FORT COLLINS — CSU leaves points on the field as if they’re tax write-offs. When the Rams aren’t busy torturing their own, they’re making Nathaniel Hackett look like Bill Walsh in the red zone.
“We haven’t been good enough and mature enough and haven’t coached well enough to find a way to score on offense,” CSU football coach Jay Norvell sighed after his kids fell to 2-8 with a fall-from-ahead 14-13 Border War loss to Wyoming on Saturday night. “We just haven’t been good enough in some areas. And so that’s very frustrating, to say the least.”
It’s frustrating watching quarterback Clay Millen (251 passing yards, zero touchdowns) hang on to the ball just a little too long in front of an offensive line (five sacks surrendered) that won’t forgive the sins of youth. It’s frustrating watching defenders such as Dequan Jackson (13 tackles), Jack Howell (nine stops, one pass break-up), Ayden Hector and Henry Blackburn try to hold the Rams (2-8, 2-4) together with guts and duct tape before the inevitable collapse.
But it’s maddening — MAD-DEN-ING — whenever CSU enters the red zone. If watching the Broncos inside the 20 eats away at your soul, try doing the same with the Rams for three hours and change the night before.
Stats time. If you’re not sitting down, you might want to be sitting next to the stiffest libation of your choice.
CSU reached the red zone three times against the Cowboys (7-3, 5-1) at Canvas Stadium. The end result? Two field goals and a Millen pick in the end zone. Zero touchdowns in three trips.
Which means, for the season, the Rams have punched it inside the opponents’ 20 a total of 21 times in 10 games, which is problematic enough in itself. Here’s the kicker: They’ve scored a touchdown on only four of those trips — 19% of the time.
Context: The Broncos head into Nashville on Sunday notching TDs in the red zone at a 35% clip. Or almost twice as much.
More context: The Rams are dead last in the country in TD conversion percentage in the red zone. And dead last by a lot — Georgia Tech is next-to-last, at 32%. It’s a long way to No. 130.
Even more context (slightly painful): Since at least 2009, no FBS program has posted a season TD conversion rate in the red zone lower than 30.7%. Not. One.
Yet even more context (fairy painful): If the Rams were scoring TDs in the red zone at least year’s pace — 42.86%, The Daz’s pace — they’d have five more touchdowns by now. Or at least 35 more points, good for 3.5 more points per game.
In other words, 3.5 points that would’ve flipped this game. And it might’ve flipped Utah State, a 17-13 loss at Canvas, back on Oct. 15.
No wonder Blackburn, the CSU safety who chipped in eight tackles for what should’ve been a winning cause on the defensive end, looked so weary as he sat down for the scribes after the tilt.
“That stinks,” Blackburn spat. “This game, it (was) probably the hardest loss I’ve ever had playing football. I mean, this one hurt more than anything. It just hurt, because we had it in our grasp and we were only a couple plays away. This one (stinks). This game meant everything to us.”
He deserved better. So did Norvell, whose offense found itself living dangerously, when it showed a pulse at all, for much of the tilt.
After the second half opened with the Rams nursing a 10-7 lead by driving eight yards on six plays before punting, Wyoming responded by chugging for efficient chunks the other way, primarily via the legs of Titus Swen and Jayden Clemons.
The Pokes’ drive got stuffed at the CSU 20, and rather than go for it on fourth-and-2, Wyoming coach Craig Bohl elected to kick. A march of 62 yards that ate up 6:24 of the third quarter amounted to bupkis. As the 37-yard field goal attempt sailed wide right, the football gods, perhaps owing Norvell for all those injuries early, smiled upon him through chattering teeth.
Well, until 11:22 left in the game, when Rams wideout Tory Horton got caught between minds on a punt return, muffing it at the 18, then not bothering to pick it up.
Wyoming’s Miles Williams happily obliged, an after a 15-yard flag for unsportsmanlike conduct, the Pokes were in business at the CSU 33. Bohl didn’t waste his shot this time, and a second-and-9 heave up the left boundary saw Wyoming wideout Alex Brown outleap his defender for a 32-yard score and, following the point-after, the Pokes’ first lead of the night.
“Our margin for error,” Norvell said quietly and accurately, “is very, very thin.”
The shame fell on several fronts, not the least of which because the Rams’ 3-point halftime lead, buoyed by a nifty 72-yard Horton punt return, should’ve been larger. Three first-half drives that ended in the red zone amounted only three points total.
CSU can afford to lean a little on a defense that came into the weekend giving up 24.2 points and 375 total yards per game to conference opponents. But not too hard. And not this often.
Like a table with three working legs and one that’s a smidge too short, you pile on too much weight and the whole dang thing tips. A whole dang season, too.