Strike One: The Colorado State Rams football team woke up Sunday morning still with a reasonable shot at winning the Mountain Division of the Mountain West Conference. Really. It’s still Boise State’s division to lose, but they’ve looked a bit vulnerable lately, and the Rams, 1-5 just a month ago, are on a roll.
A ho-hum 37-17 beatdown of UNLV was CSU’s third win in a row and raised their record to one game under break even with three game to play (including a home game against the Broncos.) The Rams are within two wins of bowl eligibility regardless of what Boise State does in their final three games. There’s a good vibe surrounding the CSU program, and they have a bye week now to get ready to face surging Air Force and that maddening Triple Option.
Things are good. The question is, how good will they be a month from now?
This season’s final three game stretch – home against Air Force, a road trip to Laramie to face arch-rival Wyoming, and that season ending tilt against Boise State – will not only determine the fate of this year’s team, but will also likely decide if Head Coach Mike Bobo remains at the helm after this season.
No one wants Bobo, now if his fifth season at CSU, to lose his job. But success on the scoreboard matters more than good will. After three straight 7-6 seasons, the Rams were 3-9 last season, and a repeat of that would have made it nearly impossible to convince booster/donors and ticket buyers to stay onboard. At 4-5, there are still a lot of folks who want a change…and seeing sparkling Canvas Stadium less than half full on a beautiful fall Saturday isn’t an encouraging sign. If you can’t put butts in the seats, you need to go in a new direction.
Whether or not these Rams have now taken that new direction remains to be seen. But we’ll soon find out.
Here’s the guess:
If CSU can somehow, some way, find a way to win two of these last three games and become eligible for a bowl game (even at 6-6, there’s no guarantee they would be picked. Wyoming was 6-6 last season and did not get a bowl invite. Just sayin…) then Bobo would absolutely, positively with no doubt remain as the head coach. And with good reason. That momentum would be huge.
If they can win one of the final three, finish 5-7 but having finally posted some sort of signature win for Bobo’s tenure (Ya, I know they beat a terrible Arkansas team last season, but that’s not a big rivalry or conference game) then Bobo is almost assured of returning to try to finish the rebuild.
But…if they go 0-3, finish 4-8 and on a down note – again – having failed to beat Colorado, Air Force or Wyoming – again – then Bobo’s seat will be hot, if not broiling.
At that point, it becomes about style points: How did they look in those three contests? Were they close, competitive, hard fought games? In that case, Bobo might survive. Or were they one-sided affairs, where the Rams looked like they haven’t progressed, remain significantly behind their rivals and not close to contending for the division title?
Bobo is under contract for two more seasons after this one, and there remains that pesky $5.5 million buyout if he were to be let go before the end of this calendar year (it drops to $3 mil after January 1st.) But that stuff can be negotiated. Remember, Athletic Director Joe Parker didn’t hire Bobo, so his job security isn’t necessarily tied to Bobo’s success. It would be tied however, to the success of the successor should he opt to make a change. Surely Parker would welcome not having to go there.
There are a lot of moving parts at work here. But the best guess is that if CSU goes 0-3 in this final month, and the team looks bad doing it, Parker will have to make a change that nobody really wants to see.
Strike Two: We all bought into the pre-season hype. According to head coach Michael Malone, the Denver Nuggets players bought in, too. And that’s not a good thing.
These Nuggets have the talent to post the most wins in the NBA’s Western Conference. They have depth that no other team can match, even if they don’t have LeBron, Steph or Kawhi. They’ve proven they can play at a high level even with key players hurt and out of the line-up. Let’s see the Lakers keep winning when Anthony Davis inevitably starts missing significant playing time (‘cuz that will happen.)
But these Nuggets aren’t perfect, either. They’re lacking a key component: A true point guard.
Starting guards Jamaal Murray and Gary Harris are a terrific tandem…but they play the same position. They’re both shooting guards, with Murray being the slightly better (streaky) shooter and Harris the far better lock-down defender. Neither is a ‘ball in his hands facilitator’ in the mold of many of the outstanding point guards around the league.
For the Nuggets, Center Nikola Jokic plays the role of facilitator. Everything goes through him. But Jokic doesn’t handle the ball every time down the court, and when it’s not passed into him, he can’t make anything good happen. Jokic is an exceptional passer, the way Hall of Famer Bill Walton was for the NBA champion Trail Blazers back in the 1970’s. But Walton didn’t bring the ball upcourt, get the team into the right offensive set, and then start running the offense. Point guard Lionel Hollins did that.
Right now, half the time the Nuggets offense most resembles a pick-up game at the local Rec Center. No rhythm, no flow…just a lot of ill-advised three pointers being jacked up.
Back up guard Monte Morris is actually a really good facilitator from the point guard position, and he’s part of the reason the Nuggets bench normally outperforms their counterparts. But Morris isn’t going to be a starter for this team. He’s got a role and he’ll remain in it.
