Rams Roundtable: San Diego State

Friday means Rams Roundtable at Today, we are joined by Mike Brohard of the Loveland Reporter-Herald, Brian Roth, play-by-play voice of the Rams, Joel Cantalamessa of, our own Matt Stephens as well as Kelly Lyell of the Fort Collins Coloradoan. They'll talk Ram running game, the SDSU offense and offer their predictions on a final score of this weekend's contest with the Aztecs. What did we learn from this week's win over New Mexico? What did that game do for the Rams' confidence level going into the last three games of the season?
Brohard: Some of the players are starting to use the B-word with more frequency. At this point, the Rams have beaten the teams they are supposed to, and struggled against the expected teams. I think the next two weeks are games that would be somewhat on the bubble in those terms. If they were to win this week on the road, it would be a major step forward for the program.
Roth: We learned that New Mexico is really, really bad. After seeing them in person, they are worse than I had previously expected.....I'm still scratching my head as to how CSU lost to the Lobos last season. We know CSU plays very well at home and we know they play very well against bad football teams. It will be interesting to see how the Rams use this win heading to San Diego. For the first time this season CSU will follow up a victory with a game against a team that is not in the top-10. Remember, the Rams faced both TCU and Utah after their two previous wins. The game Saturday marks a legitimate chance to build on the success of a win.
Cantalamessa: We continue to see signs that CSU is improving, and it is certainly easier to see when the Rams face inferior opponents like UNLV and New Mexico. The Rams dominated both lines of scrimmage, and used a powerful running game to control the clock and set up big passing plays. This is the type of football fans have been hoping to see out of the Rams this year, and the true test will be doing it against a much-improved San Diego State team that has vaulted into bowl eligibility for the first time in more than a decade.
Lyell: We saw, for the second time in three weeks, that CSU is far better than the worst teams in the Mountain West Conference, but sandwiched between those was a 59-6 reality check against one of the best. The New Mexico win, though, gave the Rams some momentum to carry into the final three games of the season and, for one week anyway, the chance to talk about winning out and becoming bowl-eligible.
Stephens: Win or lose, Colorado State can't buy a call to save its life. For a while I thought maybe it was just the student in me feeling a little bias against poor officiating, but even in a 38-10 victory, the Rams got hosed on quite a few no-calls on pass interferences that should have gone against New Mexico. Also, when it comes to reviews, I don't think CSU has had any go its way since Week 1 against Colorado. I was standing right in front of Marquis Law long reception that got called back after an official review with a perfect angle on the ball - there's no way there was conclusive evidence to call that back. Colorado State rushed for better than 320 yards a week ago and we are beginning to see a pattern - when the Rams run the ball well, the offense clicks and the team wins. San Diego State comes into this one with a more stout defense than in seasons past, giving up 151 yards per game on the ground - good for third place in the MWC this season. How do you see this match-up coming out and can the Rams win without a big game from their running game?
Brohard: This is a defense growing into the Rocky Long system. Wyoming hit the Aztecs for some yards, and I would expect the Rams will do well on the ground ... just maybe not to the tune of 250 yards again.
Roth: I don't see any reason the Rams cannot run the ball on Saturday. I know San Diego State has played well this year and their D is improved, but I just think the Rams are improved enough offensively that they can move the ball on the Aztecs. BYU ran for 271 yards versus San Diego State and I see the Rams being successful on the ground. As always, this will be a major key. The run sets up the play action in this CSU's pretty simple stuff.
Cantalamessa: As always, the Rams go as their running game goes. As Steve Fairchild has said, the success of the offense is predicated on the team running the ball effectively. San Diego State's 3-3-5 defensive scheme under Rocky Long will pose challenges for the CSU offensive line as it is designed to be an attacking, bringing pressure from disguised places. In a 3-3-5, the defense rushes four men on every play just like a 4-3 does, but the fourth rusher could be anyone on the field. It will be the first time most of CSU's young/inexperienced offensive line has seen such a scheme. Where CSU might benefit is that Fairchild uses a lot of zone blocking schemes, so the Rams may not care where the defender lines, but rather where the defender goes once the ball is snapped. Offensive linemen are expected to stop any defender from penetrating through the play side gaps (the side to where the ball is going). Regardless, the SDSU defense is no TCU or Utah, and the Rams should be able to move the ball on the ground with some consistency. The Rams have gotten good performances from Leonard Mason and Chris Nwoke of late.
Lyell: CSU has proven it can't win without a running game, although it did get away with it once - against Idaho. The Rams' passing scheme is primarily based on play-action, so if there's no threat of a run, there's no reason for the defense to pay attention to the fake handoffs that instead slow the quarterback down and give him less time to make his reads and get rid of the ball against an all-out pass rush. I think the Rams will be able to run the ball effectively against San Diego State and pass well, too. But I don't think they'll be able to keep pace offensively with a high-powered San Diego State offense.
