The University of Northern Colorado football team had high hopes at the beginning of the season.
With returning juniors Jacob Knipp at quarterback and Trae Riek at running back, murmurs of competing for a Big Sky Championship were hear around campus.
And things got off to a good start with an easy 41-14 win over College of Idaho in the season-opener at Nottingham.
Riek rushed for 71 yards and three touchdowns and Knipp added 238 yards through the air, and the offense was off and running.
After a week-two matchup against the University of Florida in Gainesville was cancelled due to Hurricane Irma, the Bears carried that momentum into a game at Folsom Field against the University of Colorado.
UNC dropped that game 41-21, but showed glimpses of being really good, especially on the offensive end.
It was Knipp’s turn to find the end zone, connecting with Alex Wesley five times for 102 yards and two touchdowns, and adding another to tight end Michael McCauley.
Coach Earnest Collins Jr. said his team did a lot of growing up, scoring 21 points on a CU team that had allowed only a field goal through its first two games.
The Bears kept rolling into Big Sky play, winning a thriller 43-42 over Idaho State on a last-second field goal. The offense kept rolling, with Knipp throwing for 413 yards and four touchdowns and Riek added 142 yards on the ground.
The Bears lost their next one to Northern Arizona, and it has been all downhill from there. Knipp went down midway through UNC’s next game at North Dakota, and the offense hasn’t been the same since.
Knipp reinjured his non-throwing shoulder that knocked him out in the second game last season and allowed now-Vikings quarterback Kyle Sloter to step in.
Backup quarterback Conor Regan has stepped up nicely, but there is a reason Knipp has been the starter since his freshman year and twice beat out Sloter for the starting job.
The Bears have had to rely more on the run game, and it has revealed how young their offensive line is.
Three freshman are starting up front, and they’re just not getting the push they need. Collins noted how pass blocking can be taught, but run blocking comes down to strength, and UNC just doesn’t have it.
The defensive struggles have only added to the teams struggles as a whole.
Since the opener, the defensive unit has given up over 40 points per game, and it has made the offense try to dig out of a number of holes early on.
Sitting at 2-6 and 1-5 in Big Sky Play with only two games left, this season may be a disappointment, but it is not lost.
The Bears gained a lot of experience, especially players who would not have normally found the field. That, teamed with both Knipp and Riek returning, all eyes are set on 2018.