FORT COLLINS, Colo. — Even if the blue skies over Hughes Stadium gave respite from the overriding story in the region, the circuit of military helicopters ferrying supplies overhead to those cut off from the rest of Colorado was a constant reminder.
Saturday’s football game between Colorado State and Cal Poly hardly qualified as a sideshow to the devastation wrought by rain and flooding, the worst the Denver area has seen since a deadly flash flood episode in the mid-1970s.
Both programs had to feel fortunate just to be able to play. Fresno State’s game at Colorado was postponed Friday after flood waters ravaged the Buffaloes’ Boulder, Colo., campus.
And by the end, both the Rams (1-2) and the Mustangs (1-2) had to feel fortunate about the outcome, too, a 34-17 victory for Colorado State.
There was much talk about whether the Rams should even hold the game. A paltry 14,146 attendees were announced at the 32,500-seat stadium. Access in and out of Fort Collins was limited much of the past two days when water levels rose over a major interstate.
By late Saturday, five were confirmed dead, hundreds more were unaccounted for and thousands were forced to evacuate their homes.
“I had mixed emotions on this,” second-year Colorado State head coach Jim McElwain said. “There are two ways to look at it: Sport is not important when it comes to the big picture of life, yet it can give the opportunity to ease peoples’ minds as long as we weren’t using any emergency services.
“We actually thought about not playing, playing without anybody here, but I’m not sure that that’s the right thing.”
Cal Poly had been in town since Thursday, when most of the rainfall overtook the area and saw widespread road closures. But since Fort Collins was sunny Friday and much of the day Saturday, the teams safely played in dry conditions.
And in the second straight game against an FBS opponent, the Mustangs fell behind early before embarking on a morale-boosting comeback to make things interesting late.
The Rams led 27-10 at the half, racking up 353 yards of total offense and making it appear that Cal Poly was in for a blowout loss.
The Mustangs’ lone bright spot in the first half was a 34-yard touchdown run by fullback Akaninyene Umoh, who took a counter to the left behind a pulling offensive lineman to start the second quarter, broke an arm tackle and easily burst into the end zone.
It foreshadowed a second half in which the Cal Poly defense would keep Colorado State off the scoreboard in the third quarter and threaten to make it a one-score game in the fourth.
“It gave our offense a little more confidence just to put some points on the board,” Umoh said of his run. “It didn’t turn out the way we wanted to, but I think it put some fire in our offense knowing that we could go score on them if we stuck to what we do best, and that’s running the football.”
The story was somewhat similar to last week, when Fresno State jumped out to a 41-3 third-quarter lead before the Mustangs came back to cut the lead to 16 in the fourth quarter.
In his first start Saturday, sophomore quarterback Chris Brown ran for a team-high 61 yards and passed for 164 yards and a touchdown.
Junior slotback Kristaan Ivory finished with a season-low 55 yards on 13 carries, and Umoh had 54 yards on six touches. Willie Tucker tied for the team lead with three catches for 69 yards and a 23-yard touchdown.
Cal Poly had the ball at the Colorado State 15-yard line midway through the fourth quarter, trailing 27-17.
“We had a rhythm,” Tucker said, “and we thought we could definitely beat these guys then and there.”
But Brown couldn’t connect with Tucker in the end zone on third-and-11, Rams linebacker Shaquile Barrett blocked his second field goal attempt of the game, and the Rams sealed the victory with a 6-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Garrett Grayson to Kivon Cartwright.
Colorado State running back Chris Nwoke did most of the damage on the ground, rushing for 133 yards on 19 carries. Grayson finished with 297 passing yards and two touchdowns.
The Rams finished with 533 yards of total offense, but Cal Poly limited them to just the single second-half score, giving those who stuck around enough of a scare to worry whether Colorado State would blow its third straight fourth-quarter lead.
“To be honest, there wasn’t that much adjustment. It was doing what we were told to do and doing it right,” Mustangs senior linebacker Johnny Millard said. Defensive coordinator Josh Brown “was calling a good game and making good calls. We just need to execute, and when people made mistakes, they capitalized on them.”
So, Colorado State avoided a devastating upset loss to an FCS program, and Cal Poly, having faced two FBS teams in back-to-back games, goes into its bye week without being demoralized by either opponent.
Though two early losses are sure to drop the Mustangs from their No. 14 spot in the two major FCS top-25 polls, Cal Poly’s season hinges more on its showing in the Big Sky Conference, which will determine whether the Mustangs follow up last season’s co-championship with another playoff berth.
“Everything’s still in front of us,” Cal Poly head coach Tim Walsh said. “We haven’t lost anything. We lost two football games, which I’m disappointed in, but the fact is we still have a lot to look forward to with nine games, and we still haven’t played a conference game.”