Are the Buffs Ram-Tough?

This is football country.
Oh, sure, Coloradans have embraced their late-arriving, lovable Rockies, which makes everyone feel very big-league and connected to the ghosts of Ty Cobb and Jackie Robinson. Scratching their heads, fans also learned that Peter Forsberg isn't allowed to make a two-line pass, and when the Stanley Cup was unexpectedly dumped in their laps--it was like winning the lottery--they were probably more shocked than they let on.

On the rare occasions when the region's benighted basketball teams, professional and collegiate, manage to emerge from the darkness for a moment, Coloradans stuff the joint and cheer. Witness the Nuggets' playoff upset of the Seattle Sonics a couple of seasons back, and the CU Buffs' startling return to the NCAA tournament last spring.

But this is still football country.
By all accounts, our generally fit, active citizenry would rather ski the glorious back bowls at Vail or pedal a bike over Loveland Pass than sit in a stadium or vegetate with a six-pack in front of the boob tube. Good for them. But when it comes to spectator sports, football holds a place in the Colorado heart that Dante Bichette and Joe Sakic still can't quite reach.

Honestly, now. Which do you recall more vividly--John Elway engineering The Drive or the Avs' Cup-winning game against Florida? (Those who remember the final score was 8-1, go to the head of the class.) Which event has stayed longer with you? Michael Westbrook's miracle catch in Michigan Stadium or the Rockies' historic playoff series versus Atlanta?

Which golfer won the International out at Castle Pines a few weeks back? Pretty tough. What number did Floyd Little wear a few decades back? Not so tough.

So buckle on the pads and fasten the chin strap. Here comes the kickoff.
The first major event of the local football season will come this Sunday, of course, when the Broncos host their old divisional rivals from Kansas City. Between John Elway's injured right arm (the most discussed American appendage since John Bobbitt's) and destitute Pat Bowlen's plea for corporate welfare, the opener looms large for a very good team that, when last we saw them in a game that counted, got their Super Bowl-bound butts kicked by the newcomers from Jacksonville. Dressed in circus costumes now and banged up, they could have their hands full.

The most interesting early-season football game, however, could be the one played Sep-tember 6 at Folsom Field in Boulder between Colorado and Colorado State.

First, the Buffs: Rick Neuheisel's kids are once more tabbed for greatness. The preseason polls rank them anywhere from first in the nation (The Sporting News) to twelfth (Athlon), and although they lost quarterback Koy Detmer to graduation, senior replacement John Hessler--a backup for three years--already ranks ninth on the school's all-time passing list. Top receiver Rae Carruth is also gone, but all that means is that the equally talented Phil Savoy will see more balls thrown his way. The rest of the receiving corps isn't exactly ground buffalo: Chris Anderson is rock steady on third downs, and the coaches are sky-high on young Darrin Chiaverini, who had seven catches in last year's Holiday Bowl and figures to loom prominently in the Buffs' offense.

With the possible exception of young linebackers, the Colorado defense is as staunch as ever, led by a pair of huge defensive tackles--Ryan Olson and (here's one of the great roster names for you) Viliami Maumau.

The running game? Lendon Henry is gone, but little Herchell Troutman, just 5-7 and 190 pounds, has shown his mettle for two years. Buffs fans may be surprised to learn that their club had the 62nd-ranked running game in Division 1A last season--not exactly the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse--but the sleeper this year is junior Marlon Barnes. Neuheisel says Barnes must improve his pass blocking, but the kid can run the ball. Just watch. They won't be 62nd again.

The bottom line on the Buffs: Florida, Nebraska, Florida State and Colorado are the only schools that won ten-plus games in 1994, 1995 and 1996, and the first three have all won the mythical national title.

Is this the year for Neuheisel's bunch? "Last year I came up in front of [the media] and said our goal was to win the national championship," he told the assembled reporters on Media Day. "I'm not going to say that this year." However, he also said, "We want to be to the point where we keep pushing the edge...I don't want people to talk about Florida, Florida State and Nebraska and then talk about Colorado in the next group down."

The guys who always find themselves a couple of groups down (and sixty miles north) would like nothing more than to turn the trick a week from Saturday.

While Colorado State University continues to spin-dry its library books and, for all we know, its chemistry professors, in the wake of last month's killer flood, fifth-year coach Sonny Lubick is quietly getting ready to put his best-ever team onto the field at Hughes Stadium.