Stephens: Whether or not the Rams can get a strong rushing attack going depends on whether or not Leonard Mason gets some solid playing time - starting him would probably be the best scenario. Chris Nwoke hasn't looked too shabby, especially against UNLV and New Mexico, but then again, it's UNLV and New Mexico. Every time Nwoke touches the ball I get nervous that fumble-itis will set back in.
I know Raymond Carter is getting healthy again and looked strong in limited play versus the Lobos, but how do you argue against a guy like Mason averaging 6.8 yards per carry? Does winning depend on the run game? Oh yes. San Diego State has always been known as a team with an explosive offense and one capable of moving the football. What has changed for them this year that has allowed them to put all the pieces in place for a successful season? Is is a matter of what Ronnie Hillman has brought to the team in terms of a rushing threat or has the team developed in other ways?
Brohard: Hillman opened up a lot of things. The passing game was in place last year, but there was no balance. Now you add in a back that can break off a 93-yard touchdown run and there are so many components for a defense to deal with, they can't cheat. I think it will be interesting to see how SDSU fares against TCU and Utah.
Roth: I think this team, and program for that matter, have developed a level of toughness that we have not seen in recent years. All the credit in the world goes to Brady Hoke for changing the culture down there. With that being said, I really believe the running game is more of a product of the great passing game SDSU has. Teams need to try and stop quarterback Ryan Lindley and the receivers in Sampson and Brown on the outside. That opens up a lot for Hillman. I will be curious to see the type of numbers Hillman puts up next year with Sampson and Brown both playing in the NFL.  
Cantalamessa: Ronnie Hillman has helped considerably, but Hillman didn't necessarily have a good game versus Wyoming last week, and yet San Diego State still scored 48 on the Cowboys, with big success through the air. Ryan Lindley makes the offense go. He is one of the best quarterbacks in the Mountain West Conference and he has two future NFL wide receivers to throw to. Offensive coordinator Al Borges has done a fantastic job developing the offense, and the Aztecs have a more balanced attack now.
Lyell: Ronnie Hillman has given the Aztecs the ground game they lacked last year to keep defenses honest, and the passing game has gotten better the more quarterback Ryan Lindley and receivers DeMarco Sampson and Vincent Brown have been together. This is their third year together now, and that experience together really shows.
Stephens: It can't be attributed to any player other than Ronnie Hillman, in my opinion. There is the fact that this team has had a full season of Brady Hoke under its belt, but the passing attack is pretty much the same with both DeMarco Sampson and Vincent Brown returning this season and quarterback Ryan Lindley has, honestly, been a disappointment. Sure he's thrown for a lot of yards, but his completion percentage is just horrible for a guy many thought would be an NFL prospect at 53.6 percent - lower than both his freshman and sophomore seasons.
Hillman's 905 yards on the season thus far is nearly double that of Brandon Sullivan's - who led the Aztecs on the ground a year ago - totals from 2009. The Aztecs average 283 yards per game through the air and have the two top receivers in the MWC in terms of receiving yards per game. Colorado State's defense has had its difficulties against opposing passing teams this season (225 yards per game against). Does the game come down to how well the Rams can defend the pass this weekend?
Brohard: Yes. Shaquille Bell has played better as of late, but DeAngelo Wilkinson has given up some deep balls. The Aztecs will test both throughout the game. Ryan Lindley doesn't get sacked much, so a strong pass rush would help.
Roth: I know this, CSU will work from the outside to the inside this week versus the Aztec offense. The Rams will do their best to not let Sampson and Brown beat them on the outside. If those two get going, CSU will give up a ton of points on Saturday night. You have to take them away and then take your chances with Hillman on the ground. If the Rams can do that, then they have a chance in a contest where scoring is in the 20's.
Cantalamessa: It certainly does. The Rams have shown they are susceptible against the pass, and have not been good in Larry Kerr's bend-but-don't-break defense that is designed to have the defenders always keep the ball in front of them. Too often, the Rams have been burned by the homerun ball. With San Diego State's offensive weapons, the Rams are going to be hard-pressed to slow down the Aztecs.
Lyell: That is what it comes down to, and that's why I don't think the Rams will be able to win. Not only have the Rams struggled stopping the pass - they rank No. 118 out of 120 Football Bowl Subdivision teams in pass-efficiency defense - they've been particularly vulnerable to big plays in the passing game, and that's what the Aztecs do best. Three of Sampson's six touchdowns and two of Brown's three have come on plays of 50 or more yards.
