Stevens: NM Bowl asks Green Rams or Red Cougars?
Courtesy: New Mexico Athletics  
Release:  12/19/2013

2013 Gildan New Mexico Bowl – Colorado State vs. Washington State

When/Where:  Noon (MT), Saturday – University Stadium – Albuquerque

On The Air:  ESPN (TV) and ESPN Radio

Tickets:  UNM Ticket Office at The Pit; 505-925-5626, 505-925-5999

Richard Stevens – Senior Writer/GoLobos.com

An off-the-field theme for the 2013 Gildan New Mexico Bowl can be found on a questioning billboard as you head toward University Stadium.

Red or Green?

The red is the primary color of the Washington State Cougars of the Pac-12. The green comes down from Fort Collins, Colo., in the shape of the Colorado State Rams of the Mountain West.

The red or green question is word play on a biting question from New Mexico’s culinary history.  You want red or green chile on that burger, burrito, enchilada, etc.?”

Actually, you could go “Christmas” and mix both colors of chile, but when it comes to sporting events there usually is a line drawn in the sand.  You pick a team. The twist for the Gildan New Mexico Bowl is whether you back the red Cougars or the green Rams.

 “We’re proud to represent Santa Claus in this bowl,” Coach Mike Leach said tongue-in-cheek referring to Santa donning his red apparel.

Said CSU Coach Jim McElwain: “Our fans are fired up to come down here. They are ready to paint this town green.”  

The safe bet in these here parts is that the locals who flood into the Lobos’ University Stadium will lean toward the Rams of CSU.  There is a conference bond here.  The Rams are from the Mountain West.  They are a sister/brother team to the Lobos. 

Oh, there might be some hard feeling toward the Rams, who slapped a 66-42 stain on the Lobos’ record in a Branch Field shootout, but this is still a Mountain West brother.   There is conference pride on the line.  If local fans can forgive that transgression against the Lobos, the Rams probably will be the unofficial home team.

There also might be some bad blood lingering for Lobo fans toward Washington State Coach Mike Leach, who wasn’t exactly a Lobo favorite when New Mexico battled Leach’s Texas Tech Raiders.   Leach’s Air Raid offense usually cut deeply into the UNM secondary.   In Leach’s favor?  He is a big fan of the TV series “Breaking Bad,” which was filmed in Albuquerque and he co-authored a book on the Apache chief Geronimo, who once roamed the New Mexico hills.

The geography factor also suggests University Stadium will be green on Saturday.  Fort Collins to Albuquerque is a drive a shade under eight hours.  Pullman, Wa., is more than 1,200 miles away – say 21 hours on the highway.  That probably means if you are a Cougar fan, you fly.  A Rams’ fan can hit the road.

The New Mexico Bowl is a pretty big deal for both schools and programs.  The Cougars haven’t been to a bowl since 2003.  The Rams last saw the postseason in 2008.

“To feel the excitement and the energy (of a bowl) is really what it’s all about,” said CSU’s McElwain.

Of course, it’s also about winning.   If you wanted to put another twist on the red or green questions, you could say pass or run?  That’s a bit of a simplification.  Washington State is mostly “Air Raid” and the Rams have one of the premium rushers in the nation in Kapri Bibbs.  But CSU’s attack has balance.

The pass or run question might be more directed at the concerns of the Cougars’ defense as it watches CSU line up.  The Rams do both well.   Which one will it be on a particular snap?

For sure, the Cougars will see a lot of Bibbs and a lot of quarterback Garrett Grayson. CSU also has a solid senior runner in Chris Nwoke with 2,455 career yards.

Bibb is the Rams’ main man on the run.   The hard-running sophomore has 28 rushing scores and 1,572 regular-season yards.  He ran for 291 yards and six touchdowns against UNM.  Bibbs is critical to the CSU attack.  He has averaged 174 rushing yards in CSU’s seven wins and 60 yards in the Rams’ six losses.

When the Rams establish a running weapon, it makes things easier for Grayson.  CSU doesn’t throw it like Washington State, but Grayson provides balance with a 258-yard aerial average. He has thrown for 3,327 yards which is good for the No. 18th spot in the NCAA stats.   The Rams have a quality pair of tight ends in Crockett Gillmore (All-MW First Team) and Kivon Cartwright, who combine for 68 grabs for 944 yards.

The Rams’ defense is led by linebacker Shaquil Barrett, the MW Defensive Player of the Year.  Barrett keys a CSU attack that includes Max Morgan (129 tackles) and Aaron Davis (113 tackles).  The Ram’s front seven needs to pressure Halliday to take pressure off a young CSU secondary.  

The Cougars might open the game with some quick-hitting shorter passes to soften the CSU rush. The Rams also will use a 4-2-5 look on defense in passing situations – which is pretty much every snap for Washington State.

The Rams’ balance on offense hands them the No. 28 attack in the nation at 461.2 yards per game.  The Cougars’ lack of a consistent running game has them in the No. 53rd spot with a 423.2 average.  Both defense give up a lot of yards with CSU ahead on that side of the ball yielding an average of 417.5 (78th) to 466.6 (101st) for Washington State.

CSU did not beat a team with a winning record in 2013 and their seven wins came against teams with a combined win record of 23.  Even a CSU win in the New Mexico Bowl will not give CSU a win over a team with a winning mark.

Washington State slipped into the postseason with a modest 6-6 mark, but the Cougars’ 31-24 loss to Auburn makes a statement about these Cougars of the PAC-12.  They can be very good.   The Cougars also beat a solid USC team.  Their 55-17 loss to Stanford shows the other side of the WSU coin.

The Cougars went 1-4 in October but closed the season winning two of three to become bowl eligible.  One of those wins was a 12-point win over the Utah team that beat Stanford.

Leach is the head Cougar which immediately tells you something about the Cougars’ attack.  They like to throw it.  The offense led by quarterback Connor Halliday is No. 4 in the nation with a 364.5-yard average.   He has thrown for 4,187 yards and 28 touchdowns.  His 4,187 yards are a Pac-12 record. He has thrown the ball 656 times and completed 62.8 percent of those throws. He has a prime target in Gabe Marks with 69 receptions and a handful of other talented targets.

The CSU target on defense is Halliday.  Washington State has a modest rushing attack with 704 rushing yards on the season. UNM and CSU combined for 625 rushing yards when they played.  WSU averages 58.7 rushing yards per game. That's not very good. 

The Cougars have a star on defense in All-American safety Deone Bucannon, who is considered to be a top pick in the upcoming NFL draft.  He has 109 tackles on the season.

The stats suggest the game will be high scoring and close.  The Cougars played a tougher schedule and have better wins.  They usually are one dimensional on offense, but can execute that dimension very well.  The Rams have more balance on offense.   Both teams can play good defense – and leaky defense.

Both teams also seem excited to have returned to the postseason and eye the Gildan New Mexico Bowl as the start of a new postseason tradition.

So, red or green?

“At the end of the game, Albuquerque will be green,” predicts CSU Coach Jim McElwain.