No. 79: Wyoming
By Paul Myerberg // Jun 19, 2012
Wyoming’s five losses in 2011 came to teams that combined for 45 wins in the regular season, a group that includes two near-B.C.S. misses in Boise State and T.C.U. and a third B.C.S. bowl contender in Nebraska. The Cowboys’ six wins against F.B.S. competition, on the other hand, came against teams that combined for 26 wins in the regular season. Yes, Wyoming was 8-4: that’s 8-4 with three nothing-to-see-here wins — U.N.L.V., New Mexico and Colorado State — and two wins over F.C.S. competition, Texas State and Weber State. It wasn’t the prettiest eight-win regular season you’ll ever see, nor the most impressive. Up next: beating the bad teams, as all good teams do, but also hanging tight with the good teams, if not winning outright.
12 (5 offense, 7 defense)
Last year’s ranking
- Sept. 1
- Sept. 8
- Sept. 15
- Sept. 22
- Oct. 6
- Oct. 13
- Oct. 20
at Fresno St.
- Oct. 27
- Nov. 3
- Nov. 10
at New Mexico
- Nov. 17
- Nov. 24
San Diego St.
Last year’s prediction
If Wyoming does get to six wins, to take it further, it probably won’t be with the most impressive six-win slate you’ve ever seen: that pair, U.N.L.V., New Mexico, Bowling Green and Colorado State, for example. Why can Wyoming get to six wins? Because of the schedule, more than anything. But the team will definitely be better, starting with what looks like a better defense. Questions still remain on offense, however. Every year will find Christensen’s attack more potent, 2011 included. The lack of play-makers and explosiveness, minus Alexander, still looms large; as does the inexperienced quarterback corps, though it will be great for this offense to find a multiple-year starter. So while I see Wyoming getting at least five wins, can see six with some ease, I don’t think this is a team that will be able to hang with the strong teams on the schedule. The Cowboys are good, not great, but getting better.
In a nutshell The Cowboys did get back into bowl play, adding five victories to their 2010 total, and nothing matters more than that. But this young team was a tad inconsistent — though that was expected — and struggled against the meat of its schedule. The year might have had a different feel had Wyoming scheduled tougher outside of conference play; starting with two F.C.S. foes, given this team’s youth, certainly helped start the year off on a strong note. As it was, Wyoming was the beneficiary of more than a handful of easy-win games, though there is something to be said of a team that takes care of business against the weaklings on the schedule. While not the best eight-win team in the country – one of the worst, in fact – Wyoming was, in fact, an eight-win team. As noted, nothing matters more than that.
High point Two great road wins over a three-week span. Wyoming beat San Diego State, 30-27, on the last Saturday of October, and followed a loss to T.C.U. with a 25-17 win at Air Force on Nov. 12. These were Wyoming’s only two wins over teams that ended the regular season with a winning record.
Low point A one-sided New Mexico Bowl loss to Temple, seeing that it came hours after the program inked Dave Christensen to a five-year contract extension. But in terms of pure ugliness, check out a 63-19 loss at Utah State on Oct. 8: the Aggies had 42 points at halftime, a program high in the first half since 1991.
Tidbit Three things Wyoming did extremely well in 2011: protect the football, create turnovers – those two are tied together, I suppose – and protect the quarterback. The offensive line allowed only 12.0 sacks on the season, never allowing more than two in a game, tying the Cowboys with Oklahoma State for the 14th-fewest sacks allowed per game. Wyoming also forced 31 turnovers, tied for 10th in the F.B.S., while committing 19 turnovers, which tied for 32nd. The plus-12 turnover margin was tied for the seventh-best ratio in the country and the third-best among non-B.C.S. conference teams.
Former players in the N.F.L.
6 RB Alvester Alexander (Chicago), WR Malcolm Floyd (San Diego), S Tashaun Gipson (Cleveland), S Chris Prosinski (Jacksonville), DT Mitch Unrein (Denver), S John Wendling (Detroit).
Arbitrary top five list
Baseball players born in Wyoming
1. SP Tom Browning.
2. 2B Mike Lansing.
