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By Terry Frei
The Colorado State Rams, like so many college football teams before them, are fighting this: Losing is infectious and often self-perpetuating. It has its own energy, fueled not so much by self-doubt, but by the subconscious fear that no matter how well a team plays, just enough at just the wrong times will go wrong. In the losses to Colorado and California, CSU has shown every sign of being vastly improved from its horrendous 2006 season, but has nothing to show for it. "It was encouraging, but we know that we could have had two wins if things went our way," quarterback Caleb Hanie said after Saturday's loss to No. 10 Cal. "Last week, the offense played really solid and the defense this week ... held a great offense in the nation to 20 points until the fourth quarter, when we kept giving them the ball back inside the 50." The 34-28 loss to the Golden Bears at Hughes Stadium had many silver-lining aspects. Yet the Rams' best player, senior tight end Kory Sperry, was lost for the season with a knee injury, and the coaching staff made a baffling, worst-of-both-worlds decision to neither try a conventional onside kick nor kick the ball deep after the Rams - who trailed 34-14 deep into the fourth quarter - had closed to within six points with 3:47 left in the game.
At that point, when a win would have been both a comeback miracle and an upset, the kind a program's fans still talk about 37 years later, you might as well go for broke.
Although CSU had just recovered a traditional, bouncing onside kick, so what? Try it again. The same kind. There still were 227 seconds left, and the Rams had two timeouts? So what? Try it again. That's what I was arguing for on the sideline, and there are witnesses. At the same time, though, CSU had those two timeouts, so kicking the ball deep, even to Cal returner DeSean Jackson, at least would have been defensible. The Rams didn't do either. Jason Smith's attempt to drop the kickoff over the first wall of Bears and along the sideline sailed out of bounds, giving Cal the ball at its 35-yard line. Perhaps Jackson would have returned a deep kickoff to the 35 anyway. (And squib kicks down the middle invariably are counterproductive, so that shouldn't even have been a consideration.) But the way this happened, the ball flying out of bounds, deflated CSU's momentum, and the Bears' James Montgomery ran three times to get the first down that enabled Cal to run out the clock and head back to the Bay Area still undefeated.
"That was my coaching for the day," CSU coach Sonny Lubick said. "We probably would have been better off with an onside. He was supposed to just lob it. There was one guy back there, and he was supposed to lob it and have it be a footrace for the ball. It's hard to get one onside kick, but we probably should have done that." It didn't cost CSU the game, and in that sense, it's nit-picking. But it cost the Rams a final, desperate stab at a miracle. And now comes what might be the supreme test of Lubick's coaching career. He has to keep the loss of Sperry and the frustrating losses in the first two weeks from being debilitating, to convince this team to use the obvious improvement to buoy spirits and go into the winnable road game at Conference USA Houston and then into the Mountain West Conference season. "We all came into this game expecting to win," CSU middle linebacker Jeff Horinek said. "Just because we barely lost to a top-10 team doesn't make us feel like we're on cloud nine or anything. We still want to win. "We're coming in to win, not to play hard. It's over now, we have two weeks of practice before our next game, and we have to be ready to roll for that." Maybe this says as much about the Mountain West as it does about this CSU team, but everything the Rams showed in the first two weeks indicates that there isn't a game on the rest of the schedule CSU shouldn't have a shot at winning. Yes, even Brigham Young and Texas Christian. Even without Sperry, this is a decent team with a chance at a decent season. Unless it gives up on itself. Or its coach.