FORT COLLINS –– Contrary to the 2021 Colorado State football team’s pair of recent defeats, critics won’t go hunting for coach Steve Addazio’s head if the Rams conclude their non-conference schedule by slipping to 1-3 overall this weekend.
When an FCS opponent –– granted, a formidable foe in South Dakota State –– stomped the green and gold at Canvas Stadium in Week 1, the outside world acquired reason to condemn the program. The following Saturday, CSU’s defeat against perennial bottom-feeder Vanderbilt opened the floodgates as fingers pointed at Addazio’s on-field product from every which way.
Still, even if the 1-2 Rams construct a hopeless dud this Saturday, they certainly won’t endure much heat.
As 23-point underdogs at No. 5 Iowa, virtually the entire nation anticipates a bloodbath favoring the hosts at Kinnick Stadium. Heck, if the Rams hang around for a quarter, they’ll likely receive more postgame praise than anything.
One could assume that the pressure’s off inside CSU’s locker room before facing a team that has won 17 of its last 18 non-league home games. However, within Canvas Stadium’s walls, the same sense of urgency and level of expectation as any contest persists.
“We approach every game the same way,” Addazio said. “We’re going to Iowa to beat Iowa. We’re not going to have a good first quarter. We’re not going to keep it close. We’re going to beat Iowa and I really believe that and our players believe that. That’s our mindset.”
The Rams aren’t traveling to collect a paycheck or to experience Iowa City’s renowned game-day atmosphere. Eagerly, Addazio’s troupe sets its sights on securing what would mark one of the largest upsets in program history.
Although, having lost nine of its last 11 Power-5 affairs, there’s no sense of ignorance across CSU’s roster. The green and gold know toppling the Hawkeyes represents an against-all-odds feat that will require the visitors to overcome a plethora of daunting obstacles.
Said challenges don’t solely pertain to the powerful group opposite the line of scrimmage, either.
“There’s gonna be a real crowd noise deal here,” Addazio said. “That’s something we haven’t had yet. That’s another new hurdle. So we’re gonna have to go silent and hand-signal everything. We’ll have to adapt to that. And I think we just have to play an overall clean game to give ourselves a chance. No dumb penalties, nothing like that.”
As Addazio touched on, handling the 70,000-person venue’s inevitable chaos while avoiding the accrual of simple mistakes could perhaps furnish life for the visitors.
Nevertheless, even if CSU demonstrates poise and executes precisely in all facets, solving Iowa’s patented winning formula will likely still amount to a longshot.
As for that triumphant formula, coach Kirk Ferentz has transformed the Hawkeys’ program into an affluent model of consistency since seizing command of the helm in 1999. Notably, Iowa has concluded three consecutive campaigns as a member of the final AP Top 25 poll for the first time in nearly two decades. Overall, the Hawkeyes have reached the postseason in 19 of Ferentz’s 23 campaigns.
Despite cruising on an annual basis, the Hawkeyes aren’t flashy. Instead, the Big Ten program prides itself on old-school, smash-mouth football to control the clock and assert dominance.
“They’re a great overall team,” running back David Bailey said. “They’re not gonna beat themselves. They’re No. 5 for a reason. But if we prepare great, believe in ourselves, keep doing what we do this whole week like we did last week, it’s gonna be a good game for us.”
Per typical, defensive authority headlines the Hawkeyes prosperity thus far in 2021. Upon shutting down two potent offenses in then-No. 17 Indiana and then-No. 9 Iowa State along the way, the Hawkeyes have surrendered merely 10 points on average through three games (fourth-least in the FBS).
Though lethal across the turf, Iowa’s practically unfathomable knack for inhibiting the run reigns supreme. Specifically, while the gruesome defensive lineman trio of Lukas Van Ness, Joe Evans and John Waggoner have already combined for nine total tackles for loss (seven sacks), the Hawkeyes yield a minuscule 81 rushing yards per contest and 2.5 per carry.
“They’re averaging less than 300 yards a game, and they’re No. 5 in the country,” Addazio said. “That tells you all you need to know. They’re playing elite defense. But this is a chance to see our physicality against what many would say is one of the most physical football teams in all of America.”
If anywhere, the passing game constitutes Iowa’s most exploitable facet –– where the Hawkeyes’ secondary often utilizes deep-coverage schemes to eliminate downfield threats while conceding modest yardage over the middle.
So, one can safely expect CSU to continue its heavy reliance on star tight end Trey McBride this weekend. And though McBride’s pass-catching role almost always materializes as substantial, it’s worth noting how quarterback Todd Centeio’s additional through-the-air options may be a bit limited at Iowa.
Namely, after missing the Toledo clash with an apparent knee injury, versatile wideout Dante Wright’s status remains murky as Week 4 could very well force the Rams to make do without one of their primary offensive weapons.
“I think we’ve got most everybody back,” Addazio said. “But Dante is still questionable. He’s doing well. But we’ll see.”
Elsewhere on the injury front, Addazio described senior safety Tywan Francis as probable after an ankle injury sidelined CSU’s second-leading tackler at Toledo. Also within CSU’s secondary, at the opposite safety slot, surging sophomore starter Henry Blackburn remains “banged up” since prematurely exiting last week’s action.
Though inconvenient for the Rams’ defensive backfield, losing Blackburn for the Iowa clash would essentially guarantee a second-straight crack at the starting lineup for true freshman Jack Howell –– who encouragingly hoarded nine tackles amid his debut as a first-stringer while a targeting penalty held typical starter, Logan Stewart, out of the first half.
When one door closes, another swings open. And speaking of players taking advantage of fresh opportunities, the Rams’ defense was chock full of such last week upon assembling a compelling, victory-enabling outing in which Toledo posted a measly six points and 284 total yards.
Beyond Howell, edge-rusher Mohamed Kamara entered last week with 1.5 career sacks to his name before bursting past the line of scrimmage for 3.5 QB takedowns –– only the seventh-ever occasion a Ram has recorded more than three single-game sacks.
From those –– like Howell and Kamara –– who are beginning to attain a serviceable rhythm, to CSU’s trusty front line, the Rams’ defense enthusiastically awaits a chance to preserve its newfound momentum against Iowa’s meticulous offense.
Nothing about Saturday’s festivities constitutes an easy task. Nevertheless, the green and gold feel prepared to battle.
“It’ll be a little crazy playing in front of their fans,” Kamara said. “But if that gets us out of our rhythm, we shouldn’t be playing football. Iowa’s a tough, physical team. But we are too. So it’s just about preparation. If we come in with the right mindset, we can do anything.”
Game at a glance
Matchup: Colorado State (1-2) at No. 5 Iowa (3-0)
Kickoff: 1:30 p.m. (Saturday)
Where: Kinnick Stadium (Iowa City)
TV: Fox Sports 1
Radio: KARS 102.9 FM
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