Jamal Hicks: CSU defensive improvements a sign the ‘culture is changing’

Jamal Hicks and Jordan Fogal celebrate. Credit: Ron Chenoy, USA TODAY Sports.
Jamal Hicks and Jordan Fogal celebrate. Credit: Ron Chenoy, USA TODAY Sports.

No offense, but the offense on Saturday left a lot to be desired.

Instead, the Colorado State Rams were led by the defense, first and foremost, all afternoon long as they defeated the New Mexico Lobos 20-18.

“So proud of our defense today,” head coach Mike Bobo said after the win. “They played extremely hard, played extremely well. We gave up a couple plays but we bowed our neck in the red zone and got some stops, which was good to see. And it was a defensive battle.”

It was a crazy, comeback victory by the Rams that was started and basically finished by the defense. And for two straight weeks, this has been a much-improved, different defense we’re seeing out on the gridiron.

Caleb Smith, a little-known redshirt senior until the last two games, set the tone early when he forced a fumble on the second play of the game. CSU’s offense was able to turn that into a quick touchdown, starting from the 11 yard line, for the 7-0 lead.

“Getting into the starting role, coach has been expecting a lot of me,” Smith said after the win. “Being a senior, on the defense. They’ve just been driving, driving, saying I need to produce. So, I’m trying to step up to the plate and do what I can.”

The last two weeks, Smith has recorded nine total tackles, three tackles for a loss, two sacks, two pass breakups and the forced fumble; he’s been a man possessed after being little-known for years.

It wasn’t just that opening drive the Rams defense played well, either. In the first half, New Mexico gained 174 yards and nine first downs, but they could only score three points. CSU forced the Lobos to punt twice after that fumble, and then Jordan Fogal’s huge hit on a fourth down and one from the Rams five yard line turned the ball over on downs.

“That play just explains what we’re about to become as a defense,” Hicks explained of Fogal’s massive hit and stop. “We’ve been ballin’, but we haven’t been ballin’ to our full potential, to be honest. Just expect more of that to come.”

Finally, New Mexico was able to put points on the board with a 29-yard field goal just before the half as CSU led 14-3.

The second half wasn’t as great for the Rams defense. They gave up 15 points to the Lobos, including an 80-yard drive that only took five plays. But, when it mattered most, the D forced two punts on two three-and-outs which set the offense up with two opportunities to win the game.

While Wyatt Bryan missed the first game-winning field goal, he made the second attempt to push the Rams ahead 20-18 as time expired.

That second stop was the biggest of the game because New Mexico only needed to gain one first down to run the clock out, but the Rams were against up to the task.

For the first five games of the year, CSU’s defense was a joke. They allowed 39.6 points per game, including a ton of game-changing, explosive plays. Against Hawaii, Colorado and Florida, the defense looked uninterested in tackling anyone.

And now, they’ve seemingly turned a corner, allowing only 24 points per game the last two weeks, which is a vast improvement.

Need another metric to gauge how much better this unit has played as of late? Consider this: Through the first five games, the Rams had a worst-in-the-country two sacks. The last two weeks, they’ve had nine sacks as well as 17 tackles for a loss.

“It just means the ball is coming out way faster,” Hicks said of the many sacks lately. “It’s harder reads for the quarterback. When them linemen are hitting the quarterbacks, it carries throughout the game…Our D-line has been ballin’ and it’s making my job way easier.”

Besides the better pressure being applied to the quarterbacks, what’s changed to make this defense, which was awful through the first five games, much better lately?

“The biggest thing is just believing in ourselves,” Jamal Hicks said after the win on Saturday. “I can see it. The culture’s changing, the culture’s going in the right direction and I just believe in my guys 100 percent.”

“Losing sparked some fire in a lot of people,” Hicks continued. “You just see one person working harder and the next person started working harder and it just started carrying off.”

It may be the fall, but the weather is quickly turning to winter tonight in Fort Collins, with a heavy dose of snow coming this evening. And the Rams defense is building, like a snowball rolling down a hill, growing bigger and looking to crush anything in its path.

And now at 3-4 on the season, these Rams have realized how they must win, by grinding out games and performing in all three phases of the game.

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