BOISE, Idaho — It’s not that Wyoming was just happy to be in San Diego last December.
There were positives, though, that the Pokes could take from their Poinsettia Bowl experience, even without earning the win. It was Wyoming’s first bowl appearance since 2011. There was the warm weather, the big city, Wyoming’s first California game of the season.
“In San Diego, there’s just so much to do, so much to see,” quarterback Nick Smith said. “Whereas Boise, I don’t think there’s maybe that same element. I think our guys will stay true to curfew.”
Running back Brian Hill’s failure to do that last year cost him the first quarter of Wyoming’s 24-21 loss to BYU.
The Potato Bowl, which will host Wyoming and Central Michigan at 2 p.m. Friday, does not come with the same level of distraction. A vacation in Boise — no offense to bowling, french fries and go-kart racing — is not likely to soften the blow of another bowl loss.
“We’re not going there for the amenities or the ambiance, the experience of the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl,” quarterback Josh Allen said. “I’m sure it’s going to be a good time, but we’re very focused on the task at hand, and that’s winning a football game on December 22nd.”
The biggest distraction of all would have been an absence of Allen, who suffered a shoulder injury Nov. 11, and was replaced by Smith in Wyoming’s final two games of the regular season. Allen’s status for the bowl game was not made official until Wednesday, leaving many Wyoming fans ambivalent about the idea of booking a trip to watch a Cowboys team that had just lost two games without him.
But Allen will be on the field, almost certainly for the last time as a Wyoming Cowboy. Now Wyoming can focus on doing something it hasn’t done in over a month.
“Last year, it was just great being at a bowl, because we hadn’t been to one since 2011,” receiver C.J. Johnson said. “We still prepared like we were going to go out there and win it, and we just came up a little bit short. But this year, it seems like it’s the norm that we should make a bowl game now and that we should go out and get the job done.”
To trot out an old sports cliche, it’s a business trip. And while the Cowboys (7-5) are in the business of trying to snap a two-game losing skid, the Chippewas (8-4) are riding a five-game winning streak.
Central Michigan finished second in the Mid-American Conference’s West Division with a 6-2 conference mark. The Chips did something no other team could this year: force more turnovers than Wyoming. The Cowboys’ 30 takeaways in 2017 were bested only by Central Michigan’s 31.
“When the D-line is pressuring, then the QB rushes the throw,” all-conference Central Michigan cornerback Amari Coleman said, “and we get the opportunity to go get the ball and make turnovers. So I feel like it’s just a combined effort from all of us.”
If that sounds familiar, it should. The Cowboys’ pass defense has also been the catalyst to its success in shutting down teams this season. This bowl game features the nation’s fifth-best defense in preventing passing yards (Wyoming) and seventh-best pass efficiency defense (Central Michigan).
“It all starts with the D-line,” Allen said. “When you’ve got a good defensive front, you can play coverage and you can let four of your guys go get it and understand that you’ve got seven guys back, trying to catch the ball.
“Their D-line’s very good. They’ve got a very good D-end. Their DB’s are quick. They’re ball hawks, and when the ball touches their hand, they don’t usually drop it.”
About that defensive end. Senior Joe Ostman leads the entire country in sacks per game, with an average of 1.2.
“They’re good, and they’re stout, which does not surprise me,” Wyoming head coach Craig Bohl said of the Chippewas’ defensive line. “The area of the country they’re from, they produce a lot of big, strong, physical guys. They’re tough to move at the point of attack. I think they do a good job establishing the line of scrimmage. They do a great job of pressuring the pass in the passing game, and so it will pose a big challenge for our offensive line.”
Offensively, the Chippewas have crossed the 400-yard threshold in three of the five games in their current win streak, and running back Jonathan Ward has rushed for 100-plus yards in three of them.
“Their running back is really good,” Wyoming sophomore linebacker Logan Wilson said. “He’s their best player. He’s a good jump-cutter. Their O-line is pretty good. It’s a good matchup for us, and we’re looking forward to it.”
Allen’s counterpart Friday will be Michigan transfer Shane Morris, who is less than 100 yards from hitting the 3,000-yard mark in his senior season.
“We’ve got to take into account their quarterback’s a left-handed quarterback, so that’s not something you see every day,” Wyoming senior linebacker Jalen Ortiz said. “... (He) just spins it different, with the angles, with the shoulders. And getting a read on it (is different), too.”
Though the Chippewas have had a winning stretch of late, each of their last three seasons have finished with a bowl loss. Likewise, Wyoming has lost two straight bowl games.
But the losing streak Wyoming is most concerned with is the one that began with November losses to Fresno State and San Jose State. Lose Friday, and Wyoming will have finished two straight winning seasons with three-game losing streaks.
“It’s definitely something that we brought into the offseason, going into winter conditioning,” senior fullback Drew Van Maanen said. “It’s something we stress all the time, not ending a season like that again. This year, our last two games haven’t gone our way, and that’s something that we’ve preached this entire bowl prep is not to end the season with a loss.
“That’s exactly how our guys are going out and practicing. They’re attacking everything they do. ... Everybody’s flying around, just giving everything that they have out there. Because that’s something that’s big to us.
“We don’t want to end the season on a loss. We really want a bowl win.”