Are you ready for some football?
These guys sure are.
For CSU, a long and arduous pre-season filled with two-a-day workouts and hot afternoon practices will finally culminate Thursday night when the Rams take on the University of Virginia in their season opener.
For at least one CSU player, the game couldn’t be coming at a better time.
“I’m tired of our guys,” said junior linebacker Drew Wood with a smile on his face. “I don’t like (running back) Cecil (Sapp) any more. I want to hit someone with a different color jersey.”
The dark blue jerseys of the Virginia Cavaliers will be the target of Wood and the rest of the CSU squad come Thursday.
Virginia finished last season with a 5-7 mark and, following its game with the Rams, will face perennial national power Florida State, a fellow Atlantic Coast Conference member.
“The ACC is a good football conference. We can play with them but we have to be keyed up and ready to go,” said Sonny Lubick, the Rams’ 10-year head coach. “They have good teams in that conference, but we’d like to think we have good teams in the Mountain West Conference, too.”
Virginia head coach Al Groh doesn’t figure his team is thinking CSU will make for easy work.
“We have an acute sense of how good the team we’re playing is,” Groh said. “We felt that our team could grow by playing the best. This is one of the best teams we’ll play all year.”
When the Rams kickoff Thursday (5:30 p.m.) in Charlottesville it will mark the earliest starting date for a football season in NCAA history, surpassing the old mark by one day.
The early start date comes not a moment too soon for Sapp. The Rams’ senior running back missed all of last season due to injury but appears to have regained his first-team all-MWC form of 2000.
“To me, he seems to be back at 100%,” said John Benton, the Rams’ co-offensive coordinator. “We’ll need to establish the run right off the bat and having him back there definitely gives us a boost and a second legitimate running threat.”
The other threat Benton refers to is quarterback Bradlee Van Pelt, who rushed for 546 yards in 2001, the most for a quarterback since Anthoney Hill gained 433 rushing yards in 1993.
“Having Cecil back makes me better; it makes everyone better,” said Van Pelt, who enters his junior season.
“The game plan is still to run the ball, but we’ll go down the field as well.”
Van Pelt spent most of the off-season improving his throwing accuracy, looking to become more of a complete quarterback.
“Accuracy was never a problem for Bradlee, he just needed more experience,” said Joey Cuppari, the Rams’ senior wide receiver. “Now he’s just fine tuned his accuracy and developed a better connection with his receivers.”
Benton hopes Virginia isn’t as knowledgeable about Van Pelt’s accuracy.
“Bradlee improved more than anyone from last year to this season,” Benton said. “We’re hoping teams gang up on the run because he’s going to show them just how complete of a quarterback he’s become.”
CSU will need Van Pelt to be firing on all cylinders to stop Virginia’s experienced secondary, the strong point of a veteran defense.
“I know I’ll have to make my share of big completions,” Van Pelt said. “If I can do my job, that opens things up for Cecil and our other weapons to explode.”
The Cavaliers also have an unusual defensive front. Where most college teams play with four defensive linemen and three linebackers, Virginia plays a 3-4 scheme.
“It will be a challenge for us because they’re able to jam the line pretty well,” Van Pelt said. “But we’re not backing down. We’re getting ready for it all.”
Preparing for everything is also a theme on defense, where the Rams will be faced with a balanced attack from the Cavalier offense.
“We’ve looked at 10 or 11 different personnel alignments,” Wood said. “They run sets with no backs, they run sets with two backs and two tight ends. They could run the ball 36, 37 times a game or pass a lot. It’s a lot to prepare for.”
On the whole, the Rams appear healthy heading into their opener. The only remaining question mark is all-conference punter Joey Huber, who is still recovering from arthroscopic knee surgery.
The absence of the Rams’ punter doesn’t make Groh very upset.
“I think the most dominant player on their team could be their punter,” Groh said. “I’ve watched about 80 of his punts and he changes the flow of a game.”
Benton says accomplishing the little things could add up to a CSU victory.
“In a first game, mistakes are going to come up,” Benton said. “Our number one priority is to not do the things that beat ourselves: penalties and turnovers being the key things.”
History says the Rams will be successful. Under Sonny Lubick, CSU has a 7-2 mark in season-openers. And even though the Rams dropped their opening decision a year ago to Colorado, CSU has not lost consecutive opening games during Lubick’s tenure.