Albuquerque, NM (SportsNetwork.com) - The Colorado State Rams head back to Albuquerque for the second time in a span of just over a month as they clash with the Washington State Cougars in the New Mexico Bowl on Saturday afternoon.
Kicking off the 2013-14 bowl season the Rams, who blew away New Mexico in this same stadium (66-42) back on Nov. 16, won three of their last four outings during the regular season. Colorado State, which lost the first two games and three of the first four, enter the weekend with their first winning record in the regular season since 2005, earning a spot in a bowl game for the first time since 2008.
As a head coach he has never faced off against Washington State while on the sidelines, but CSU's Jim McElwain shouldn't be all that unfamiliar with the Cougars since he played quarterback less than 70 miles away from Pullman at Eastern Washington in Cheney.
Over on the other side, Washington State had an up-and-down campaign as it split 12 outings. The team began with a close loss against Auburn (31-24) and followed that with a 10-7 victory against USC in the Pac-12 Conference opener the first week of September. During the middle of the season, the Cougars dropped three straight league dates before taking down Arizona and Utah. However, WSU closed with a 27-17 loss to Washington in their annual battle for the Apple Cup.
"Definitely frustrating," WSU quarterback Connor Halliday said of the loss to the Huskies. "I'm real close with the seniors on this team, so it sucks to go out this way. Just a tough loss all the way around."
Despite the loss to Washington, the Cougars still took a major step forward under head coach Mike Leach as the team advanced from just three wins a season earlier, a progression not lost on Halliday.
"Yeah, we definitely took a step forward. The biggest thing would be our mentality ... I don't know if that would have been the case last year or two years ago. The culture has changed, and Coach Leach knows what he's doing."
From a postseason standpoint, the Cougars have an all-time record of 6-4 dating back to the 1916 Rose Bowl, a 14-0 victory over Brown. More recently, the program took out Texas in the 2003 Holiday Bowl, 28-20. For the Rams, their postseason mark stands at 5-7.
This game marks the first-ever meeting between these two schools on the football field. Colorado State won this event back in 2008 versus Fresno State, 40-35, while last year's matchup between Arizona and Nevada went in favor of the Wildcats by a single point, 49-48.
One of the top passers in the country in terms of yardage, Halliday had a season of ups and downs for the Cougars. He set high marks in the Oregon game in October as he converted 58-of-89 passes for 557 yards, resulting in four touchdowns, but the Ducks were more than willing to concede all of those numbers in what turned into a 62-38 blowout. Halliday finished with 4,187 yards and 28 TDs through the air, but at the same time he was picked off 21 times.
Out on the receiving end, Halliday turned to Gabe Marks, Vince Mayle and Dom Williams, each of whom caught at least six TDs for the program.
While the passing attack at WSU ranked fourth in the country with 364.5 ypg, the running game was as weak as they came in the college ranks, placing last among 123 teams with a paltry 58.7 ypg, not all that uncommon for a Leach-led team.
Defensively, the Cougars were lit up for 446.6 ypg, ranking the group 101st in the country. The secondary was the most vulnerable as it surrendered 262.6 ypg (107th), although opponents still had to keep an eye on Deone Bucannon who not only led the unit with 109 tackles, he also tied for the team high with five interceptions and paced the group with three forced fumbles. Xavier Cooper gives the squad some punch at the point of attack, delivering 13 of his 47 total stops behind the line of scrimmage, as well as a team-best 4.5 sacks.
Colorado State's offense has been driven by the efforts of Kapri Bibbs who emerged as one of the top running backs in the country this season, becoming just the third player in program history to earn Walter Camp postseason honors. Bibbs didn't make his first start of the season until Week 6 versus San Jose State, but still he set the single-season school record for rushing touchdowns (28) and points (168), the latter averaging out to 12.9 per game which ranks him second in the nation.
"It's nice to see this recognition come for Colorado State football and for this University," said coach McElwain. "With all individual awards, they're only made possible by everyone doing their jobs around that individual. This speaks volumes not only for Kapri, but more so for the efforts of our football team."
Bibbs, who finished with 1,572 net rushing yards, had a stretch were he scored at least three touchdowns in six straight games, reaching the end zone six times alone in the win over New Mexico.
The Colorado State offense averaged 461.2 ypg this season to rank 28th in the country, thanks in part to quarterback Garrett Grayson who converted 62.1 percent of his passes for 3,327 yards and 21 TDs, against 10 interceptions on 428 attempts. Rashard Higgins and Kivon Cartwright did the most damage down the field with six TDs apiece through the air.
The big concern for the Rams will be how well their secondary will hold up against the WSU passing attack, especially after the group was stung for 265.4 ypg this season, ranking them 109th in the country. The run defense was much more aggressive (152.2 ypg allowed), but the guys up front and in the trenches will have to adjust their mode of attack in order to get after Halliday in the pocket more than anything else. Shaquil Barrett and his 20.5 tackles for loss and 12 sacks will be on display for all the world to see.