LARAMIE — By all accounts, Wyoming’s 2019 season was a successful one.
The Cowboys polished it off by throttling Georgia State 38-17 in the Arizona Bowl on New Year’s Eve. It gave Wyoming an eight-win season under Craig Bohl, matching the most games the Cowboys have ever won under their sixth-year coach.
It was yet another mark of consistency under Bohl, who’s guided Wyoming to four straight bowl-eligible seasons and three bowl appearances in those four years with the Cowboys winning two of them. Considering the Cowboys had just six bowl victories and 13 appearances in the program’s 117-year history before Bohl was hired away from North Dakota State in 2013, the progress the Cowboys are making under Bohl is undeniable.
Yet there’s also a sense of what-if attached to this season. A feeling that maybe more progress could’ve been made sooner had Wyoming been able to balance out the physical, blue-collar formula that will always be the Cowboys’ staple as long as Bohl is leading the program.
You better believe Bohl’s teams are going to play defense. A former walk-on at Nebraska-turned-defensive coordinator at his alma mater under the legendary Tom Osborne, Bohl believes wholeheartedly in the old offense-sells-tickets, defense-wins-championships adage. And when the unit wasn’t performing up to Bohl’s standards following the 2016 season, he got rid of defensive coordinator Steve Stanard and turned his defense over first to Scottie Hazelton and then eventually Jake Dickert, assistants who’d coached under him at NDSU.
Since then, Wyoming has ranked in the top 45 nationally in yards allowed and top 30 in points allowed. The Cowboys have had one of the nation’s top 25 rush defenses each of the past two seasons. This season, only San Diego State (12.7) allowed fewer points a game in the Mountain West than Wyoming (17.8).
Of course, the Cowboys want to run the ball as well as they stop it.
Whether it’s been paced by the school’s all-time leading rusher in Brian Hill or two straight 1,000-yard rushers in Nico Evans and, most recently, Xazavian Valladay, Wyoming has had rushing attacks that rank in the top 40 three of the last four seasons. It was the best it’s ever been under Bohl this season with the Cowboys finishing 23rd at 214.8 yards per game. The Cowboys also attempted more rushes than anybody in the league other than Air Force.
Wyoming rode that combination to a 6-2 start that began with a 37-31 upset of SEC foe Missouri and had the Cowboys squarely in contention in the MW’s Mountain Division. Then quarterback Sean Chambers went down with a season-ending knee injury, and the offense sputtered down the stretch against the better teams on the schedule without the threat of a consistent passing game — another trend that’s emerged during Bohl’s tenure.
Out of 130 Football Bowl Subdivision teams, Wyoming has ranked 101st or worse in passing offense four of the last six seasons, including three straight. That string started with future first-round draft pick Josh Allen at quarterback in 2017, when the Cowboys struggled to find consistency out wide without all-league receiver Tanner Gentry. It hasn’t been any better in the post-Allen era with the Cowboys ranking 124th last season and 123rd this season in passing yards.
But efficiency has been as much of an issue as anything through the air for the Cowboys, who’ve gone two straight seasons completing less than 50 percent of their passes. Among Chambers, Tyler Vander Waal and true freshman Levi Williams, Wyoming had a completion rate of just 47 percent this season, though Chambers’ injury in the first half against Nevada on Oct. 26 came just as the redshirt freshman seemed to be finding a rhythm through the air. He combined to complete 63 percent of his attempts with three touchdowns against New Mexico and the Wolf Pack in his final two games.
Grinding to a halt
Without Chambers, Boise State, Utah State, Colorado State and Air Force all loaded the box more than usual against Wyoming. The Cowboys’ defense kept them close in every game, including the only league loss Wyoming took with Chambers — a 26-22 setback at San Diego State. Wyoming allowed just 23 points on average in regulation against SDSU, Boise State and Utah State, and the Cowboys held Air Force’s option attack to 136.5 fewer rushing yards than its season average and 13 points before a long touchdown pass in the waning minutes broke Wyoming’s back in a 20-6 loss.
