Playing with a “fighter’s mentality” has been the rally cry of the Colorado State Rams’ defense this season. They’re not just talking the talk; this unit -– led by defensive coordinator Marty English -– is walking the walk.

In nearly every quantifiable measure, this year’s defense is better — and in many instances, far better — than the defense which English put on the field in 2016. In retrospect, that was a transitional year for the unit.

Last season, the Rams were run over by the rival Colorado Buffaloes 44-7, a loss which was as damning to the defense as the offense. Colorado State simply was not prepared to play that game, and that was on the coaches. Then, the defense gave up far too many points to Wyoming (38) in a loss, and despite making strides as the season went on — shutting out Fresno State, for example — they couldn’t even slow down Air Force, losing 49-46 and allowing a slew of long-scoring plays.

As the year went on — outside of that AFA debacle — the defense improved, thanks to English learning the capabilities of his new players, while those same players, many of them freshmen, matured during the season.

“There were some games that were real encouraging last year; the San Diego State game, the New Mexico game,” English told the media prior to the season’s first game.. “And there were some games that were real discouraging, and I think they grew up through those. Some of the games were not very positive for us. And they seem to be able to learn from it and bounce back from it.”

The defense has definitely bounced back this year. They’re allowing one fewer touchdown per game compared to last season (23.2 from 30.4), far fewer rushing yards per game (149.2 from 219), and they’re slightly better on third downs as well, allowing opponents to convert on 47.1 percent of attempts.

But the number which may speak the loudest — and best speaks to that “fighter’s mentality” — is the turnover department. For all their efforts last season, English’s defense could only force 14 total turnovers. Through five games this year, they’ve already forced 10.

One simply cannot cook up a conference champion without forcing more turnovers than they allow, which is why, despite their incremental growth last season, the Rams couldn’t win more than seven games — because they couldn’t create those all-important turnovers.

Redshirt junior linebacker Josh Watson, after the Rams’ win over Abilene Christian, explained that the defense’s goal this season is to force two turnovers per game (which they’re doing) and to be a plus-2 in the turnover differential department every game. Against Oregon State, they accomplished the second goal, and they were a plus-1 versus Hawaii, resulting in two of their three wins on the year.

How is CSU forcing far more turnovers than last season?

“On the field, be the aggressor,” redshirt senior linebacker Evan Colorito, who relayed what he’s learned from English over the last five years. “Do your job, be the aggressor and have a fighter’s mentality. He’s always talking about, ‘Every game’s a street fight.’ And don’t stop swinging until the game’s over.”

Speaking of a street fight, head coach Mike Bobo said earlier in the year that English was a former boxer. He’s passed on that fighter’s mentality from boxing, a characteristic he’s had to keep close to his chest through his 30-year college coaching career, too.

Before becoming a coach, the Colorado native was an All-State player at Alameda High School, and after one year with Idaho State, played three more years at the University of Northern Colorado. He then spent 16 years coaching at UNC, before moving on to another CSU rival in Wyoming from 2003-2011. Since 2012, English has been with the Rams, first as a defensive coordinator under Jim McElwain, then demoted to linebackers coach in Bobo’s first season (2015) and then promoted back up to D.C. last year.

2016 was a transitional year not only for English in his position, but for the defense, who moved from a 3-4 alignment back to the older-school 4-3 the old coach is more used to teaching. On top of that, key players like Trent Matthews, Kevin Pierre-Lewis and DeAndre Elliott all graduated in 2015. And those three were just in the secondary, which struggled mightily in ’16.

Now, in their second straight year in the 4-3, the defense is much more comfortable overall. Plus, those young guys — like Jamal Hicks, Arjay Jean, Richard King and Toby McBride — each got used to playing at the D-I level last year, giving them a step up going into this season, where each has contributed to the new and improved defense.

“We’re going to have to count on some young guys, some new guys to step in and solidify this whole thing,” English said back in mid-August. He was right, and without the overall improved talent level of the defense, there’s no way this team could be in contention for the Mountain West Conference championship. Which was not only an expectation before the season from outside the locker room, but from inside it, as well.

“I think we’re such a team,” English said when I asked if the Rams could go as far as the defense takes them. “And that’s one of the biggest things. We know how good our offense is, and we know defensively — ‘go do the job you’re supposed to do.’ I think we’re going to be in pretty good shape.”

Not many thought Colorado State would be this effective on defense; looking like a young prize fighter who has all the energy and vigor; all the aggressiveness needed to win that championship belt.

The Rams actually have an imitation championship belt that players will sometimes wear on the sideline, illustrating that all-important “fighter’s mentality.”

Before CSU can truly become the champion — one worthy of a shiny belt (or trophy) — they have seven more regular season games to go. This week, their much-improved defense will be watching Utah State’s face the Rams’ remarkable offense. The Aggies’ defense is arguably the best Mountain West, leading the nation with 16 forced turnovers and four defensive touchdowns, meaning thagt CSU’s defense will not only have to continue to force turnovers, they may need to score, too.

Colorado State (3-2) faces Utah State (3-2) in Logan, Utah on Saturday at 2:30 p.m. MT with the game televised on AT&T Sports Network.