same Colorado team in the opener, which means there was a lot of time in between when there was little, if no pressure applied. Mychal Sisson is back after leading the team in tackles, TFLs and sacks per game in '09, while Elijah-Blu Smith might be the player who gets the most attention at his free safety position.
For CSU, which lost four offensive linemen to the NFL after last season, keeping Thomas upright will be a big key to not only this game but the entire season. With so much riding on this season, expect coach Hawkins to pull out all the stops and try to get his young team heading in the right direction as the Buffs hound Thomas every chance they get.