LARAMIE — If Wyoming was looking for a reprieve, the Cowboys won’t find it this week.
After sputtering to a 17-13 loss at Hawaii, Wyoming is back on the road Saturday for another Mountain West cross-division matchup with Fresno State. With that comes a date with one of the nation’s best defenses, the latest challenge for a Wyoming offense that’s struggled to produce anything all season outside of Nico Evans.
Evans is averaging 153 yards on the ground, which would rank third nationally if he had enough games to qualify. Since returning two weeks ago from bruised ribs that kept him out of a pair of games, the Cowboys’ senior running back is averaging more than 166 yards a game. However, Wyoming mustered just 199 total yards in those games when Evans didn’t touch the ball.
Inconsistency from freshman quarterback Tyler Vander Waal, an offensive line that’s struggled to protect him (18 sacks), and a receiving corps that’s yet to have a go-to guy emerge have all contributed to the Cowboys’s struggles. The passing game produced just 87 yards against Hawaii, another unproductive outing that dropped Wyoming to 126th out of 129 Football Bowl Subdivision teams in points and yards and 115th in passing yards.
It’s up to the Cowboys to try to get some semblance of balance figured out against a defense that will provide a much stiffer test than the one they faced last week. That is if they want a realistic shot at avoiding their first-three game losing streak since the end of the 2016 season.
“I don’t really think we’ve found that identity,” Vander Waal said. “We’re kind of still guessing if we can throw the quick game, if we can take deep shots, if we can do the intermediate pass game or play-action. There’s still a lot of question mark surrounding the offense, and it’s hard to tell. It’s Week 6. We’ve got to find it pretty soon.”
Fresh off a 21-3 win at Nevada to open its conference slate, Fresno State begins the week ninth nationally in points allowed. The Bulldogs have been downright stingy in all facets, ranking in the top 35 in total defense, run defense and pass defense, while not many defenses have been better at taking the ball away.
Fresno State is second nationally in turnover margin, baiting most opponents into those miscues on the back end with a defense that might be the most multiple Wyoming has seen to this point in its fronts and coverages. Only North Texas has racked up more interceptions than the Bulldogs (11).
“Hawaii was cover 3 (in its coverage). Some teams were cover 4,” Vander Waal said. “I think Fresno State will be all over the place and throwing stuff at us trying to get in my head and trying to be in the O-line’s head. I think they’ll rush five, six guys a lot of the time and try to apply pressure.”
Wyoming saw it up close and personal a season ago in Laramie when Fresno State beat the Cowboys 13-7. The Bulldogs have seven starters back from a defense that held Wyoming to 308 yards and 2 of 14 on third down, an area the Cowboys haven’t been any better in this season with a 29.3 conversion percentage that’s second-worst in the FBS.
“They like to play fast. They run pretty well,” receiver James Price said. “I don’t see them being too physical (in the secondary), but they do like to come up and press at times.”
Wyoming had its one of its better defensive efforts last week against Hawaii, holding the Warriors’ run-and-shoot offense to 304 yards and producing points on Carl Granderson’s 61-yard pick-six. The Cowboys will face a different test this week from quarterback Marcus McMaryion, a dual threat who’s efficiently operated Fresno’s offense to the tune of 14 total touchdowns and just two interceptions.
But slowing down the Bulldogs’ offense won’t matter if Wyoming can’t score more points, a task that won’t get any easier at Bulldog Stadium. Fresno State, which has won four in a row and seven of its last eight at home, hasn’t given up more than 27 points in any of its last 10 home games dating back to 2016.
“We’re going to continue to look at all the things we do, but the bottom line is we’ve got to produce more points if we’re going to be successful,” head coach Craig Bohl said. “I think we’re going to be playing good defenses, but we’ve got to get to the point where our point total is increasing and is going to give us an opportunity to win games.”