LARAMIE — Wyoming’s defense has impressed in its first two games under defensive coordinator Scottie Hazelton. Wyoming’s defense has not yet played Oregon.
The Cowboys currently rank third in the country in passing yards allowed per game, 73.5, but they’ve also faced fewer passes than any team that has played two games, 22.
That number will double Saturday when the Cowboys host the Ducks, who have thrown for 720 yards and four touchdowns in two wins.
“I think you always like those challenges,” Hazelton said. “You always like to see where you’re at, and we had a team that runs the ball quite a bit. That was one challenge. Now we’ve got a team that flings it around, and we’ll see how we defend that.”
Leading the Oregon passing game is sophomore quarterback Justin Herbert, who is top-10 nationally in completion percentage and pass efficiency.
“He’s 6-foot-6, he’s 225 pounds, he can make all the throws, and he’s getting about a 78 percent completion percentage,” head coach Craig Bohl said. “(He) takes care of the football, and he is mobile. They’ll choose to run him on predetermined quarterback runs at times, so you’ll see his mobility. He’s not a tall, angular guy that does not have mobility, so anytime you have that combination that always poses a problem.”
Overall, the Ducks have the nation’s second-best offense in yards per game and third-best in scoring.
So how difficult is it to go from Iowa, a team whose quarterback was making his first start in Iowa, and Gardner-Webb, a team that runs an option offense, to a team whose name is synonymous with spread football?
“Well, I would normally say extremely difficult, and this is not an overstatement, but we have a guy that throws the ball fairly well, too,” Bohl said, referring to Wyoming quarterback Josh Allen. “And so as a result of that, the work that we’ve had during spring football and during fall camp, we do some periods during practice when we go against one another, so we’ve got a guy that can throw the ball vertically and put it in all the right places, and we’ve got some receivers.
“We have not been challenged like we’re going to be challenged this week, though, and in that challenge lies a great opportunity for our players.”
Senior Charles Nelson leads the Ducks with 13 catches for 216 yards. He has a catch of 42-plus yards in each of his first two games this year.
“They do all kinds of different things,” Hazelton said of Oregon’s receiving corps. “They’re a big-shot team, so hopefully we can get them to throw the ball and check it down and tackle them when we have space there. But they put the ball over the top quite a bit.”
It’s not just the passing game the Cowboys have to be worried about. Oregon running back Royce Freeman has averaged 5.8 yards per carry so far this season, posting 303 rushing yards with six rushing touchdowns through two games.
“He’s powerful,” Hazelton said. “He can run the ball hard. He’s a guy that has good balance. He’s physical enough to run through things and has good balance that he can bounce off of tackles, and he also has good enough speed where he can go. He’s a good, complete back.”
Said Bohl: “Royce Freeman is a recognized name around the country,” Bohl said. “I think he’s back in his mode. ... He’s a big, strong guy, about 240 pounds, 6 foot. So, strong presence. And they’ve got a big offensive line. They lean on you, they protect the quarterback well, but they open up some holes.
“That, combined with some tight ends and an explosive group of wide receivers, you’re dealing with a prolific offense, and Oregon’s been noted for that. Coach (Willie) Taggart’s done a great job shaping the guys that they have and utilizing them. It does stress the defense.”
That defense currently is 12th in the nation in fewest yards allowed per game. After Saturday, no one will be able to say they haven’t been tested.
“It’s very exciting, especially for the defense,” defensive end Kevin Prosser said. “We’re going to be able to hold it down. It’s going to be fun.”