Green-Gold Game recap: Liggett, freshmen shine for CSU
April 24, 2010
By Zak Gilbert
FORT COLLINS, Colo. - Tyson Liggett left no doubts Saturday that he is a playmaker.
Liggett, a 5-foot-9, 186-pound senior from Limon, Colo., all but guaranteed himself a starting wide receiver role with a memorable performance at the Rams' Green and Gold Game Saturday at Hughes Stadium in Fort Collins.
On the game's final play from scrimmage, with his team down, 17-10, the wide receiver took a reverse in the backfield from Leonard Mason and ran around left end, weaving his way through defenders for a 14-yard touchdown. Then, with Liggett's Gold team trailing by a point, the squad went for the win, and gave the ball to who else, Liggett. He waltzed into the end zone on virtually the same play, an end-around reverse, to defeat CSU Green team, 18-17, in a dramatic spring game.
The 49-play intrasquad contest, CSU's first in Steve Fairchild's three springs as head coach, concluded the Rams' 15 offseason practices allowed by the NCAA. And Liggett, one of the team's most consistent players this spring, figures to serve as a steady weapon on an offense with only four returning starters.
"We're awfully young," said Liggett, who finished with a 34-yard touchdown reception in addition to his 14-yard scoring run. "So a lot of guys don't have experience. Even I don't have as much game experience as regular veterans. But we got better every day. This group works really hard. We got a lot of work to do. But summer conditioning, summer drills, we're going to get together and get with the quarterbacks, get a lot better every day, and it's going to be a lot of fun."
One of those quarterbacks, either true freshman Pete Thomas or redshirt freshman Nico Ranieri, figures to start for the Rams when they open against in-state rival Colorado, Sept. 4, at Invesco Field in Denver. On Saturday, neither passer separated himself.
Thomas, a 6-foot-5, 218-pound pocket passer from El Cajon, Calif., put his gold team on the board with that 34-yard strike to Liggett, erasing a 6-0 deficit. The poised youngster, who graduated high school at semester in order to enroll at CSU and compete immediately for the starting role, was 2-for-5 for 46 yards Saturday. Two snaps before his touchdown to Liggett, one of his incompletions was a perfectly placed, 34-yard spiral into the hands of Jyrone Hickman in the right corner of the end zone, but walk-on Marcus Shaw made a fine effort to knock the ball away from Hickman.
After his first spring, Thomas is looking forward to the third and final stage of the Rams' offseason program, practicing without coaches while awaiting fall camp.
"I still feel like I need to work on the mental part of the game," Thomas said, "and still adjusting to the speed of the game, and getting that continuity with your receivers. And you get that by working hard over the summer."
Right beside him during the summer will be his friend and chief competitor, Ranieri, who had a solid day Saturday on the opposite sideline, for the Green team. The 6-foot-2, 204-pound athlete from Orlando, Fla., engineered field goal drives on each of his three series Saturday. Considered more mobile than Thomas, he finished 7-for-10 for 73 yards.
Ranieri's favorite target Saturday was another redshirt freshman, Joe Brown. Brown, a versatile 6-foot-3, 218-pound tight end from Wichita, Kan., capitalized this spring on the early April finger injury that sidelined starter Eric Peitz. The day's leader in both receptions (3) and receiving yards (52), Brown caught a 19-yard strike from Ranieri on the game's first play and ran for 3 more yards two snaps later to help set up a field goal.
On the Green team's second possession, Brown and Ranieri hooked up for a first down to convert a third-and-7, then set up another field goal with a 25-yard screen pass. After Brown made a couple nice moves and broke at least two tackles, his Green team had the ball on the Gold 11.
"I think he showed everybody something," Fairchild said, "but he has been doing that all spring practice. Joe is a talented guy and can do some things with the ball in his hands. He was a point guard in basketball in high school.
"Joe Brown is a different type of guy than some of the other fullbacks and tight ends, like Zac Pauga; they all do some things well and we kind of have to take our package and if we have a playmaker like Joe Brown we want to make sure we have him doing the things he can do best."
Another potential playmaker is Chris Nwoke, also a redshirt freshman. A 6-foot, 208-pound bruiser from Highlands Ranch, Colo., he was Saturday's leading rusher, with 25 yards on five carries, including a key third-and-4 conversion that kept a Green drive going inside the red zone. Nwoke (WOH-kay), the youngest and least experienced of perhaps the deepest, most talented running backs corps in the Mountain West Conference, narrowly got the most first-team reps down the stretch this spring in a fierce battle for playing time.
"It's good for competition," said Nwoke, who joins UCLA transfer Raymond Carter, senior John Mosure and Leonard Mason, the Rams' leading rusher in '09, in the CSU backfield this year. "The real competition comes out of everyone. The other backs want to play great, too. It makes the beast come out.
"I was excited to see what I could do to make myself better. It really helped because now I'm on the next step to getting better."
