LARAMIE — Wyoming hasn’t had a problem running the ball with Nico Evans.
The Cowboys’ senior running back has gashed defenses when he’s been on the field. Of the four games Evans has played — he missed two with bruised ribs — he’s rushed for at least 140 yards in three of them while his 7.8 yards per carry is tops in the Mountain West.
Balancing out Evans’ production through the air has been the season-long issue.
Wyoming is near the bottom nationally in most offensive categories, ranking 126th out of 129 FBS teams in both points and yards largely because of a passing game that’s producing less than 149 yards each time out, which is good for 115th nationally. The Cowboys are also 115th in third downs and next to last in third-down conversion rate.
“We’re off,” Wyoming coach Craig Bohl said. “We’re not playing efficiently enough for us to win ball games.”
From a group of receivers that’s yet to have one establish himself as a go-to target, an offensive line that’s starting three underclassmen and a freshman quarterback that’s still learning the nuances of playing the position at the Football Bowl Subdivision level in Tyler Vander Waal, Bohl said the reason for that is widespread. Vander Waal has largely stayed away from mistakes with just two interceptions, but the 6-foot-4, 220-pounder hasn’t done much more than manage games. He has thrown for 889 yards and three scores to this point while completing just 54.6 percent of his passes.
Vander Waal, who’s eclipsed the 200-yard mark just once against FBS opponents this season, has thrown for less than 100 yards in two games, including last week’s 17-13 loss at Hawaii. Coaches and players said the game plan was to lean on Evans against a suspect Hawaii defense, one that worked with Evans rushing for a career-high 192 yards on 24 carries. But the Cowboys rarely took advantage of man coverage on the outside with the Warriors creeping seven, eight and sometimes nine defenders toward the line of scrimmage.
Vander Waal finished 9 of 16 for just 87 yards.
And any negative play that put Wyoming behind the chains early in a possession essentially killed it. The Cowboys went just 2 of 12 on third down, dropping their conversion rate for the season to 29.3 percent. Only Old Dominion (28 percent) has been worse on third down this season.
“We certainly can’t be one-dimensional. We’ve got to open up the playbook some more this week,” Bohl said. “I think when you have a talented running back like Nico, he’s really worked hard and I think we’re blocking well for him, but I think we need to utilize that as a weapon. But the other aspects, whether it’s staying on the field with third-down conversions or whatever, that’s way off.”
Bohl and his staff will continue to evaluate the offensive personnel to see what combinations are best, but he said he’s seen enough from Vander Waal to make him believe the redshirt freshman is still the best option at quarterback. Vander Waal has already been sacked 18 times this season, a number Vander Waal chalked up to protection breakdowns along an offensive line still going through some growing pains with a sophomore and two redshirt freshmen up front, as well as some tight coverage and his own lack of awareness at times.
“I have to know when to get out of there. I have to know when to throw it away,” he said. “But it’s also the coverage. I think the defense is covering our guys pretty well, too.”
Vander Waal described his performance so far as inconsistent. He showed he was capable when he orchestrated the winning drive in the final minute against Wofford on Sept. 15. Saturday he led Wyoming on a frantic final march against Hawaii that reached the Warriors’ 14-yard line before time ran out, but there have been simpler throws throughout the course of games where a more accurate pass here or a softer delivery there could’ve helped the Cowboys sustain more drives.
“The strengths that we felt won him the job are accuracy and his athleticism,” offensive coordinator Brent Vigen said. “They’ve shown up, but they haven’t shown up consistently. That’s what needs to happen moving forward. This isn’t about asking him to make all kinds of down-the-field big plays necessarily, but it’s about making the simple ones. The second half of the season, those are the things we’ve got to be able to count on.”
That starts Saturday with a trip to Fresno State, where Wyoming will face a defense that’s given up the fewest points in the MW so far. Some semblance of balance will be the Cowboys’ best bet against everybody the rest of the way.
“The bottom line is we’ve got to produce more points if we’re going to be successful,” Bohl said. “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.”