3. SP Dick Ellsworth.
4. OF Mike Devereaux.
5. RP Dan Spillner.
Dave Christensen (Western Washington ’85), 18-20 after three seasons with the Cowboys. Christensen came to Laramie from Missouri, where he had spent the previous eight seasons as the offensive coordinator. Prior to Missouri, Christensen served as an assistant at Toledo (1992-2000), also under Missouri coach Gary Pinkel. His extensive tenure as an F.B.S. offensive coordinator has shown Christensen to be one of the nation’s top offensive minds. From 2005, when it first made the switch from a traditional offense to the pass-happy, no-huddle spread, until Christensen’s departure in 2008, Missouri went 37-16, including 22-6 over his final two seasons. To see just how effective this offense can be, look no further than the dynamic, quick-strike capabilities of the Missouri offense as piloted by Chase Daniel, the two-time Heisman contender. While the Daniel-led offense focused on the pass, Christensen tinkered with the look to give his predecessor, Brad Smith, more running opportunities, showing how the attack can be altered to match personnel. Christensen’s offensive background is undoubtedly what attracted Wyoming, but his hands-on experience in program building was another strong asset. Under Pinkel, Christensen helped build winners at Toledo (73-37-3 from 1991-2000) and Missouri (59-41 from 2000-8); the Tigers won only 60 games in the 16 years before their arrival. For Wyoming, a program that has recently fallen behind the top teams in the Mountain West Conference, landing a coach of Christensen’s stature was a welcome stroke of good luck. As noted in the opening, he has led Wyoming to a point where it stands above the bottom portion of the Mountain West. The program’s next step entails taking care of those teams while hanging with – and soon, beating – the conference’s top half.
Tidbit (coaching edition) Christensen made an inspired hire in offensive coordinator Gregg Brandon, the former Bowling Green head coach who had a distinct impact on Wyoming’s offense and quarterback play during his first season in Laramie. Christensen hopes to land a similar boost from new defensive coordinator Chris Tormey, who steps in for longtime coordinator Marty English, now at Colorado State. Tormey, formerly the head coach at Idaho and an assistant at Washington, spent last season as the linebackers coach at Washington State. Wyoming made another two new hires on defense, naming former U.N.L.V. assistant Robin Ross as linebackers coach and former L.S.U. strength and conditioning assistant Derrick LeBlanc as the co-defensive line coach, joining Matt Rahl.
Players to watch
The last time Wyoming returned the Mountain West Freshman of the Year was in 2010, and then-starter Austyn Carta-Samuels – and the team as a whole, in fact – crumpled under oversized expectations. Two years later, the program is in the same position. Sophomore quarterback Brett Smith was superb as a rookie starter last fall, turning a position of concern into one of unquestioned strength throughout much of the Mountain West season. So how can the Cowboys avoid a similar downturn during his second year in the starting lineup? By slow-balling the expectations, understanding that Smith still has substantial room for growth, and by doing their best to give him some help from the offense’s supporting cast.
One good note: Smith has already proved that he can put the offense on his back. He led the team in rushing (710 yards) last fall in addition to throwing for 2,622 yards and 20 touchdowns, doing a great job limiting his turnovers until the final two games of the season – Smith tossed 5 of his 11 interceptions against Colorado State and Temple. Over his first six M.W.C. games, Smith completed 109 of 178 attempts for 1,076 yards and 9 touchdowns against a single interception. Pretty good, right? He’ll only improve as he gains more time in the starting lineup, though Wyoming does need to take some weight off of the sophomore’s shoulders.
With one would-be senior off to the N.F.L. and another moved to the defensive side of the ball, the top spot at running back now belongs to junior Brandon Miller (364 yards). He played in every game last fall, but most of Miller’s damage as a runner came over the season’s first month, when he had three games with at least 10 carries – including a 101-yard performance against Texas State. Miller was used more as a receiver over the second half of the year, faring well in that role, so he does have the ability to make an impact in two ways in this offense.
Can he be an every-down back? That’s the big question surrounding Miller as we look ahead to September. His likely backup will be sophomore Kody Sutton, followed by another pair of little-used underclassmen. Wyoming will bring in a handful of running backs over the summer, including one off of the JUCO ranks, but it looks as if the running game will go through Miller and Sutton. I know Miller can rip off a big play and be a nice security blanket for Smith coming out of the backfield; I’m just worried that he can’t handle the every-down load.
The receiver corps lacks star power, by and large, but Wyoming does have its best depth at the position in at least three years. Any star power comes from senior Chris McNeill (42 receptions for 504 yards), who missed the final four games of last season due to injury. When healthy, McNeill is a clear all-conference candidate. He’ll be joined in the starting lineup by sophomore Dominic Rufran (44 for 402) and junior Robert Herron (43 for 379), with sophomore Trey Norman the fourth starter coming out of spring ball.
Wyoming does lose a steady hand in Mazi Ogbonna and will miss would-be sophomore Josh Docston, a T.C.U. transfer, not only in 2012 but over the next three years. But the group is strong enough to keep pace with Smith’s growth as a passer – hinging on McNeill’s ability to stay healthy. McNeill, Rufran and Herron form a very capable top group.
