LARAMIE — Wyoming’s running game has taken a step up in production this season.
The numbers were far from terrible in that department last season when the Cowboys had the Mountain West’s leading rusher on a per-game basis in Nico Evans. Wyoming averaged 4.9 yards per carry and 200 yards a game on the ground, but when it comes to efficiency, the Cowboys are well ahead of last year’s pace.
Wyoming’s 5.6 yards per carry are tops in the league, and it’s not a small sample size. Only Air Force and San Diego State have more rush attempts than the Cowboys (220) at this point. Wyoming also lost graduate transfer running back Trey Smith after four games to an ankle injury, but with quarterback Sean Chambers (7.1 yards per carry), true freshman Titus Swen (5.5) and Xazavian Valladay (5.2) carrying the load, Wyoming is churning out nearly 50 more yards per game on the ground than it did last season.
The Cowboys’ 248.3 yards per game ranks second in the MW and 14th in the Football Bowl Subdivision. But all those numbers will get by far their biggest test so far — and perhaps all season — this weekend.
It’ll be strength against strength when Wyoming travels to SDCCU Stadium on Saturday to renew its series with San Diego State, which boasts the top run defense in the country. After limiting Colorado State to just 18 rushing yards in their 24-10 win last week, the Aztecs are allowing just 45.4 rushing yards per game and a minuscule 1.79 yards per attempt for the season.
The most rushing yards SDSU has yielded is 82 in a 23-17 loss to Utah State on Sept. 21, and the Aggies needed 27 attempts to get there. Meanwhile, it’s been more than a calendar year since Wyoming was held to less than 100 yards on the ground (81 against Boise State on Sept. 29, 2018).
Something’s going to have to give when the teams meet this weekend for the first time since the 2016 MW championship game.
“It’s always fun to rise to the occasion, and I think our guys are ready to do that,” Wyoming guard Logan Harris said.
Harris (concussion) and tackle Alonzo Velazquez (knee) are expected to return to the right side of the offensive line after missing the UNLV game with injuries, experience the Cowboys could use up front against a defense that has perhaps the most varied mix of fronts, stunts and personnel Wyoming will see all season. It’s helped SDSU rack up 42 tackles for loss, which is good for ninth-most nationally.
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“There’s gap-control defense, which we play,” Wyoming coach Craig Bohl said. “And then there’s a gap-cancellation defense, which they play. And they’re very disruptive at it.”
Of course, being balanced would go a long way in keeping SDSU’s defense honest. That’s been a struggle this season for a Wyoming offense that’s 128th out of 130 FBS teams in passing yards (116.6) and last in completion percentage (36.7), though Chambers has completed 48 percent of his passes in his last five quarters — 10 percentage points higher than his season clip.
With defenses loading the box, Wyoming’s rushing totals fluctuated through the first four games and dropped to a season-low 143 yards in a 24-21 loss at Tulsa on Sept. 21. The Cowboys came back the next week and ran for a season-high 374 yards in a 53-17 win over UNLV to open their MW slate.
But UNLV, which is allowing the second-most rushing yards in the league, isn’t SDSU. Bohl said it will be particularly important in this game for his offense to have two dimensions.
“We need to be able to move the ball on the ground,” Bohl said. “It’s not like we can just say, ‘Hey, we’re going to do maximum protection and throw the ball vertically downfield.’ However, our percentages do need to improve. We need to stay on the field more and be more balanced.”
Wyoming has burned defenses when they haven’t made tackles at the first or second levels. Chambers, Smith, Valladay and Swen each have runs of at least 59 yards while Wyoming has five touchdowns runs of 33 yards or more.
It gives the Cowboys confidence they can crack SDSU’s defense on the ground. Even if they have to be more patient than usual.
“They pursue the ball really well, but with all of that moving, if we get 3 or 4 yards, 3 or 4 yards, they’re going to get tired,” Harris said. “I think we have a great game plan going into this game.”