April 23, 2011
By Zak Gilbert
Athletic Media Relations
FORT COLLINS, Colo. – If the Rams score a last-second touchdown this fall and trail by one point, will they kick a PAT to tie, or go for two to win?
Well, if Saturday’s dramatic spring game was any indication, they’re going for the win.
That’s just what the Green team did at the annual CSU spring game Saturday. Moments after Chris Nwoke blasted in for a 4-yard touchdown on the game’s final drive, the Green team stuck with what was working. M.J. McPeek fed Nwoke again, this time around the right end for the game-winning two-point conversion, giving Green an exciting 15-14 win over its gold counterparts at Sonny Lubick Field at Hughes Stadium.
Nwoke, a powerful 6-foot, 214-pound sophomore from Highlands Ranch, Colo., had four totes for 27 yards on that decisive drive, not including his two-point winner. He jump-started the drive with a 14-yard burst to convert a third-and-10 on the third play of the stagnant series.
The late-game heroics by Nwoke (WOH-kay), who had 13 carries for 52 yards (4.0 avg.), helped his all-green squad storm back from a 14-0 deficit. He wasn’t the only standout, though.
Quarterback M.J. McPeek, who seems to have locked up the backup role behind sophomore starter Pete Thomas, led the Green on a pair of impressive drives to close the game, especially the possession prior to Nwoke’s touchdown.
On a 12-play, 50-yard march that cut the Gold lead in half late in the game, McPeek completed 5-of-6 passes for 48 yards, including a gorgeous 9-yard touchdown to redshirt freshman Brett Etherton. The junior QB, who transferred to CSU from Kansas State, converted a third-and-10 on the drive with a 19-yard strike to Joe Brown, and also put his head down a ran past the marker for 9 yards on a third-and-8.
McPeek’s top target Saturday was Brown, who hauled in three passes – two on that 12-play drive – for 33 yards, including a 9-yard catch to set up Etherton’s touchdown. Matt Yemm also had three catches for 22 yards, including a 6-yard grab from McPeek to convert a fourth-and-5 on the game-winning series.
The only quarterback on his team, McPeek struggled early. Green converted just one of its first six third-down attempts, and didn’t even penetrate the red zone until its final two possessions, as Gold jumped out to a 14-0 lead. All drives in the contest, which didn’t include kickoffs, began at the 50-yard line.
After coaches pulled Thomas early, Gold built that two-touchdown advantage thanks to Derek Good. The former walkon, a 5-foot-10, 200-pound senior from Berthoud, Colo., had 10 carries for 75 yards (7.5 avg.). He helped Gold snap a scoreless tie on the team’s third series, taking the drive’s first three snaps on carries of 14, 22 and 9 yards to set up a 1-yard Garrett Grayson touchdown.
On the next series, Good had three more carries for another 20 yards. He even threw a trick pass, which Thompson batted away in the end zone. One play later, the slashing back shrugged his shoulders and showed his ability to power through tacklers and into the end zone for a 7-yard score, giving Gold a 14-0 lead.
But Good’s day wasn’t perfect. With the opportunity to put the game away late, up 14-7 on his team’s final drive, he and Grayson miscommunicated on a handoff, and Colton Paulhus recovered the fumble. That critical turnover set up Green’s game-winning possession.
The fumble recovery by Paulhus, a sophomore junior-college transfer expected to provide needed depth on the CSU defensive line, was one of three Green takeaways, no doubt a major factor in the team’s win. Earlier, sophomore safety Ezra Thompson ended a short day for Thomas (1-for-3, 16 yards) leaping high into the air to steal a sure touchdown from intended receiver Bobby Borcky. The interception ended Gold’s second drive.
Later, on Gold’s fifth series, redshirt freshman Eric Niederberger punched the ball loose from the arms of Byron Steele after a short reception deep in Green territory, ending that possession. Niederberger, a 6-foot-1, 219-pound linebacker – who had a brief look as a fullback last week before returning to defense – had a team-leading seven tackles on the afternoon.
Ball control: Saturday’s game did not have a running clock, but Green would’ve dominated time of possession, with 43 plays to Gold’s 29. Gold, however, averaged 5.1 yards per snap, thanks to Good’s consistent big plays. Green averaged just 3.6.
Blake Street bomb squad: Cornerback Bernard Blake, the team’s fastest player, finished an outstanding spring by breaking up a pair of McPeek passes early in the contest, both in the end zone. One was a sure touchdown, while the other easily could’ve been six points in the arms of intended receiver Lou Greenwood. Blake, a 6-foot, 179-pound redshirt freshman from Bastrop, Texas, sat out last season after sustaining a leg injury in fall camp. If not for the injury, he likely would’ve played as a true freshman.
