When the season started, there were a lot of questions about the CSU football team. How will senior Billy Farris do at quarterback? Which running back will produce more, Kyle Bell or Gartrell Johnson III? How improved will the offensive line be from a year ago? And the list goes on.
One of the things the Rams were sure of was their safety play, anchored by senior Mike Pagnotta and junior Klint Kubiak. The corps was clearly one of the strong points for CSU and the two veterans produced when they were on the field, combining for 81 tackles and three interceptions – highlighted by Kubiak’s game winning pick in the end zone against Houston.
But that was the start of the season and this is its end. The two safeties have been plagued by injuries, so stepping in to successfully fill their shoes are senior strong safety Jake Galusha and freshman free safety Elijah-Blu Smith.
Head coach Steve Fairchild has been impressed with the way Smith and Galusha have stepped up.
“Elijah and Galusha have really done a nice job for us and that will pay dividends next year,” Fairchild said. “Elijah can play both safety and corner, so that will help.”
Galusha, who will be playing in his final Border War on Saturday at Wyoming, said it means a lot to him, personally, to be able to play and represent Pagnotta.
“For sure, I’m playing for Pags. Unfortunately he’s out, but Pags has a chance to really play if we make it to a bowl,” Galusha said. “So that gives a little extra to me and Blu back there playing for our buddies. Four years, toughing it out for the same guys, you really like to have a chance to play for those guys.”
Galusha, who was recruited by the Cowboys out of high school, added he sees Wyoming as the Rams biggest rivalry right now, especially with a possible bowl berth on the line.
Smith, who hasn’t had near as much collegiate experience as Galusha, says that Pagnotta and Kubiak have given him a lot of pointers on playing safety at the college level.
“Whenever I come off the field, they’re telling me ‘these guys do this and that’,” said the Los Angeles native. “With everything, they’ve helped so much-they’ve helped me out tremendously.”
For the Rams, this season is one that shows glimpses of what may be a great future in CSU football. For the Cowboys, it had been a disappointing season until three weeks ago when redshirt freshman Chris Sutzriem was inserted into the starting quarterback role, finally sparking the Wyoming offense with wins at San Diego State and Tennessee.
Fairchild believes his defense is ready for Stutzriem and the rest of the Cowboy offense, but any quarterback, young or old, gets better the more he plays.
“I think they’ve settled on Chris Stutzriem, and he’s got good size and he’s like any new guy, he’s going to have some growing pains and he’s always going to be a victim of what’s around him,” Fairchild said, who is revisiting the Border War for the first time since 2000.
“But again, anytime you can put a good defense and running game around a quarterback, it’s going to make him look pretty darn good. I’ve always felt that way about quarterbacks. You don’t want to force an issue and name somebody too early if you’re not sure, and we didn’t do that here. But eventually you’d like to get a guy and start grooming him because experience is a key factor at that spot. The more a guy plays, the better he’s going to be.”
Saturday at noon, the world will see which former backup talent prevails, the safeties or the quarterback.
Football beat writer Matt Stephens can be reached at email@example.com.