Nick Stevens’ superb play underappreciated since return

Nick Stevens. Credit: Ron Chenoy, USA TODAY Sports

Nick Stevens, CSU’s savior?

Simply, without Stevens stepping up to fill the void Collin Hill left when he was injured, there’s no way the Colorado State Rams would be 5-4, one win away from playing in a fourth straight bowl game.

“In my opinion, if you’re going to have a good football team and you’re going to have a chance to be a championship football team, you’ve got to have a great quarterback,” Rams head coach Mike Bobo said of Stevens Monday during his weekly press conference. “It’s taking care of the ball, it’s making that play whether it’s with your legs or a progression on a third down; you’ve got to have great quarterback play.”

Stevens, who was “the guy” last year, as CSU’s starting quarterback, also began 2016 as the team’s starter behind center. One game – one terrible performance by the entire team, led by his two forced interceptions – and Stevens was benched.

In came Faton Bauta. Then, out went Bauta, as the graduate transfer from Georgia was benched too, in favor of the true freshman Hill.

Hill’s athletic attributes, namely a stronger arm and better accuracy than the other two, had Colorado State fans pumped. Hill was recruited out of South Carolina as the future quarterback of the program, and while it may have started earlier than originally hoped, the future kicked off in 2016. Hill went 2-2 as a starter, including the Utah State game he was injured in, twice throwing for 300-plus yards, with eight touchdowns and only two interceptions.

But, while running and doing everything in his power to help his team win against the Aggies, Hill tore his ACL and his season was done on Oct. 8. That’s when it became Stevens’ team again. It was an honor the redshirt junior didn’t take lightly.

“I think the difference is his approach on the field and letting the guys know, ‘I’m the guy,’” Bobo said of Stevens’ attitude change following his benching early on in the year. “To play that position, you’ve got to have a borderline cockiness about you. And he’s a ‘chill’ guy, has an even temperament which is great for a quarterback.

“But at the same time, you’ve got to have a demanding presence that, ‘When I step into this huddle and we line up, if I say something, it goes.’ He used the opportunity when he was out to start to try to establish that. … I’ve heard him more the last couple weeks than the year and a half of demanding guys and encouraging, both. Speaking up and taking charge.”

The Rams, led by Stevens, came back to beat Utah State. Then, they nearly came back in a wild and wacky finish at then-No. 15 Boise State. Against UNLV and Fresno State, two straight wins, Stevens has played the best football of his college career in terms of making the right reads, not forcing the ball or holding onto it too long and by making sure he’s not turning the ball over.

“He’s played at a level that’s given us a chance in the four games he’s played in,” Bobo said of Stevens. “We’re down when he comes in against Utah State. And it’s third and 12 maybe after we got a holding call when he hits Michael Gallup down to the one. I think that tied it. Boise, we didn’t obviously win, but he played very well in the last two football games. The quarterback play has been really good. As a result, we’ve been more productive on offense.”

The numbers speak for themselves. Against UNLV, CSU led 35-0 at halftime and won 42-23. Last week, the Rams blanked the Fresno State Bulldogs 37-0 in what Bobo called the most-complete game of the season for his team, admitting there were still points left off the board.

Stevens hasn’t put up spectacular numbers – 220.3 yards and two touchdowns per game – but he has taken care of the ball well, not turning it over once since coming back in, while clicking with his teammates better than ever before. That’s been seen in the relationship which has formed with Michael Gallup, who has 20 receptions for 308 yards and three touchdowns with Stevens as his QB. Their being on the same page was seen most clearly in the 36-yard, back-shoulder pass touchdown from Stevens to Gallup which was the nail in UNLV’s coffin three weeks ago.

“He’s not the guy that’s going to throw for over 500 yards, but you know what you’re going to get from Nick every single week: That’s just excellence,” running back Izzy Matthews said after the Fresno State win last Saturday. “He’s a student of the game and you really can’t ask for more. He made every single pass he had to tonight.”

Now, Colorado State (5-4, 3-2 MW) faces one of their toughest tests of the season against Air Force in Colorado Springs, a place the Rams haven’t won against their rival since 2002. With the Falcons’ triple-option attack which controls the clock, Bobo admitted Monday it’s even more imperative this week to capitalize as many times as possible on offense.

That puts even more pressure on Stevens, but he seems ready to handle the load.

“You can’t get complacent, especially at the end of the year,” Stevens said after the Fresno win. “You have to keep getting better because everybody you play is going to keep getting better.”

Thankfully for Ram fans, Stevens keeps getting better, it seems, with every week he plays.

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