David Zalubowski/Associated Press
DENVER – Jim McElwain deflected the praise to his players, who had better enjoy it because they’ll soon feel his wrath again anyway.
McElwain became the first Colorado State coach to win his debut in 42 years Saturday when the Rams rallied past their archrival for a 22-17 win over the Colorado Buffaloes.
“The guys that are here are real guys, and I’m just really proud of them. I’ve asked so much of them, and it’s just great for our fans and Fort Collins,” McElwain said. “I’m excited for them; this doesn’t have anything to do with me. It’s one game.
“We have not arrived yet, and by the time I get done with them in film session, they’re going to understand that. We’ve got a long way to go. All that it means is that we’ve won one game.”
What a win it was.
Garret Grayson completed 14 of 21 passes for 173 yards and two touchdowns, and Jared Roberts kicked two fourth-quarter field goals after the Rams had fallen behind 17-16.
Grayson outdueled Kansas transfer Jordan Webb, who was 22 of 41 for 187 yards and two touchdowns for the Buffaloes.
McElwain, the former offensive coordinator at defending national champion Alabama, became the first Rams coach to win his debut since Jerry Wampfler in 1970. None of the other 12 Rams coaches who have faced Colorado ever had beaten the Buffs on their first try.
Will Oliver’s 30-yard field goal put the Buffaloes ahead 17-16 early in the fourth quarter, but Roberts hit from 48 yards out with 6:39 left to put the Rams back on top, 19-17.
After the Buffs went three-and-out, the Rams had to salt this one away with backups because tailback Chris Nwoke (ankle) was on the sideline.
Freshman Donnell Alexander took off on a 37-yard run, and Terrel Smith’s facemask penalty tacked on another 15 yards. But the Buffs stood their ground, forcing the Rams to settle for another field goal, this one from 32 yards out with 2:56 remaining.
Strong safety Trent Matthews’ game-sealing interception was nullified by Lanston Tanyi’s roughing penalty, and the Buffaloes had a first down at the Rams’ 47 with 1:27 left.
They turned the ball over on downs 40 seconds later.
The Rams thought they had a 100-yard fumble return for a touchdown by defensive back Austin Gray, but after the celebratory cannon fired, the officials ruled Malcolm Creer was down before the ball popped out.
“Football’s like that,” Gray said. “You have plays that turn around all the time. You just have to adapt to adversity. It’s the thing that Coach Mac always focuses on.”
“I was actually thankful that they reviewed it because the ball was over the plane probably before it came out,” McElwain said.
Buffs coach Jon Embree thought so, too.
“We actually thought he scored; we thought the ball broke the plane,” Embree said. “Then we had a fourth down call we liked but couldn’t execute it.”
The Buffaloes declined to try for the go-ahead field goal but then failed to score on fourth-and-goal from inside the 1 when defensive end Shaquil Barrett pressured Webb into an overthrow of tight end Nick Kasa.
“That really hurt; we have to be able to convert there,” Webb said.
Colorado had taken possession on the Rams’ 15 when Will Pericak recovered a fumble.
Webb found freshman Nelson Spruce eight times for 64 yards, including a 15-yard touchdown, and he threw a 9-yard touchdown pass to Tyler McCulloch that made it 14-3. Both scores came after fourth-down conversions.
After Matthews’ recovery of a muffed punt by D.D. Goodson at the Colorado 20, Grayson found Dominique Vinson uncovered for the score with 26 seconds left in the first half to ignite the comeback.
The loss could prove costly for the Buffaloes, who lost starting defensive backs Ray Polk and Greg Henderson to ankle injuries.
The Rams went 3-9 last year, then McElwain replaced Steve Fairchild. McElwain wasn’t about to declare improvement after just one game, even though it was a win in the annual Rocky Mountain Showdown.
“We did not play a good football game by any stretch of the imagination,” McElwain said. “We have a long way to go. As excited as I am for them, they have to realize that we have a long, long way to go before I consider us a decent ball squad.”