The Rams are picked on every list to win the Pacific division of the Western Athletic Conference, but touchdown-happy, defensively challenged WAC football has never stirred the souls of the national pollsters. Before a down is played, the Rams are ranked near the bottom of the Top 25. The Rams have 25 wins in the past three seasons--pretty fair for a program that was once the laughingstock of the game.

CSU's imminent date with the big bad Buffs--rivals who, frankly, never give them much respect--could change all that. A close reading of the matchups reveals that this could be a much closer game than most people expect. For one thing, Lubick has got the best quarterback in the WAC (an honor usually reserved for the incumbent at Brigham Young) in senior Moses Moreno. With over 2,900 yards passing last season (third-best in school history), he was sixteenth in the nation, and among QBs returning in 1997, he's fifth, trailing only such big-name guns as Tennessee's Peyton Manning and Miami's Ryan Clement. Since first stepping on the field as a slender 6-2, 180-pounder, Moreno has gained 35 pounds of muscle and 500 pounds of confidence. His two favorite targets, Geoff Turner and Paul Turner (unrelated), are also back, and the Rams boast one of college football's biggest offensive lines, which averages 6-5 and 305 pounds. Anthony Cesario, a 6-6, 300-pound junior guard, is the headliner, but look out for 6-4, 285-pound Mike Newell, whom Lubick calls "as good a center as there is in America. Not just the WAC."

CSU's passing and its Nebraska-like beef could--I say could--mean trouble for the Colorado defense, especially those inexperienced linebackers, and especially if Moreno can also get some production out of his club's questionable one-back running game.

The bad news for the always-underrated guys from Fort Collins is that, in typical WAC fashion, their defense was unbelievably porous last year. The Ram "D" ranked 104th among 111 teams, yielding 458 yards per game, although those numbers got inflated in losses to Oregon, Nebraska and, yes, Colorado. Lubick points out that the Rams' entire secondary was composed of newcomers in 1996, and they stand to improve this season.

"This could be the best football team since I've been at Colorado State," Lubick says. "We have question marks. If we come together, we could be a decent football team."

The understated Lubick is hoping for a lot more than that, of course. The Rams get their first taste in Fort Collins Saturday against another unfettered WAC passing team, Nevada. But they're clearly laying for the Buffs, a rival that disses them, and if Moreno and his two Turners manage to be the last men standing after 90 or 100 points go up on the board (the Buffs won last year 48-34), the Rams just might get their fondest wish.

Too bad the game won't be played where it really belongs--in Mile High Stadium, before a howling crowd of 77,000 divided in their partisanship. After years of second-class citizenship, the Rams deserve as much, and the Buffs have long since established their marquee value. Call it the Mountain Bowl.

The most exciting (and dispiriting) finish of the baseball season was played out Saturday afternoon in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. The players were five feet tall.

For those grownups who missed it, here's what happened in the championship game of this year's Little League World Series:

Gavin Fabian, from Mission Viejo, California, pitched his third game in five days and took a 4-1 lead (and a no-hitter!) into the bottom of the sixth and last inning against the team from Guadalupe, Mexico. Clearly exhausted, little Gavin walked the first two batters and went 2-0 on the third before manager Jim Gattis--the man intent on ruining this kid's arm--took him out. Relief pitcher Adam Sorgi evened the count to Gabriel Alvarez at 2-2 before Alvarez smashed a game-tying homer over the left-centerfield fence. The Mexican kids went on to win 5-4 on a walk, a single and an error.

Good for Guadalupe. Their thrillingly improbable victory came forty years to the day after Mexico won its first Little League Crown and will rightly go down in sports legend.

Manager Gattis is another story. While several of his young players--the reliever and the kid who made the error among them--tried to take blame for the loss, Gattis publicly blamed it on his club's "attitude." He said his boys started moping and acting like losers as early as the fourth inning, when they had a 3-0 lead. He carped that some hitters, after striking out, came back and actually sat down in the dugout.

Let's hope Gavin Fabian was allowed to sit without taking heat from his skipper. Not even Cy Young or Big Train Johnson pitched three games in five days. But Gattis sent his star out to do it at the age of twelve.

Still wondering why the win-at-any-cost extremists sprinkled through Little League deserve the bad rap they get?

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Bill Gallo
Contact: Bill Gallo