Colorado State's gritty fifth-year seniors stopped Michigan State
If a team has to dig itself out of a 16-0 hole on the road in its season opener, it best be one with 16 fifth-year seniors. "I know a lot of coaches would have come in at halftime and yelled," Colorado State defensive coordinator Larry Kerr said after the Rams dominated Michigan State in the second half to win 23-16 last Saturday in the Black Coaches Association Classic. "I just looked at my guys and said, 'You're good. You're better than this.' "
Yes, they are. Colorado State's roster has the depth of a WB sitcom and a dearth of NFL prospects—Indianapolis Colts president Bill Polian was on hand in East Lansing, Mich., on Saturday not to watch any Rams but to scout Spartans—but it's rich in experience. With schools limited to 85 scholarships and the top juniors leaving for the pros, a good number of fifth-year players "are probably worth two, three games a season," Colorado State coach Sonny Lubick says. Fifth-year senior linebacker Nate Kvamme, who showed up in Fort Collins four years ago weighing 185 pounds, is exactly the kind of in-between kid Lubick has cultivated in developing a team that has won 10 straight games. "It's not the fastest guys, the strongest guys, that make the best football team," says the six-foot Kvamme, who's now all of 215 pounds.
In the first half Michigan State junior tailback Sedrick Irvin rushed for 101 yards on 21 carries. His second-half totals: 19 and 9, respectively. The Spartans' offensive struggles looked painfully familiar. Last season Michigan State went from 5-0 to 7-5 once defenses put eight men up front to stop Irvin and dared the Spartans to throw.
The Rams have won three WAC titles in the last four seasons, in no small part because of Kerr's effective use of a seven-man front. His reputation has grown so much that last winter Spartans coach Nick Saban offered him $120,000, almost double his $68,000 salary, to come to Michigan State as defensive coordinator. While on his interview trip, Kerr happily explained the Colorado State defense to Saban and his staff.
Kerr turned the job down to remain with Lubick. Imagine his shock when, two months later, the Rams and the Spartans agreed to play each other. Ken-figured that Saban would add some wrinkles to his offense to take advantage of the Rams' seven-man scheme, but he says that's not why he decided to install an eight-man alignment against the Spartans. Kerr can watch tape as well as the next guy. "if they have to pass, we win," he explained after the game.
Michigan State ultimately did have to pass—but couldn't Junior Bill Burke, whose lower back is so tender that the Spartans have him on a pitch count (from warm-up to shower, he isn't allowed to throw more than 100 passes per day), and freshman Ryan Van Dyke combined to complete 13 of 25 passes for a scant 97 yards. An average of 3.9 yards per rush is barely acceptable. Get that per pass, and you're sunk.
Colorado State had greater success with its rookie quarterback, fifth-year (of course) senior Ryan Eslinger, who had waited four years for a chance to play, the last three behind Moses Moreno, who was All-WAC last season. "I was just fed up," Eslinger says of the last eight months. "I was so tired of hearing 'Moses this, Moses that.' Moses is done. He's gone."
Eslinger awoke his slumbering teammates in the second quarter when he threw a strike on a left-sideline streak to Dar-ran Hall, who turned it into a 57-yard touchdown. Eslinger finished with 205 yards passing and a very big win. After the game, as Lubick dressed, he considered whether a team without so many fifth-year players could have come back the way his did. "I don't think so," he said. "It's easy to give up and pretend you're playing." If the Rams proved anything, it's that they don't pretend.
Edwards's 405 A Record Haul