Washington State Provides Cowboys a Major Test of How Far They Have Come
The Cowboys defense simply manhandled New Mexico State in the season-opening, 29-7 victory in Las Cruces last Saturday night. The Aggies rushing attack wound up with a negative nine yards. The team's total offense was 135 yards. New Mexico State quarterbacks were sacked four times.
And the Cowboys didn't even blitz once.
But -- and there always seems to be a but -- in the three of their next four games the Cowboys will get a true test of how they stack up with the rest of college football, starting with a visit by the wide-open offensive approach of Washington State at Warm Memorial Stadium on Saturday afternoon.
A week later they are at Missouri, and then, after a visit from Division I-AA Wofford, and an off-week, the Cowboys will go up against Boise State.
Rest assured, they will be stunting and blitzing on defense, and get a very strong evaluation of an offense that did pile up 449 yards total offense at New Mexico State, including 190 yards rushing by senior Nico Evans, who had rushed for only 108 yards on 36 games in his 37 games prior to this season.
The Cowboys seniors have an idea of what they will be facing on Saturday. The Cowboys traveled to Pullman, Wash., for their third game in 2015, and suffered a 31-14 loss, the Cougars scoring the final 10 points of the game to avoid being upset. Quarterback Luke Williams threw for 303 yards, connecting on 37 of 45 pass attempts, twice for touchdowns, including a 4-yard touchdown toss with two minutes to play.
Williams is graduated. The Cougars will have a new quarterback this year, but as of Friday Cougars coach Mike Leach, a native of Lovell, who attended BYU but did not play football, had not made his decision public on who would be behind center to start Saturday's game.
The Cowboys, though, know what to expect.
"He does what he does and he knows his system really well," said Wyoming defensive coordinator Scott Hazelton. "He is one of those guys who knows his system and when you come up with answers for what they are trying to do, he sees it, and with switch things up.
"It has to be a game where we take it out of his hands and put it more in the quarterback's hands. If you can confuse the quarterback with either looks or give them the same look every time but change things up, (Leach) might be on the sideline saying, `They are just doing this,' but the quarterback may not see it. That's really the battle, more against the quarterback than him."
And with Hazelton, who is in his second year with the Cowboys, Wyoming does have a defensive mind that it figures will enjoy the challenge of Leach. Under Hazelton's direction, after all, a year ago, the Cowboys defense led the nation in turnover margin (1.85 per game), and fumbles recovered (18). They were second nationally in interceptions (20).
The bulk of the starters from that defense are back, including strong safety Andrew Wingard, defensive tackle Youhanna Ghaifan and defensive end Carl Granderson, first-team pre-season All-Mountain West selections. Ghaifan and Granderson were both first-team selections last year, and Wingard was a first-team selection the last two seasons. Junior linebacker Logan Wilson was a second-team All-MW selection a year ago, as well.
Safety Marcus Epps is among five seniors who started against Washington State as freshman. There are six other players on the Cowboys two-deep who also played in that game as freshmen.
"They run the same offense they have run forever, so we know he's going to air it out and we know he's going to attack us," said Epps. "So it's going to be a very big challenge for our defense, especially our secondary. ... Their offense is pretty straight forward. We think we have a good beat on what they're going to do and what he likes to do. It is just going to come down to executing."
Head coach Craig Bohl has been challenged by Leach's dating back to his days as a defensive coordinator at Nebraska, when Leach was the head coach at Texas Tech.
"There are a lot of similarities," said Bohl. "They have a philosophy. I thought we were outmanned the last time we were up there. We are going to need to have three a three or four plus turnover margin, and that didn't come about (in Pullman). Washington State had their way with us. I can remember that.
"We are a different program now. How we stack up?"
That's something only time will tell.
What is known is the Cowboys did not have to break open their entire defensive package against New Mexico State.
"We had pretty good control of the game, and so you kind of dance with who brung you," said Bohl. "Things were working pretty well. There's no sense trying to out-trick ourselves. I was really pleased. That's the most speed I have seen on our defense since I've been our head coach. Our guys were position well and played well. So part of it was by design and part of it was how the game went forward."
While Bohl isn't about to go into letting out any secrets about the defense's approach, there's no secret that Wyoming's defense this season is talented.
"A lot of experience back at key positions," said Bohl. "When you say key position, you're looking at really strong down the middle, whether it's a defensive tackle like Sid (Malauulu) or Youhanna (Ghaifan), or a middle linebacker like Logan (Wilson), or safeties like Marcus (Epps) or Andrew Wingard. That's pretty strong down the middle, and then you have some guys like (defensive end) Carl Granderson. We've got some good explosion from our corner.
"There is good athleticism. There's some maturity. A lot of Experience. The whole coaching staff is back. They got a taste of god last year. I think they want to take another step forward, but that could be characterized of our whole football team.
And in the next four games, the Cowboys will have a chance to take three giant step forwards against the likes of Washington State, Missouri and Boise State.