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QB Woes Drive Colorado State's Downturn

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Second-year coach Jim McElwain is hoping to guide Colorado State to only its second winning season since 2003. Doug Pensinger/Getty Images.
Second-year coach Jim McElwain is hoping to guide Colorado State to only its second winning season since 2003. Doug Pensinger/Getty Images.

A pair of coaching changes, some major athletic department shuffling and the best-intentioned game plans haven’t yet proven to be the answer, and neither has Rand McNally.

Colorado State University has simply fallen off the college football map for the better part of the last decade, and while second-year coach Jim McElwain and athletic director Jack Graham try to get their bearings, Rams Nation is desperately yearning for a return to the glory years — or at least a season above .500.

The recent green-and-gold malaise that’s settled above the otherwise vibrant and growing city of Fort Collins has made it easy to forget — even here in the heart of Rams Country — just how good CSU was during a stretch that began in the mid-1990s and ran through the early part of the 2000s under former coach Sonny Lubick.

Here’s a rundown of the Rams’ impressive accomplishments during that 1994-03 span:

  • All 10 years produced winning seasons, including the only four seasons (1994, 1997, 2000, 2002) of double-digit wins in the program’s history.
  • Eight bowl appearances, including a trio of trips to both the Holiday and Liberty Bowls.
  • Six outright or shared Western Athletic and Mountain West Conference titles.
  • Eight seasons where the program was ranked in the Associated Press poll at one point or another.

Lubick’s Rams, however, fell to 4-7 in 2004, ending the program’s 10-season run with seven-or-more wins. Rather than proving to be a one-year dry spell, it’s turned into a nine-year drought that cost the well-liked Lubick and his successor, former CSU standout quarterback Steve Fairchild, their jobs.

In fact, in contrast to the 1994-03 stretch above, here’s what the last nine seasons have produced in Fort Collins:

  • A single winning campaign: A 7-6 finish in Fairchild’s first season in 2008.
  • Two bowl appearances, the most recent a New Mexico Bowl berth coming at the end of that ’08 season.
  • No conference titles or appearances in the Associated Press poll.

The Rams’ overall decline has not only been striking, it’s been a program-wide tumble with the coaching, recruiting and on-field play falling well short of expectations and previous standards.

Nowhere has that been more noticeable than at quarterback.

During the program’s heyday, all-conference quarterbacks like Anthoney Hill, Moses Moreno, Matt Newton and Bradlee VanPelt guided the Rams. The latter three, in fact, combined to win four conference offensive player of the year awards.

But since the fiery VanPelt’s departure after the ’03 season, CSU has failed to have a quarterback garner first- or second-team All-MWC recognition and hasn’t fielded a scoring offense ranked above 58th in the FBS.

The Rams thought they had their QB woes solved after Pete Thomas’ record-setting freshman season in 2010, but Thomas sprained his knee late in the 2011 season and then announced he was leaving the program almost immediately after Fairchild was fired that fall. That threw an unwelcome, out-of-the-gate hurdle in the path of McElwain, who spent the previous four seasons as Alabama’s offensive coordinator.

Chiefly due to injuries, the Rams had trio of quarterbacks start games last season in Garrett Grayson, Conner Smith and M.J. McPeek. None of the three set MWC defenses on fire, though, and the Rams finished 4-8 in McElwain’s debut season, ranking an all-too-familiar 100th in the nation in both total and scoring offense.

McPeek has since graduated and Thomas is the favorite to start at North Carolina State this fall after sitting out in 2012, leaving Grayson, a junior, and Smith, a sophomore, battling for the Rams’ starting job.

Grayson, who started CSU’s first five games a year ago before breaking his collarbone, looked to be running ahead of the strong-armed Smith for most of the spring, and was one of the standouts in the spring game, completing 16-of-28 passes for 153 yards and a pair of TDs. McElwain, though, wasn’t ready to make any firm decisions in late April.

“I’m not ready to anoint a guy just yet,” McElwain told the Denver Post in a post-spring interview. “There’s another phase we’re moving into. We have to see how they (Grayson and Smith) handle the football team over the summer.”

CSU has a potential new stadium in the works and also has the makings of a turnaround 2013 season with 16 returning starters, including a strong offensive line, a potentially-potent ground game and some proven playmakers on defense, but until the Rams find a capable QB, their decade-long funk will continue to fester at the foot of the Rockies.