LARAMIE — Wyoming’s defense isn’t playing like it did in the first half of the season.
That’s a good thing for the Cowboys.
The group looks more like many expected it to from the start given its production and experience. The Cowboys returned eight starters from a defense that finished at or near the top of the Mountain West in numerous statistical categories a season ago, including a league-best 2.54 sacks per game and a nation-best 38 turnovers.
Wyoming has seen its share of potent offenses — Missouri ranks 17th nationally in yards while No. 8 Washington State has thrown for more yards than anybody in the country — but the Cowboys didn’t have much luck stopping anybody outside of New Mexico State in their first five games. Once Boise State was finished piling up 506 yards and more points than any MW team had scored on the Cowboys in two years in a 34-14 win on Sept. 29, Wyoming ranked 76th nationally in total defense, 98th in passing defense, 79th in takeaways, 105th in sacks and 111th in third-down defense.
Wyoming has drastically improved on most of those categories since. The Cowboys are 20th nationally in run defense, 30th in total defense, 63rd against the pass and 82nd in third-down defense heading into their Nov. 17 matchup against Air Force.
“We just kept putting our heads down and practicing hard each and every week,” linebacker Logan Wilson said. “When you have that mindset, you’re not really worried about all the outside stuff that people say about you all the time.”
They all admit that was a problem. With its leading tackler back in Wilson, an All-American at safety in Andrew Wingard and two NFL Draft hopefuls along the defensive line in Youhanna Ghaifan and Carl Granderson, the group concerned itself far too often with trying to live up to all the preseason hype rather than just playing — something second-year defensive coordinator Scottie Hazelton reminded his players of during a meeting the day after the beatdown by the Broncos.
“We weren’t playing well, and he told us that usually if you look at the tape (last year), guys are flying to the ball and celebrating with one another,” senior defensive back Tyler Hall said. “This year, that really wasn’t happening. So we got back to our own roots and who we actually were as a defense, our identity.”
It started the next week when the Cowboys allowed just 304 yards to Hawaii’s run-and-shoot attack and scored Wyoming’s only touchdown on Granderson’s pick-six in a 17-13 loss. The offense’s inability to flip the field against Fresno State — the Bulldogs started three scoring drives in Wyoming territory — was too much to overcome in a 27-3 loss on Oct. 13, but it was the Cowboys’ fourth straight loss to Utah State the next week in which the veteran group started to show flashes of its old self.
Wyoming held what was the nation’s second-highest scoring offense at the time to just 194 yards and 17 points in a 24-16 setback. That carried over at Colorado State the following week when the defense put together arguably its most dominant effort of the season in helping the Cowboys build a 24-0 lead late in the third quarter. Wyoming limited the Rams to a season-low 20 rushing yards, forced three turnovers and allowed just 127 total yards before CSU put together three late scoring drives with the game largely out of reach.
Even without Granderson and Ghaifan, who remains indefinitely suspended, Wyoming pitched its second straight first-half shutout last week in a 24-9 win over San Jose State. While sacks (15) and turnovers (12) have still been hard to come by, the Cowboys have gotten the ball back to the offense quickly with seven combined three-and-outs the last two games while each takeaway against CSU came within the first two plays of those possessions.
“Those first four or five games, we were too focused on the outside noise and doing things so perfectly right that we just lost our edge,” Wingard said. “I think our edge is just playing free. That’s what we do. We play free, we play wild, and I think you saw that (against Colorado State). Guys were flying around and making plays. Big hits and talking a little trash here and there. That’s what we’re built on.”
Is Hazelton’s reminder solely responsible for the turnaround? That might be a stretch.
The offense has done its part to help since Sean Chambers took over at quarterback. The offense has pieced together drives primarily on the ground to average 24.6 points since the true freshman was inserted for Tyler Vander Waal two and a half games ago. The Cowboys are converting on third down at a 34-percent clip, which is still last in the MW. But it’s an improvement on a conversion rate that was less than 30 percent — the worst in the country — through the first seven games.
“Just having more balance on our football team and keeping our guys fresh has really helped I think,” Wyoming coach Craig Bohl said.
But Hazelton’s words resonated with his players, sticking with them ever since.
“I think our attitude in practice just kind of changed that week,” Wilson said. “Instead of making mistakes and no one really talking or saying anything, we started to have more fun. We were more enthusiastic throughout the week of practice, and we’ve kind of kept that.”