FORT COLLINS — For a team with bowl game aspirations, Week 1 proved Colorado State still has a tall mountain to climb.
Washington State rolled the Rams in the season opener on Saturday at Canvas Stadium, 50-24, in a game that wasn’t even as close as the score indicated.
CSU’s offense showed few signs of life, while the defense recovered two fumbles but gave up way too many chunk passes and couldn’t stuff the run when they needed to.
The end result was the same bland, uninspiring brand of football CSU’s played over its previous five seasons — all losing campaigns. For Rams fans looking for a silver lining in the start to Year 2 under coach Jay Norvell, they were hard to find.
“That was disappointing, to say the least,” Norvell said. “I see a little bit of a lack of confidence from our guys, especially when things weren’t going our way. We’ve just got to fight through that.”
CSU’s defense forced a quick punt to start the game, then the offense went on a 12-play, 55-yard drive that culminated in Jordan Noyes’ 38-yard field goal. The Rams had a 3-0 lead, and the sinking sun warmed the biggest crowd Canvas Stadium has seen in a while.
But the feel-good vibes disappeared into the ether from there, with too many scary parallels to the 2022 team that sputtered to a 3-9 mark in Norvell’s first year. In the hottest home game in CSU history — 90 degrees at kickoff — the Rams wilted.
“We got off to a good start the first drive, but then we had four drives where we came up just short — fourth-and-one, or a couple yards short each time,” Norvell said. “We have to execute better. We had opportunities in the first half to extend drives and we didn’t.”
WSU QB Cameron Ward’s one-yard TD run gave Wazzu the lead with 1:25 left in the first quarter, and the Cougars didn’t look back from there.
They added another Ward TD shortly after, this one by air, to push the score to 14-7 before Dean Janikowski drilled a 55-yard field goal to make it 17-3 on the final play of the first half.
WSU converted more than 60% of its third downs (11 for 17), while CSU was just 4 for 13. The Rams consistently found themselves in third-and-long and unable to generate explosive plays downfield, while on defense, the home front couldn’t generate enough consistent pressure on the mobile Ward to get him uncomfortable.
The buzz pregame was replaced by a lull in the stadium as WSU started to pull away in the second quarter. The biggest first-half cheer came during a TV timeout, when a student made a field goal to get free beer for a year. This was, naturally, right after CSU got stuffed on fourth down to turn the ball back over to the Cougars in plus territory.
CSU got the ball to open the second half, but did nothing with it. CSU finished with 357 total net yards compared to WSU’s 566. Clay Millen finished 15 of 24 for 110 yards passing with one interception before exiting with an injury, while backup Brayden Fowler-Nicolosi was 10 of 16 for 175 yards, two touchdowns and an interception.
Norvell said Millen isn’t in concussion protocol, but that the team will evaluate his health in the coming week.
“Clay kind of got dinged a little bit, and I really didn’t like the look in his eye,” Norvell said.
After the Rams went three-and-out to open the third, the Cougars capped a six-play, 70-yard drive with John Mateer’s 3-yard TD run. That made it 23-3, and the blowout was on. WSU also dominated CSU last year, a 38-7 game in Pullman.
WSU poured salt in the wound with Jaden Hicks’ pick-six off Millen to make it 29-3 with 10:50 left in the third. At that point, only a handful of CSU students remained in the stands. Fowler-Nicolosi soon entered the game and proceeded to throw an interception that led to another WSU touchdown, extending the score to 36-3.
CSU finally found the end zone in garbage time in the fourth quarter via Kobe Johnson’s 98-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, the Rams’ first such runback since 2019. But Ward & Co. had a response, with a 25-yard TD pass a few minutes later.
Millen did not come back in the game, while Fowler-Nicolosi finally uncorked the CSU passing game with a 75-yard TD pass to Justus Ross-Simmons against the Cougars’ No. 2 defense to cut the deficit to 43-17. Then, new tight end Dallin Holker, a transfer from BYU, reeled in his first CSU TD on a 20-yard grab that put CSU over the 20-point mark for the first time in Norvell’s tenure.
WSU’s final TD came by the backup offense came with 42 seconds left to hang the 50-spot on the Rams. Johnson, who had one of the Rams’ few bright spots, said CSU needs to watch the film, then flush Saturday’s performance.
“This is the first game of the season and we can’t let this define who we are as a team,” Johnson said. “We have to have a short-term memory — and we have to (let the fourth quarter) show us we can go out and make big plays… We have to take the hit, get back up and keep fighting. We’ll move on from this and get better.”
The Rams’ last Week 1 win came in 2017 (58-27 over Oregon State at Canvas Stadium). CSU is off next Saturday before taking on CU at Folsom Field on Sept. 16 at 8 p.m. The Buffs’ season began in stark contrast to the Rams, as CU pulled off one of the biggest upsets in program history, beating TCU 45-42 in Fort Worth in the first game under coach Deion Sanders.
“I think it will benefit it us to have the bye week, to evaluate it and (give us more time) to make the adjustments we need to be better,” Norvell said.
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