LARAMIE — When the Wyoming Cowboys scored two defensive touchdowns in a 45-10 win against Texas State on Sept. 30, you might have felt as if you were watching the 2016 Cowboys play defense. Last year, Wyoming scored five defensive touchdowns, at one point ranking second to only Alabama in that category.
This year’s defense has had no problem forcing turnovers under first-year coordinator Scottie Hazelton; they have 12 in five games. But comparing the Cowboys to the Wyoming defense of a year ago would be selling them short.
There is still plenty of season to play, but Wyoming has allowed 107.5 fewer yards per game, 13.3 fewer points per game and 1.8 fewer yards per play in 2017 than in 2016, with 0.5 more takeaways, 2.4 more tackles for loss and 0.46 more sacks on average.
“We’re excited about a lot of things we do,” Hazelton said. “The guys play with good effort. I think they’re getting to the point where they understand the scheme. They’re understanding when they can take risks and when they can’t. They’re starting to get to that point.
“We always say it takes a while. It takes a while to really get it down, but I think that with the more reps, you hope that they start to understand it more and more and the better we’ll get.”
Though the unit had to adjust to a change in coordinators, Wyoming defenders have raved about playing for Hazelton from the start, and the group lost just three starters from last season, two of whom did not finish out the year.
“We had a lot of really talented players coming back,” head coach Craig Bohl said. “We were young last year. I think our guys certainly are playing with a great deal of energy.
“... However, our yardage needs to get held down a little bit. People are still gaining too many yards, and we’re going to work hard on that. Points are always important. I thought obviously we did a nice job with that (against Texas State).”
Wyoming’s 345.6 yards allowed per game currently rank fifth in the Mountain West, while the Pokes’ are second in scoring defense (20.8), second in sacks (2.6) and second in tackles for loss (8.0, tied for 11th nationally).
Wyoming is also second in the conference with 2.4 turnovers per game, and the Cowboys don’t believe that’s just by circumstance.
“If guys have the ability to play fast, you hope that they can be more explosive, they can run, they can strike faster, they can have better leverage,” Hazelton said.
“They can do those things, and if they understand what they’re doing, hopefully they can play faster, and the faster they can play, you hope that there’s more turnovers you can cause.
“It doesn’t always work hand in hand, but it’s true that if you’re hitting people harder, the ball’s more likely to jar out. Or if you’re hitting the quarterback, he’s more likely to throw a bad ball.”
In fact, as good as the 2016 unit was at forcing turnovers, linebacker Adam Pilapil believes this year’s group is even better.
“I think last year, a lot of it was we were getting lucky,” he said. “... I remember one specifically, Logan (Wilson) just recovered a ball in the end zone, and a couple (touchdowns) at Eastern Michigan when the dude is just throwing it to us.”
Contrast that with the touchdown Wilson had against Texas State last month. The Natrona County graduate deliberately poked the ball out of the quarterback’s hands, caught it himself and delivered it to the end zone.
“This year I think that speed on defense … that’s the reason we’re getting turnovers,” Pilapil said. “We’re forcing teams to turn the ball over. I mean, I think a ton of times, the ball is getting tipped, and that’s just a D-lineman or a linebacker getting their hand up or a DB getting their hand up and then another guy’s able to catch it. That’s kind of the speed there. Guys are chasing dudes down, forcing fumbles.
“I mean, with Logan’s strip sack last week, that’s him bending the corner. That’s just his speed and his ability to get that play, not as much getting lucky. I think he meant to do that, and he did it.
“So I think this year — there’s definitely always been a mindset whenever you’re a defensive guy to get the ball — but this year we’re forcing teams to turn the ball over, where I think in the past it hasn’t been that way.”