Beating Air Force was a great in-state rival victory for the Rams, but now the two-time defending Mountain West Conference champion Utah Utes are in Fort Collins.
The Rams (2-2 overall, 1-0 in the MWC) will host the Utes (3-2, 1-1) Saturday at 4:30 p.m. on Sonny Lubick Field at Hughes Stadium.
Both teams have been up and down through the early part of the season. Utah started the season 2-0, but are just 1-2 in their last three with the only win coming over Air Force at home in a 38-35 squeaker.
The Utes are in more of a retooling mode than a rebuilding one. The team has a new coach in Kyle Whittingham, who served as the Utes defensive coordinator for the previous 11 seasons. Whittingham also brought in six new coaches to the Utah staff. Most notably the Utes lost the No.1 NFL draft pick, quarterback Alex Smith, along with seven other NFL draft picks.
Despite the losses, the Utes have been able to ride the natural ability of 18-year-old sophomore quarterback Brian Johnson and continue to be one of the conference's top offensive teams. Johnson is currently second in the conference and 19th in the nation in average yards of total offense a game with 295.8.
"We know what we need to do to stop them," said senior safety Miles Kochevar. "We've got to be ready to go into our pass drop and be ready for (Johnson) to tuck it and run."
The Utes defense is not what they were last year when they were ranked 22nd nationally in scoring defense. Currently ranked 52nd, the Utes still pose a couple of All-conference type players the Rams have to prepare for.
"They've got some talented players, [safety Eric Weddle] makes a lot of plays and [linebacker Spencer Toone] comes up and hits a lot of people. We've just got to be ready," said sophomore h-back Kory Sperry.
Though it's still early in the season, this game is huge for both teams. One reason is the current top two teams in the conference face off Saturday. Mountain West newcomer and early front-runner Texas Christian University travels north to Laramie to tangle with Wyoming. Both teams go into that match-up undefeated in conference, and 4-1 overall. The winner will hold the conference lead.
Emphasizing the importance of this game for the Rams is their upcoming schedule. The Rams next four games are at BYU, Wyoming at home, at New Mexico and at TCU. If the Rams can beat Utah they will be able to afford a loss to one of those teams and likely still be in the hunt for the MWC title. If not, the Rams will have to sweep through the toughest part of the schedule.
"If we could be fortunate enough to play really well and take care of our business and fight like heck to win this game, it's almost like winning two games," said head coach Sonny Lubick. "Air Force is going to win some more games down the road, and so are these guys. It's going to be huge."
Lately the Rams have been extremely balanced on offense, riding the "Bell Train" – Kyle Bell – to victory. The sophomore running back is second in the conference with 464 rushing yards and first with 116 yards per game.
Senior quarterback Justin Holland is second in the conference with 260.8 passing yards per game.
If the Rams can keep up the offensive parody they'll be hard for any team to stop. It may be a little more difficult this week with starting offensive linemen, senior Albert Bimper and junior Josh Day, likely out with hamstring injuries. Day is listed as doubtful for Saturday.
If junior linemen Jerome Williams and sophomore Nick Allotta can step in and do a commendable job, Bell has enough explosiveness to hit any hole.
The Rams are looking to make their home record 3-0, a feat they haven't accomplished since 2002 when they reached the Liberty Bowl.