In any other season, a gust of wind or an act of God would have steered the visitors' last-ditch field goal try through the uprights. In any other season, the Colorado State Rams--the Rodney Dangerfields of football on the high plains--would again have found themselves reeling off to the dressing room in a funk, there to slam helmets against lockers, drop weary heads between knees and curse their fate.
But on Saturday the ball sailed wide right. It was San Diego State placekicker Peter Holt who left the field with his chin planted on his number. It was CSU head coach Sonny Lubick who got the Gatorade shower. It was the Rams who pulled out a close one, 19-17. This time they had survived all the old horrors--a dropped touchdown pass, a muffed punt, a failed rush on fourth-and-one and a bout of heat exhaustion that struck their best pass receiver.
This time the Rams had even overcome another bizarre call by the notorious referees of the Western Athletic Conference, a call which handed a third-quarter, go-ahead touchdown to the San Diegans after a partially blocked CSU punt. In fact, that fired the Rams up.
Can you keep a secret?
The Rams' win Saturday gave them a 4-0 record, their best start in seventeen years. Going back to last season, they have now won seven straight--equaling a school mark set in 1928. After upsetting mighty Brigham Young on the road September 17, the Rams crept into the twenty-fifth and final spot in the USA Today/CNN coaches' poll, their first national ranking since 1977. Until Saturday, their staunch defense hadn't allowed a 100-yard rusher since 1992. Including Marshall Faulk.
On the normally placid Fort Collins campus, green-and-gold-clad crazies are sprouting like spring flowers, and in his second year, Lubick is being hailed as the messiah who will finally heal CSU's bruised and abused football program.
You can feel a new surge of current. On Saturday the traffic outside cozy Hughes Stadium was so jammed up that thousands didn't get inside until the middle of the second quarter. The Rams sold hundreds of standing-room tickets. With 32,618 fans crammed into the place, concessionaires ran out of food.
"Couple of problems," said new athletic director Tom Jurich. "Good problems that we'll be happy to fix."
This Saturday the team will take on winless New Mexico in Albuquerque. On October 8 they face their biggest road test in twenty years--the ferocious Desert Swarm defense of sixth-ranked Arizona. But even if the Rams lose that one, they have a great shot at their first-ever WAC title and a trip to the Holiday Bowl.
"Everything's different this year," says junior fullback E.J. Watson. "We're playing very focused. We believe in each other. We believe in our coaches. We believe we can win every time out."
So everything's fine, right?
Well, yes. If you don't mind the curse of second-class citizenship.
The Rams may be 4-0, opponents' field goals may be hooking wide at last, and Sonny Lubick may be the Second Coming of Vince Lombardi. But whatever dreams CSU fans had Saturday afternoon of stealing the local football limelight lasted about an hour and a half. That's how long it was before Michael Westbrook made The Catch. You know. Number 7 Colorado against Number 4 Michigan. National television. Six seconds left. Kordell Stewart back. Sixty-four-yard desperation bomb. Carom off the pads. Westbrook in the end zone. Hands out. Touchdown. Miracle. CU 27, Michigan 26.
Try knocking that off Page One. Or out of Ron Zappolo's mouth.
But then, that's how it's always been. Colorado's Golden Buffaloes, powerhouses who have spent 89 straight weeks in the national polls, who beat Notre Dame in the Orange Bowl, who have made 43 national and regional TV appearances since 1985, are the Big Men on Campus in this state. They are the guys who knock CSU into the shadows even when they don't bother to play them.
In fact, it's been easy for Coloradans in general to ignore the Rams. After all, isn't CSU the school that, back in its early days as Colorado Agricultural College, used to have a cheer that went: "Hayseed, turnip, pumpkin, squash. CAC we are, by gosh!"
Isn't this the place where, if you look just beyond the rim of the stadium, you can still see horses and sheep grazing?
Isn't this the team that went 2-21 in 1987 and 1988 under Leon Fuller? Isn't this the school that indulged the last, stormy reign of ex-Ohio State tyrant Earle Bruce? And that so alienated its fans with poor teams and bad attitudes in recent years that the faithful stayed away in droves?
Well, that's over. Almost like magic. Players say they will lie down in the road for their smart, savvy, modest new coach, who was CSU's offensive coordinator from 1982 to 1984 before stints as an assistant at Stanford and Miami. Last year Lubick got the Rams to 5-6, including those three straight wins at the end of the season, and the fans have returned.
"Our first goal was to get the community back," said athletic director Jurich. "They've seen a lot of turmoil in the last few years, and we really wanted to overcome that."
"When I watched the BYU game on TV, I felt like I was playing in it," said Chris Wolff, a senior from Novato, California. "It was a great stepping stone for the whole school. We've never had much school spirit, but now it's growing. And just seeing a little coverage on Denver TV is a thrill. Until last week I'd never seen the CU and CSU logos on the same sports broadcast. I guess that's the way it will always be. Until we can prove ourselves for the duration, we won't get the respect. But at least the start of this season is a big step down the road."
"Credibility!" declared Lynne Sterkel, a fifth-grade teacher who graduated from CSU in 1983. "Integrity! He has respect for the team and a winning, enthusiastic attitude that's contagious. He also realizes the value of education."
Including his own. Drenched and happy after the San Diego win ("I'm getting to like these cold showers"), he tapped the side of his head with his knuckles and said: "Knock on wood. I've gotta make some better decisions. All I can say about the end of the game is that somebody on our team must be living right. I guess the kick was wide right. Well, we'll take those wide rights anytime we can get 'em."
Pregame, Sterkel and her friend Gus Johnson were drinking a creation of his called Gus's Garbage Pail Ale in the sunny parking lot. But this season they were not drowning their sorrows.
"I was here in 1981," Sterkel said, "and I'd like to think many of the people here today have also been loyal fans for many years. We're on the map now, but it hasn't been easy."
True. Among the many gruesome seasons in Colorado State football history--the school's all-time record is just 361-435, with 33 ties--1981 has a special place. That was the year the Rams lost their first six games under coach Sark Arslanian, then lost the other six under his replacement, the immortal Chester Caddis. Caddis barely had time to change his underwear: He was fired before he could get to spring practice.
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Make no mistake. Things are looking up in Fort Collins. Even if Bill McCartney's glamorous Buffs steal a dozen scenes this year. "They have a good program. We're not trying to follow in their footsteps--we're trying to find our own niche," Jurich says icily. Even if Arizona plasters them in Tucson. Even if they aren't a "team of destiny." Says Lubick: "I don't know what that word is, that `destiny.'" Even if Subway keeps running out of sandwiches at the stadium.
Just ask E. J. Watson, whose 56-yard run from his own goal line changed the course of events Saturday. "I've been through the bad times and the good," he said quietly. "At times, players have not even liked playing here, because they say the crowd support is what we need. But that's changed. Today they came out. They were loud. They were as much as part of the game as we were. That means a lot. This is a great ride we're on right now, and hopefully this ride won't stop soon...I'll tell you. It's a great feeling."
He paused longer than you might expect a rock-solid, 208-pound kid to pause, gathering himself. "A great feeling.