CSU’s bowl loss reflects need to make upgrade on coaching staff

Dec 29, 2015; Tucson, AZ, USA; Nevada Wolf Pack running back James Butler (20) leaps over a Colorado State Rams defender in the third quarter Arizona Bowl at Arizona Stadium. Nevada defeated Colorado State 28-23. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

A head-scratching season for the Colorado State Rams came to a close Tuesday night much like it began: Flashes of brilliant play undone by a glut of mistakes. Untimely penalties, costly turnovers, failures in the red zone, defensive breakdowns, poor tackling and even coaching gaffes (including poor clock management), this season had it all.

In the first ever Arizona Bowl, the Rams were paired against conference foe Nevada (that in itself a slap in the face from the overblown bowl system.) They racked up more than 500 yards of total offense against the Wolf Pack, but too often had to settle for field goals after failing to execute basic plays. After taking a one-point lead with just over three minutes left to play, the soft CSU defense allowed Nevada to drive down the field without putting up much resistance. A late touchdown from running back James Butler, who gained 189 yards on the ground, gave the wrong guys a 28-23 win. A desperation CSU drive in the final seconds ran out of time when young Jordan Vaden – who made several nice plays – failed to get out of bounds to stop the clock that would have allowed time for one more shot at the end zone.

The first edition of Mike Bobo’s Rams underachieved and yet ended up with seven wins and another bowl game. Bobo’s first season will go down as one of the best rookie campaigns in school history. Much of the credit for that needs to go to former coach Jim McElwain, who left an experienced team in place for Bobo and his very inexperienced coaching staff. They didn’t do with it what he would have.

What does all this mean for the future of CSU football? That’s hard to answer right now. There are so many loose ends. Will record-breaking star receiver Rashard Higgins return for his senior year? (Highly doubtful.) What does the impending arrival and immediate eligibility of Georgia transfer quarterback Faton Bauta mean? And what happens with the defensive coordinator position now that Tyson Summers has left Fort Collins to take over as the head coach at Georgia Southern? Graduation is going to hit this roster very hard, especially on defense.

What happens with Higgins is out of Bobo’s control. Best to plan to be without him. But there’s no shortage of skill position talent coming back. Returning quarterback Nick Stevens was hot and cold all season and needs to improve his accuracy. Would Bauta be an upgrade? He barely played in three seasons at Georgia, so there’s not much to go on there. Spring football will likely answer that question.

What Bobo does have control over is whom he brings on board to run his defense. Like his predecessors, McElwain and Steve Fairchild, Bobo is an offensive coach. Yet when CSU was at its heights, it was under defensive-minded head coach Sonny Lubick. That’s something to consider moving forward.

There can be no debate about it. Colorado State badly needs improvement on defense. The tackling all season was below par and it was poor tackling that ultimately cost them the bowl game. Upgrades in talent level (recruiting) and performance (development) will have to happen before CSU can compete with the best teams on its schedule. That makes the hire of the next defensive coordinator critical to the future of the program.

Bobo needs to take his cue from his counterpart at Colorado, Mike MacIntyre, and be willing to step outside his comfort zone to replace Summers. He needs to look for a veteran, experienced defensive coach and give him control of that side of the ball. MacIntyre did this when he hired veteran Jim Leavitt to take over the Buffs defense and it’s paying dividends in Boulder. While it’s nice having buddies who “have your back” as loyal assistants, it’s far better to have a veteran who has been through the wars and brings much more to the table than someone you’re giving a first-time coordinator job to.

CSU didn’t lose to Nevada because they were overmatched in talent (as they were a year ago against Utah). This time, they were favored because they had the better players, but as we saw many times during this disjointed season, that doesn’t always mean you have the better “team.” The best teams are put together by the best coaching staffs, and those feature a mix of young, fresh-faced guys with new approaches and veterans who bring old school experience and savvy. It’s time for Bobo to start to balance those scales by finding a veteran defensive coordinator, or next season will look a lot like this one.

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