Controversy: Gold team head coach Larry Kerr, the Rams' defensive coordinator, appeared to have a legitimate gripe during a pivotal chain of events late in the game. First, the Green team retook the lead on a fake field goal when WR Matt Yemm, a quarterback at Fort Collins High School, caught the snap and found a wide-open Pete Kontodiakos, CSU's punter, in the left flat for a 10-yard touchdown. The punter, recruited by Green team head coach and offensive coordinator Pat Meyer, doesn't normally play on the field-goal unit. Then, after the fake, the Gold team protested what it considered a violation of the rules each team agreed upon before the game - no fake field goals -- and didn't send a unit on the field for the ensuing PAT. Yemm, again the holder, shrugged his shoulders after taking the snap and ran around right end against a phantom defense for a 2-point conversion, giving Green a 14-7 lead.
Kerr had the last laugh, though.
Fairchild, the commissioner during this week's player draft and spring game, gave the matter some thought and ruled that the controversial points would stand, but he would award Kerr's Gold team would get one extra series to go for the win.
After a 32-yard field goal by Gold's Erik Henry, Fairchild gave Gold the ball on the Green 20, and Gold used a couple trick plays of its own - the Liggett reverses on successive snaps - to end the game.
"There is an asterisk by the score," Fairchild said, "but they had fun and it was good for some of the young guys to get in there and get some live action."
Perfect: Ben DeLine hit all three field-goal attempts, from 32, 22 and 29 yards, to keep his Green team in the game. Henry, a walk-on newcomer, also hit his lone attempt, 32 yards. Collectively, CSU kickers were 4-for-4 on the day.
Nice crowd: CSU officials were as surprised with the crowd as they were with the sun that covered the stadium during the game. An estimated 1,500 were in the stands, despite the weather-related cancellation of all activities, including the annual free community pancake breakfast and Ram Town inflatables for kids.
CSU had hoped to draw a record for a spring game, but a forecast calling for rain, wind and cold temperatures 24 hours earlier led the athletic department to cancel the events.
NFL Draft: Shelley Smith, the standout on a stellar offensive line last season, was selected by the Houston Texans in the sixth round of the NFL Draft (No. 187 overall) during Saturday's spring game.
The Rams have now had at least one player selected in six of the last seven years.
Smith is the first CSU guard drafted since the Jaguars took All-American Anthony Cesario in 1999. Smith also becomes the ninth current Texans coach or player with a direct connection to the CSU football program, a list that doesn't include former CSU stalwarts Cecil Sapp and Bradlee Van Pelt, who also played for the Texans.
By the end of the weekend, the Rams are hopeful that all four of their 2009 senior offensive linemen, including tackle Cole Pemberton, guard Adrian Martinez and center Tim Walter, will be on NFL rosters.
Mark of respect: Prior to Saturday's game, the stadium observed a moment of silence in honor of former CSU All-American Keli McGregor, who tragically passed away Tuesday. McGregor, who joined the Rams as a walk-on redshirt freshman in 1981, also was selected in the NFL Draft and most recently served as President of the Colorado Rockies Baseball Club.
Injuries: Carter and wide receiver Byron Steele did not play Saturday. Fairchild said Steele, in the driver's seat for a starting role opposite Liggett this fall, pulled a hamstring before the game began Saturday. On Thursday at practice, Carter sustained a minor ankle injury and was held out as a precaution because the Rams figure to feature him heavily this fall after a standout spring.
Several other players didn't participate in the spring game Saturday: CB DeAngelo Wilkinson (foot), linebacker Mychal Sisson (shoulder), QB Klay Kubiak (shoulder), DE Cory Macon (personal), RB Amadeus Waters (knee), LB Andy Clements (knee), S Alex Stratton (knee), TE Eric Peitz (finger), DE Zach Tiedgen (shoulder), LB Michael Kawulok (knee), OL Brandon Haynes (ankle), OT Mark Starr (chest) and WR Michael Liss (knee). Fairchild kept those players involved, though. Wilkinson, Sisson and Peitz were captains who drafted teams Wednesday. The other injured players were assigned to teams, Green or Gold.
Sack: C.J. James, who has been a force all spring since his freshman breakout game against Wyoming in the season finale last year, got the day's only sack, dropping Thomas. James dedicated the play, which ended the Gold team's first series on third-and-5, to his newborn daughter.
Surprise receivers: In addition to Kontodiakos, the Rams saw another Florida product lining up at wide receiver. Momo Thomas, who had a standout game on defense, was Pete Thomas' intended receiver on a late-game incompletion. Momo Thomas also has held for placements this spring.
Rams Superstars: Saturday actually wasn't the end of spring football. While the NCAA allows only 15 practices, with the final session Saturday, the Rams will officially conclude Phase II of their offseason program with the annual Rams Superstars Competition Thursday at 6 p.m. at Moby Arena.
Best described as a cross between the NFL combine, NBA All-Star Weekend, WWE wrestling and American Gladiators, the event on Thursday is free and involves all the football players. Admission and parking are free. After the event, fans are invited to stay and collect autographs.