But imagine if the Nuggets had a guy like…say, Chris Paul, for example. A true, pass-first, distribute-the-ball “floor general.” A guy who gets his teammates into the right positions on the floor, makes decisive moves and then executes the play. How much better would they be?
Move over Denver Broncos. There’s another team in town that needs a Quarterback.
If Murray were a QB, he’d be that option guy that runs for big yardage and throws about six passes per game. He’ll just never be a big assist guy. He’s a shooter, not a passer. Murray is averaging over 18 points per game, but just three and a half assists. Meanwhile, Jokic – who is being asked to shoot more and pass less – is averaging six assists and just under 16 points per. That should be reversed.
It won’t be. These guys are who they are. So instead, the Nuggets ought to start looking right now at a transaction that can bring a top-notch point guard to town. They have the depth to make a deal, even if it means messing with the core of a 57-win team. Because they’re going to need that passing ‘quarterback’ to ensure another great regular season doesn’t end with another fumble in the play-offs.
Strike Three: Note: Strike Three has been re-written on 11/5 to include comments and input from Resurrection Christian High School Head Coach Jeff Van Winkle.
High School football games don’t always pit teams that are evenly matched. Even with multiple classifications, not all 2A teams, for example, are created equal.
Case in point: Last Friday night, the third-ranked team in 2A, Loveland’s Resurrection Christian Academy (RCA) traveled south to face Prospect Ridge Academy (PRA) of Broomfield. The Cougars, now 8-1 on the season, are a powerhouse in 2A, leading the Patriot West league. The Miners (2-7)…aren’t.
PRA has fewer than 30 players on the roster, and several of them don’t play. They will drop down to 1A next season where they have a chance to compete on more even terms. The Miners won their only two games this season against 1A teams, while they were winless (and most times not real competitive) against 2A competition.
This game was a mismatch going in, and everyone involved knew it, including RCA head coach Jeff Van Winkle. The result was predictable, with RCA bolting out with a 28-point first quarter on the way to a 48-6 halftime lead. That meant the mercy rule – in this case a running clock – would be in effect for the second half.
On a cold November night, it would seem like the perfect time to pull all of your starters out of the game and give valuable playing time to all of your back-ups. That did not happen.
According to Van Winkle, there were a number of reasons for that, including safety concerns and injuries.
“We were in a very difficult spot,” Van Winkle noted when we spoke four days later. “We had a game plan that had a run heavy approach. Once we got to a running clock, we just wanted to get out of there. We suited 44 kids, and 27 of them are freshman and sophomores. We’ve got a lot of those kids who are true “C” team younger kids, and while I’d like to say ‘Ya, I want to get them all in the game, the reality of it is that we’ve got some kids that are 125 – 130 pounds. Prospect had some lineman there were 240 pounds. I’ve got a safety concern about making wholesale changes and going with all my younger guys.
“We look at the other side and see if they are waving the white flag and putting in all of their backups. But PRA was leaving their starters in there,” he added.
The idea of being “safety first” is noble, and all coaches should think that way. However, being fearful of injury while competing against a team that’s clearly and badly outmanned (regardless if they have two regulars on the line who weight 240 and 250) and putting up very little resistance is overthinking it. Van Winkle was giving PRA far too much credit. It’s worth noting again that PRA does not have enough players on the roster to have back ups to put in. Small schools with small rosters have to play with who they’ve got.
I still believe he missed a golden opportunity to get more valuable playing time for his youngsters.
The result was an ugly final score of 76-13. Van Winkle said he had no choice but to leave his excellent starting quarterback, Buck Coors in the game for all but the final series, due to the fact that his only other quarterback had suffered a significant hand injury playing safety early in the contest. RCA didn’t run a lot of plays in the second half because they didn’t have to. They scored pretty much every time they touched it, running their smooth triple offense against the helpless Miners defense (and to be fair, PRA’s offense contributed a couple of bad turnovers as well.)
PRA coaches were not upset with Van Winkle after the game, pointing at themselves and their team’s mistakes. Van Winkle wasn’t pleased with the final result, either, and was uncomfortable with being accused of running up the score. He doesn’t want his program to bear that label.
But that doesn’t make what happened okay. Having games turn out like that under any circumstances stand against everything high school sports are supposed to be about.
Cougars linebacker Tanner Applebee recorded five and a half sacks in the game to set a new state record with 27.5 for the season. Van Winkle noted that he made those all those plays all in the first half, and that his defense did not blitz in the second half. Fair point.
While Applebee’s stats were accumulated during the entire season and not in one game, setting any kind of record against outclassed opponent is sort of hollow. Records set in that manner should come with an asterisk. And CHSAA has to make more of an effort to avoid these kinds of scheduling match-ups in the future. One team won on the scoreboard. But nobody really wins.
Disagree? Fire back at me on Twitter @MarkKnudson41. Let’s rumble.