Keeping with the theme of spring: Over the last four weeks, CSU’s spring practices have been loaded with big hits, and Saturday was no different. James Skelton, who after Michael Kawulok’s season-ending knee injury is the leading candidate to start at MLB, got the day started by blasting Nwoke for a 1-yard loss on a third-and-4 during Green’s second series. Defensive lineman Zach Tiedgen forced a Nwoke fumble with an impressive hit on Green’s first series. And late in the game, linebacker Ryan Heagle, a sophomore from Denver’s Mullen High School, also delivered a crushing blow.
Decent crowd: Colorado gets as many annual days of sunshine as San Diego, but CSU spring games the past three years have brought out unusually poor weather. Still, CSU officials on Saturday estimated 4,000 fans in attendance, many of whom were inside the club level and suites. Each of the last three spring games, from 2009-11, have included overcast conditions and some form of precipitation. The athletic department still offered large inflatables on the north concourse, a free Wendy’s Frosty for kids and an Easter egg hunt in the north end zone after the game.
Another No. 6 in the backfield: Mychal Sisson, who like Nwoke wears No. 6, was one of the “general managers” that drafted his Gold team on Wednesday, joining Thomas and injured senior guard Jake Gdowski. So apparently he carried some weight with Fairchild when he talked his way into getting a handoff on Gold’s fourth series. After all, the dynamic playmaker was a running back in high school. But he’s an All-America candidate for what he’s done so far on the defensive side of the ball, and don’t expect him to see much more time on offense after his carry Saturday resulted in a loss of 2 yards.
Limited snaps: In addition to Thomas, to avoid injury coaches wanted to be smart and limit the snaps of stock-rising TE Crockett Gillmore, WR Lou Greenwood, OT Joe Caprioglio, NT Nuku Latu, OT Paul Madsen, DE C.J. James, DE Broderick Sargent and S Ivory Herd, all key in determining the Rams’ success this fall. Before he left, Latu had an early quarterback hurry on a McPeek incompletion.
Injury scare: The Rams got a scare when their Freshman All-America center Weston Richburg limped off the field early in the contest. Head Coach Steve Fairchild said afterward, however, that Richburg’s leg injuries, probably a twisted ankle, were nothing serious.
The other Thomas: Momo Thomas, CSU’s play-making cornerback who received a medical hardship waiver and enters 2011 as a redshirt junior, also didn’t play Saturday as a precaution. However, the savvy Thomas, coming off shoulder surgery, did return punts.
Welcome back: The spring game always is an opportunity to welcome back former CSU players, and dozens were in Fort Collins Saturday.
Mic’d up: In its coverage of the spring game Saturday, The Mtn. spent the day with CSU’s Kris Young, recently named the national equipment manager of the year. The TV network also put a microphone on CB Elijah-Blu Smith, one of the senior captains that drafted the Green team on Wednesday. Smith had offseason shoulder surgery and trainers held him out of full contact all spring, although he did not miss a practice and wore full pads all four weeks.
Fall camp: CSU’s freshmen and newcomers are scheduled to report Aug. 2, one day before returning players. The first fall practice is Aug. 4. The Rams open the season with a conference game, Sept. 3 at New Mexico.
Superstars: While Saturday marked the end of CSU’s on-field fun for the spring, it’s not the end of the competition. The Rams will return to the arena – Moby Arena, that is – on Friday for the annual Rams Superstars Competition. The entertaining evening is best described as the theoretical product if one were to combine NBA All-Star Weekend, the NFL Combine, WWE wrestling and the old American Gladiators TV show. The event is free and open to the public. It begins at 6 p.m. Friday and ends with an autograph session for all fans in attendance.
Quotes from Head Coach Steve Fairchild
General: “I thought they had fun out there today. That was the main thing we were looking for; just come out, play hard and have a little bit of fun with the spring game. We got a little bit of work done in the early part of practice and then had a game here that was sloppy at times. But like I said, I think they had a good time.”
On 2011 spring football: “You know, I think we are developing in some spots we need to, safety, our second quarterback, continue to improve on the offensive line, the defense-line rotation. Across the board, I was pleased. “
On whether he’s sees progress: “I think so. And, we’ve got to get to that point. We got to get to where we feel comfortable putting the third or fourth running back in there, the big defensive lineman in there. I mean, good football teams have depth like that and we’re trying to develop that here.”
On RB Derek Good: “Yeah, I thought Derek had a tremendous practice and he looked good. He’s done that all spring.”
On QB Pete Thomas: “You know, he’s come along. He’ll continue to improve his whole career. It’s just the nature of the quarterback spot. But we’re far better right now at the quarterback than we were a year ago.”
On possibly redshirting QB Garrett Grayson: “We may if we can. You know, there’s a lot left to be seen on that one.”
