LAS VEGAS — First there was shock, then confusion. But in the two weeks since Colorado State saw head coach Jim McElwain leave for Florida, it has found a way to move on.
With an early bowl game on the calendar, the Rams didn't have much time to dwell on the change.
Saturday's Las Vegas Bowl against No. 23 Utah is a chance for Colorado State to win 11 games for only the second time in school history and also to defeat a ranked team from a major conference, something it didn't do in the regular season.
"That's something every single one of us has had in our minds," quarterback Garrett Grayson said. "We know that people across the country are doubting us because we don't necessarily play in the toughest conference. We take it as a challenge to prove people wrong."
The Rams (10-2) fell into rebound mode early this month when McElwain left after his third season to become head coach at Florida. Offensive coordinator Dave Baldwin was named interim coach and was handed the task of preparing his stunned players for only their second bowl game in six seasons.
"When the circus ended — and it was a circus with all the hoopla and all the cameras — our kids were so classy about it," Baldwin said. "They didn't get caught up in the tweets or Facebook. They wished him good luck, they understood that it happened, then we went out and practiced. They've learned to handle distractions."
The Rams will face a Utah team that has won 10 of its past 11 bowl games and has an impressive resume this season, defeating UCLA, USC and Stanford on its way to an 8-4 record (5-4 Pac-12). The Utes led the nation with 52 sacks, including 17.5 by defensive end Nate Orchard, who won the Ted Hendricks Award as the country's top defensive end.
As matchups go, this one is appetizing. Grayson, who was named Mountain West offensive player of the year, had 32 touchdown passes and a 171.25 passer rating. Only Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota of Oregon (186.33) had a higher rating.
"It's going to be a challenge," Orchard said of Grayson. "He tends to stay in the pocket, but he can also run. So we need to keep the pressure on him."
Colorado State's success on offense may depend on Grayson's ability to avoid the rush and unload the ball.
"They have a great defense," Baldwin said. "You've got to get the ball out of your hands quick, you've got to change formations on them, and you still have to be able to run the football. UCLA got caught just trying to throw the ball, and Utah got three sacks in a row."
Here are some things to watch for in the Las Vegas Bowl:
SACK LEADERS: Orchard wasn't the only imposing figure on the Utah defensive line. Defensive end Hunter Dimick had 10 sacks and 14.5 tackles for loss despite missing the season finale against Arizona. Overall, the Utes were third in the Pac-12 in pass defense.
PASS HAPPY: Colorado State was the only team in the country with a 3,500-yard passer, 1,000-yard rusher and 1,500-yard receiver. Rams sophomore wide receiver Rashard Higgins, a Biletnikoff Award finalist, had 17 receiving touchdowns and led the nation in yards receiving per game (149.1).
HANG TIME: No one likes to see a lot of punts, but if the Utes have to use their feet, they have one of the country's best punters in Tom Hackett. The junior from Australia won the Ray Guy Award after averaging 47 yards per punt and leading the nation in punts inside the 20- (35) and 10-yard lines (19). He also had 25 punts of 50 or more yards during the season.
RUNNING MAN: Colorado State isn't just a passing team. Running back Dee Hart, a graduate transfer from Alabama, finished with 1,254 yards rushing and a 6.7-yard average. Hart scored 16 touchdowns, including six against New Mexico in October.