Matt McClain/Associated Press file photo
Matt McClain/Associated Press file photo
DENVER – Alabama-Auburn it’s not.
So, new Colorado State coach Jim McElwain doesn’t want his players making too much of the Rocky Mountain Showdown against the University of Colorado on Saturday.
“I think the excitement of the game, the excitement of the rivalry; that’s going to happen, but that’s natural. The thing you don’t want to have happen is that they go out there and start hyperventilating, where it just becomes bigger than it is,” McElwain said.
Instead of getting caught up in the moment, he’s imploring his players to “get caught up in the now.”
“Get caught up in what I need to do right now in this rep in practice so I’m prepared to go out and play my best, play fast, play with tempo and not apprehension,” McElwain said.
This tunnel vision doesn’t mean McElwain isn’t also focused on the future.
“I’m really looking forward to the long haul of making this a relevant rivalry,” he said.
“And I’ve said this before, I think this is really important for the state of Colorado, for sports in general in Colorado. I think it’s great we’re playing down there in Denver, a major population base, and I think this will help as both teams get better.
“And I know (Buffaloes coach Jon Embree) is doing an outstanding job at CU, and he will get that thing going as well. I just really think it’s something that’s important to the state, and I look forward to making it relevant as time moves forward.”
Both the Buffs (3-10) and the Rams (3-9) went through tough times last year and will need a lot to go right in 2012 to post a winning season. That puts some added pressure on the opener at Sports Authority Field.
The Buffaloes, with only eight seniors, their fewest since 1995, ended a long road losing streak in Embree’s first year last season, but they also got a rude welcome to the Pac-12 in 2011. They view the early part of their schedule – CSU, Sacramento State, Fresno State – as a chance to get off to a strong start and ride that momentum into league play.
So, they’re trying to keep an even keel just like the Rams.
“It is a big game but it is also our first (chance) to take care of business,” Buffaloes senior linebacker Doug Rippy said. “Just being a rivalry in Colorado, it is just bragging rights for the state of Colorado. But for us it is just taking a step toward our goal, which is achieving a bowl game.”
McElwain, the former offensive coordinator at national champion Alabama, replaced Steve Fairchild last winter, but he lost his top two defenders in pass-rusher Nordly Capi and linebacker Michael Orakpo when they were expelled from the university after an off-campus brawl in Fort Collins last spring.
The Buffaloes have 15 freshmen in their two-deep depth chart, but they do return their top three tacklers from 2011, led by safety Ray Polk with 69. The Rams return 16 starters, including four preseason All-Mountain West projections in running back Chris Nwoke, center Weston Richburg, linebacker Shaquil Barrett and punter Pete Kontodiakos.
Both schools have quarterbacks going into their first season as the starter. The Rams have sophomore Garrett Grayson, who started three games last season. The Buffaloes have junior transfer Jordan Webb, who started 19 games at Kansas. Webb, a grad student with two years of eligibility remaining, arrived in Boulder in July and quickly beat out strong-armed sophomores Connor Wood and Nick Hirschman.
Embree said he was comfortable going into the season with a QB who wasn’t in Boulder for spring football.
“He won the job, so I believe in him and have confidence in him that he will be a good player for us at that position,” Embree said. “No matter who we would have picked, it was going to be their first time.”
Webb is more in tune with the Kansas-Kansas State rivalry than this one and acknowledges he doesn’t know all the dirty details of this series, which Colorado leads 61-20-2.
“I’m not that familiar with it to be quite honest,” Webb said. “But I know it’s a big game for both sides. We take it very seriously here. I learned that in my short time.”
McElwain will be after a piece of history Saturday. He’s attempting to become the first head coach in CSU’s 115-year history to defeat the Buffaloes in his first year as head coach. No Rams head coach has won his debut since Jerry Wampfler in 1970, although McElwain hasn’t dropped a season opener at the college level since 2004 when he was an assistant at Michigan State.