Stephens: I honestly don't think so because CSU has struggled the most against teams that are either heavy rushing or heavy passing, as the defense focuses on one element and gets hurt by the other. I think the fact that San Diego State has a pretty balanced offense plays in favor for the Rams, but this young secondary will have to step it up, nonetheless. Colorado State has been strong at home for the most part this season, but had a rough time on the road, losing by combined scores of 190-46. Is that where a team's youth shows up, has it been a matter of playing strong opposition or is it something else? How do the Rams change up their road record to become more competitive this week?
Brohard: A little bit of all of it. They were run out of the state of Utah, but the Utes are fabulous. They gets wins against New Mexico and UNLV at home, and the players have talked about the energy they feel at Hughes, despite the place not being packed to the gills.
Roth: I think there are a few factors involved. Look at their road schedule: at Nevada, at Miami, at Air Force and at Utah. Three of those teams have been nationally ranked this year and one is in the top-25 of the of the latest BCS standings. Tough for this CSU team to win any of those three games. Of course, to see the Rams be more competitive in any of those games would have been nice. The Miami game? This was a young CSU team back in September with severe confidence issues on offense. It is a game CSU would love to replay in November. Bottom line:  This Ram team has only had one winnable road game in 2010. That is why this match-up with San Diego State is so intriguing to me. Can the Rams play well on the road in a game where they are not over-matched? If the Rams are truly competitive on Saturday, win or lose, then I think we have seen a step forward.
Cantalamessa: Some teams thrive on the road because they get away from distractions and bond as a team together in hostile territory. Clearly, the Rams are not one of those teams. It's a matter of changing culture, and getting better as a team. It's naturally harder to win on the road, when the crowd is against you and when the home team is energized by their own fans. But Qualcomm is not Rice-Eccles Stadium, LaVell Edwards Stadium, Falcon Stadium, etc. It is a cavernous facility where the fans are not right on top of you. If the Rams lose this week, it won't be because of the toughness of playing on the road. It will be because San Diego State is a better football team at this point.
Lyell: Some of it is youth, I think, but the home record has been skewed somewhat by the opponent. New Mexico, UNLV and Idaho are all very beatable teams, no matter where you play them, while Utah, Air Force and Nevada are not, again, no matter where you play them. Still, in the loss at Miami (Ohio), the Rams looked very uncomfortable playing in an unfamiliar environment. Although this coaching staff is big on routine, mixing things up a bit on the road might be a good idea. Good teams can make adjustments on the fly, no matter where they're playing. This CSU team seems to need the reassurance it gets from the home fans and familiar environment at Hughes Stadium to truly believe it can win a game.
Stephens: I don't think you can blame it on youth, as CSU has never been good on the road under Steve Fairchild, with a record of 3-12 in two-plus seasons. However, I do think the Rams have going for them the fact this game will be played in the San Diego area, home of Fairchild, Pete Thomas, Ivory Herd and all the Southern California players who reign from Los Angeles. Those little intangibles sometimes pay dividends in games like this. On top of that, CSU has the all-time series lead against the Aztecs in games played at The Murph. Finally, what are your keys to the game this weekend and a prediction on the final score?
Brohard: The Rams can't afford to give up big plays. They likely will. I expect points, but more for the Aztecs, 41-27
Roth: It is clear that if this CSU team is going to win on the road they will need some breaks. That starts with turnovers. CSU has to go plus-2 or plus-3 in the turnover battle. The Rams also have to keep this from being a shootout. CSU cannot outscore the Aztecs. And finally, a good start helps any team playing away from home. Aztecs 34, CSU 21.
Cantalamessa: The Rams will challenge San Diego State for a while, and in my estimation, will play its best road game of the season. But, CSU has proven to be too sloppy in areas (i.e. special teams), and is too susceptible to giving up big plays defensively. San Diego State is a strike-quick kind of team on offense, and may have a field day against CSU's secondary. The CSU offense will move the ball effectively, but can they punch in touchdowns instead of settling for field goals? Can they win the turnover battle? If it can do those things, and get back to their bend-but-don't-break style of defense, without breaking as often, the Rams could put themselves in an opportunity to win the game, or at least be competitive heading into the fourth quarter. Unfortunately, CSU hasn't proven it can do any of those things, and I envision a disappointing loss, 42-24.
Lyell: San Diego State's defense will have troubles stopping an improved CSU offense, but not nearly as much trouble as the Rams will have trying to slow down a balanced, high-powered Aztecs offense that thrives on making the kind of big plays that the Rams have been unable to stop all season, particularly in the passing game. San Diego State 45, CSU 24.
Stephens: I think the key here is for the Rams to realize that the season is on the line in this game and with a win, bowl eligibility is still a possibility. After the win against New Mexico, and a game being played near the home of so many CSU players, this could end up being a trap game for SDSU.
I'm going to go out on a limb and say the Rams pull an upset this week, going out on top 31-27.