On having a returning quarterback: “It’s great. You know, just having a guy that’s not figuring out where he’s at in the huddle and so forth. We were able to kind of bring him along in some of those situational things. And he was doing some things at the line of scrimmage out here that we couldn’t do last year. So, it’s really good.”
On the penalties Saturday, and during the spring: “Yeah we’ve been a little sloppy. We’ve got to continue to tighten that up. We’re turning the ball over too much. Those are the things that get you beat.”
On the future of the receivers: “I’m hoping Lou Greenwood continues to come on. But, we need to develop a receiver. There’s no question.”
On rotating the defensive linemen: “I think we’ve got those candidates. I think we’ve got to keep improving in some spots with some of those guys. But, we’re close; we’re close.”
On the linebackers: “Yeah, (James) Skelton did a nice job. James did a nice job in the middle. You know, we’ve got two tremendous outside linebackers. And, we’re starting to have some guys come on a little bit. Max Morgan, until he got hurt, had a real good spring. Austin Gillmore. So, we’re there. I think we’ve got to continue to develop at that spot. Our numbers aren’t great there.”
On RB Chris Nwoke’s tendency to leave the ground and hurdle defenders: “Every time he does it, I think, ‘Don’t do it.’ And then it seems to work. Chris has got a lot of talent. He’s raw, but he’s had a good spring as well.”
On Nwoke’s leaping ability: “Yeah, you know, I’ve never seen a back do much of that. You’re always talking, ‘Backs, get your feet on the ground, get your feet on the ground, low center of gravity.’ But every once in a while, he gets out in space and does that. It seems to work for him.”
On who stood out Saturday: “Derek Good. I think Derek Good did a nice job. Joe Brown looked like he caught some good balls. I like everything that Pete did, just the way he handled himself out there. I was glad we got a long look at him. But, I don’t know. We’ll go back and look at the tape. There’s some guys that did some nice things.”
On whether this is his best spring yet: “Yeah, I think so. I think it’s the most productive. It’s got a chance to be one of the best teams since I’ve been here, I think. I think we have depth and we’ve still got some competition in some spots, which is good.”
On whether specifics will be figured out for the fall: “Yeah, I think so. Again, we’ve got a good football team and during the season, summer, I mean just continue to improve. If we can do that, we’ll give ourselves a chance.”
On concerns Saturday: “It looked like our offense came out asleep a little bit. But, they got going there. And some of that too is the situation we put them in.”
On the injury to C Weston Richburg: “I think he twisted his knee and an ankle. It didn’t look serious. You know, he walked off. And, I’ll know more when I go back to campus.”
On a possible sack on McPeek’s touchdown pass to Brett Etherton (QBs are no contact): “I don’t think it was. I really don’t. In fact, one of the referees said he didn’t think that was a sack.”
On whether the referee’s opinion mattered, because Fairchild is the Commissioner: “Well, yeah, that’s all that matters.”
On his position as Commissioner: “Commissioner wanted that to be score. But I’ll tell you what, each sideline’s got a bunch of whining coaches on it every time we go to the spring game. So, I ‘m going to have to put a muzzle on those guys.”
On the 2011 changes in the program: “I like some of the changes we made defensively. I think that’s going to help us. You know, I think moving Elijah-Blu (Smith) to corner was a big-time thing for us and certainly moving Crockett Gillmore to tight end has a big impact. So, those are probably the three.”
On whether the defense has adapted well to the changes: “Yeah, I think so. I like what we’re doing. Defensively, it’s not a wholesale change but there’s some things that are different that good and will help us.”
On the Mountain West, with four fairly established programs and four others with eyes on joining that group: “You know, right now, I don’t even think about any of that stuff, other than just developing our football team and trying to get us to where we can make a run at the conference championship.”
On the direction of the team, having a pecking order entering the fall: “A lot happens over the summer. Those guys train hard. You know, we’ll just see where they are when they come back. But if we can develop in some spots, like you say, get that seventh, eighth defensive lineman, get that third or fourth safety ready to go, that will help us a lot.”
On whether he anticipates playing fewer than the nine true freshmen he used last year: “Maybe. Nine seems like an awful lot, but we’re going to play anyone that we think can help us. “
On the makeup of the new Mountain West Conference: “Well I think Boise coming in, arguably one of the best college football programs going right now. So, that will help the conference. You know, you hate to see the others leave but Hawaii’s coming in; they’ve been a top 20 team. They were in the BCS not too long ago. Nevada finished in the top 20. So, I think there’s some good teams coming in.”
On LB Mychal Sisson playing running back: “Well, he asked me if he could play and I said one play. I don’t know if we blocked very good for him. But he’s a play-maker, he’s led our team in tackles. We want a bunch of Mychal Sissons.”
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