But the Cowboys started November with a 20-17 overtime loss at Boise State and didn’t score more than 21 points the rest of the month, going winless against the Broncos, Utah State and Air Force — the three teams that finished ahead of them in the division standings. The Cowboys’ four league losses came by a combined 25 points with Wyoming barely mustering as many passing yards (141.2) as rushing yards (138) on average in those games, leaving a bitter taste in the Cowboys’ collective mouth before they washed it out with their second bowl win in three years.
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Youth has certainly contributed to the inconsistency through the air the last two seasons. A redshirt sophomore this season, Vander Waal, who’s set to leave the program after entering the transfer portal last month, is the oldest quarterback among the trio that’s started a game. But Williams showed promise with his arm in the bowl game, which doubled as his first career start.
Williams took every offensive snap for the Cowboys and threw for 234 yards — a season-high for Wyoming in passing yards. He completed just 11 of his 26 attempts, but he was accurate enough both inside and outside of the pocket for three of those to go for touchdowns, all in the first half.
Williams attempted 18 passes in the first half alone, a notable stat considering Wyoming attempted more than that in just four games all season. At one point, the Cowboys had attempted 12 runs and 12 passes, a far more even playcalling distribution than usual that drew a chuckle from Bohl afterward when asked about it.
“Basically I’ve listened to you guys telling us how we need to be more balanced,” Bohl quipped, referring to the media.
Later, Bohl got more serious about the need for the passing game to evolve in the future.
“Without question,” Bohl said. “I think running the football is going to be important. That’s going to be one of our trademarks. But you can stop the run if you deploy guys up there, and that’s where you play-action pass or show pass. It’s going to be important for us to do that. However, we’re not going to become something like Mike Leach and Washington State. That’s just not us.”
It’s an extreme example Bohl uses often when trying to drive home the point the Cowboys aren’t going to stray from their rugged offensive identity, but nobody is expecting Wyoming to start throwing the ball 40 times a game. If there’s one thing you can say about Wyoming under Bohl’s leadership, it’s that there’s no identity crisis. The Cowboys know exactly who they are.
But whether it’s working off the run game to create big plays or having a plan B to go to when defenses have answers for what Wyoming is doing on the ground, the offense needs the complementary piece like it had in 2016. That season, Wyoming complemented the nation’s No. 36-ranked rush offense with the No. 67 passing offense and made its only MW championship game appearance of Bohl’s tenure so far.
Last week’s bowl game was one of two games this season in which Wyoming had more than 200 yards passing and rushing. The other was against Nevada, a bowl team that finished in the upper half of the West Division standings. The Cowboys won those games by an average of nearly four touchdowns (24.5 points).
There are plenty of reasons to think Wyoming can win a lot more games next season too.
A relatively young team, the Cowboys are losing just 15 scholarship seniors and 12 players off the two-deep. Losing the likes of Logan Wilson, Alijah Halliburton and Tyler Hall on defense will hurt, but with six players that ended the season as starters and six of the top eight defensive linemen on the two-deep set to return, the defense should still be formidable.
And Wyoming’s running game should once again be hard to contain. The Cowboys have all five starting offensive linemen returning. Valladay and his league-leading 1,265 rushing yards will be back as will freshman Titus Swen and senior Trey Smith, both of whom missed the last half of the season with injuries. Add in some redshirt freshmen the coaching staff are high on, and Wyoming should have one of the deepest, most talented backfields in the MW.
The schedule is also as advantageous as it gets in the league with division contenders Boise State, Utah State and Air Force as well as SDSU all coming to War Memorial Stadium next season. Wyoming will play its lone Power Five opponent, Utah, at home as well.
“That’s going to be a big chore for me as the head football coach is to make sure our culture stays hungry and focused and that we continue to take another step forward,” Bohl said. “We’ve got some unfinished business to do in our league, and we’re excited about next year already.”
Many of the ingredients are there to take that next step. But Wyoming will need the help of more efficiency through the air to do it.
Follow UW athletics beat writer Davis Potter on Twitter at @DavisEPotter.