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Washington State makes its first postseason appearance since 2003.
Think there are too many bowl games this year? Don’t tell that to Colorado State and Washington State. The Rams and Cougars are set to open the bowl season in Albuquerque, and even though the combined record of these two teams is 13-12, this game could be one of the better pre-Christmas bowl matchups.
Washington State is back in the postseason after a nine-year absence. The Cougars’ last bowl appearance was a 28-20 win over Texas in the Holiday Bowl.
Under coach Mike Leach, Washington State made significant progress from 2012 to 2013. The Cougars won only three games last year, but Leach’s team rebounded with a 6-6 mark this season, which included wins over Arizona and USC.
Colorado State’s last bowl appearance came in 2008, which was a 40-35 New Mexico Bowl win over Fresno State. Under the direction of second-year coach Jim McElwain, the Rams improved their win total by three games from 2012 to 2013.
The Rams didn’t beat a team with a winning record, but this team played tough against Boise State and Utah State in conference play and trailed Alabama only 17-6 going into the fourth quarter.
This is the first meeting between Colorado State and Washington State. The Rams are 5-7 in previous bowl appearances, while the Cougars are 6-4.
Colorado State vs. Washington State
Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 21 at 2 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Washington State -3.5
Colorado State’s Key to Victory: A big game from Kapri Bibbs
This game features a stark contrast in styles. Colorado State’s offense is based on the ground, led by sophomore running back Kapri Bibbs. On the other side, Washington State prefers to air it out, leading the nation with 698 passing attempts this year. Which style will win out? For Colorado State, establishing Bibbs and keeping the Cougars’ offense on the sideline is the key to its hopes at hoisting the New Mexico Bowl trophy. Despite not recording a game of over 20 carries until the seventh contest of the year, Bibbs finished 13th nationally with an average of 120.9 rushing yards per game. The sophomore produced some huge efforts, gashing Nevada for 312 yards and New Mexico for 291. Bibbs was slowed late in the year by an ankle injury, but the sophomore should be at full strength for the bowl. If Bibbs gets on track, it will open up play-action passes for quarterback Garrett Grayson. The junior tossed only 10 picks this season and finished the year by throwing six touchdown tosses over the final three games. Stopping Bibbs will be a challenge for Washington State. The Cougars ranked ninth in the Pac-12 against the run and allowed an average of 243.6 yards on the ground over the final five games.
Washington State’s Key to Victory: Control the offensive tempo
As we mentioned above, this game is a matchup in contrasting styles. Time of possession is an overrated stat in college football, but if Colorado State has success on the ground and controls the clock, Washington State will be in trouble. Quarterback Connor Halliday wore out his right arm this season, throwing 656 times for 4,187 yards and 28 touchdowns. As expected with a high number of attempts, Halliday tossed 21 picks but completed 62.8 percent of his throws. The junior will be throwing to a receiving corps that features eight players with at least 34 receptions. Gabe Marks is the headliner (69 catches), but River Cracraft (13.2 ypc) and Dominique Williams (16.5 ypc) are names to watch. The Cougars don’t run the ball often (18.7 attempts per game) and average only 3.1 yards per attempt. However, a little balance is needed to keep the Rams' defense on their heels. Colorado State’s front seven has to get pressure on Halliday to disrupt the timing of Washington State’s offense. The good news for defensive co-coordinators Marty English and Al Simmons is the Rams have four senior starters in the front seven, including standout Shaquil Barrett. The senior recorded 20.5 tackles for a loss and 12 sacks this season. If Barrett and Colorado State’s front seven can’t get to Halliday, it could be a long afternoon for the secondary. The Rams allowed 265.4 yards per game through the air and ranked 100th nationally in pass efficiency defense.
Key Player: Garrett Grayson, QB, Colorado State
The Rams hope they can keep Washington State’s offense off the field and this game in the 27-24 type of final. Should the Cougars jump out to an early lead or this bowl turn into a shootout, Grayson will have to shoulder more of the offensive focus. The junior threw six touchdowns to only two interceptions over his final three games and finished 2013 with a 62.2 completion percentage. Grayson has a good group of weapons at his disposal, including true freshman receiver Rashard Higgins and tight ends Crockett Gillmore and Kivon Cartwright. In his two games against BCS opponents this year, Grayson threw for 429 yards and no touchdowns. If Colorado State wants to win, Grayson has to be efficient and keep the offense on schedule for Bibbs to have favorable down and distance situations in run downs.
Last year’s New Mexico Bowl was one of the most entertaining games of the postseason, with Arizona winning a 49-48 thriller over Nevada. Could we see another back and forth affair this season? Despite contrasting styles, Colorado State and Washington State combine to average 65.1 points a game this year. The turnover battle is worth monitoring, as the Cougars were -5 and the Rams were +2. In a tight game, a turnover could be the difference. Led by senior center Weston Richburg, Colorado State’s veteran offensive line should be able to open rushing lanes for running back Kapri Bibbs. If the Rams eat up the clock and keep the Cougars’ offense on the sidelines, Colorado State will have a chance to score the upset. Washington State’s gameplan on offense should be to score quickly early in the game, putting the Rams behind schedule on offense. Bibbs will have success, but the Cougars’ passing attack is the difference in the fourth quarter.
Prediction: Washington State 38, Colorado State 30