The offensive line must replace a trio of starters at key positions: center and both tackle spots. Begin the reshuffling. Senior Nick Carlson will move from right guard back to center, where he spent his first two seasons and most of his third; he’ll step right back into his old spot and play at an all-M.W.C. level. The second returning starter, Tyler Strong, will remain at left guard. Carlson’s move opens up a hole at guard, one likely filled by senior Zach Rushing, a backup on the left side last fall.
That leaves two spots still open to debate – though not full-throated debate, as it seems as if Wyoming has settled on a starting five. For now, sophomore Daniel Fleischman is the starter at right tackle. That might change, however, once senior Kyle Magnuson returns from injury in time for fall camp. Last year’s backup at right tackle, Josh Leonard, will get first crack at replacing Clayton Kirven on the blind side. Which players are guaranteed to start the season opener? Strong and Carlson. For now, the top linemen at left tackle, right guard and right tackle have a fairly tenuous grasp on starting roles.
Tormey’s first order of business as Wyoming’s new defensive coordinator: fix one of the nation’s weakest run defenses. The Cowboys finished 115th in the F.B.S. against the run last fall, holding only four opponents under 200 yards and allowing five to gain at least 292 yards on the ground. And the run defense only grew weaker as the year wore on: Wyoming allowed 263.7 yards per game over the final seven games of the season. The defense is clearly a significant concern for Christensen and his staff as the Cowboys prepare for the 2012 season.
The defensive line should have a different feel than in 2011, as I’ll mention below. Last fall, the line was strong on the outside but paper-thin along the interior. That should change come the fall, as the Cowboys have three experienced and productive tackles but are devoid of any meaningful depth at end. What might that mean? That the run defense should improve while the pass rush, down two all-conference ends, takes a step back. The hope is that the defense can offset a decline in consistent pressure on the quarterback with further solid play in the secondary.
This is a defensive backfield that returns three starters, including both cornerbacks, and plans on replacing the lone departed starter with a position change. If all goes according to plan – and here’s guessing that it does – Wyoming should suffer no decline whatsoever in pass defense; in fact, it’s fairly easy to see the Cowboys improve against the pass. The two starting cornerbacks, sophomore Blair Burns (48 tackles, 4 interceptions) and junior Marqueston Huff (47 tackles, 3 interceptions), should build upon last year’s experience.
Senior Luke Ruff (102 tackles), a second-team all-conference pick last fall, moves from strong to free safety, replacing Tashaun Gipson – and yes, for the first time in many years there will not be a Gipson in Wyoming’s secondary. Ruff’s move opens up the strong safety spot to sophomore Mark Nzeocha, a blossoming talent who earned little but praise for his play during the spring. You can see why Christensen is high on the sophomore: Nzeocha is big, strong and agile, and might provide an intimidating look over the middle of the field.
Wyoming will make set of position moves at linebacker. One has outside linebacker Luke Anderson making a permanent move to the secondary, where he could either push for snaps at safety or take over the role as the Cowboys’ nickel back, as expected. Another move found senior Ghaali Muhammad transitioning from running back to linebacker, where he started eight games in 2010. Muhammad is likely going to start on the strong side, but injury issues slowed him enough during the spring to allow redshirt freshman Zach Berg to claim the top spot coming heading into the summer.
Finally, senior Korey Jones (59 tackles, 4.0 sacks) will shift out to the weak side to the middle. That’s a nice move for Wyoming: Jones has flashed some pass-rushing ability at linebacker, so moving him to the weak side should allow him to make more plays in space. Jones’ move has Wyoming auditioning three players in the middle, led by senior Oliver Schober, who started three games in 2010 but missed all of last season due to injury.
Position battle(s) to watch
Defensive line An already thin set of options at end grew even thinner in mid-May, when would-be senior Ben Durbin, a former tackle projected to start on the outside, opted to spend his final season of eligibility at Iowa State. Durbin was penciled in as one of Wyoming’s replacements for lost starters Gabe Knapton and Josh Biezuns, perhaps the finest end pairing in school history. With him gone, Tormey and Wyoming are forced to dig a little deeper.
But the Cowboys should feel secure with what they bring to the table at tackle; in fact, the team’s depth and experience inside is partly what allowed the defense to first entertain moving Durbin outside to end. The Cowboys bring back senior Mike Purcell (48 tackles), a returning starter, as well as a key reserve in fellow senior Kurt Taufa’asau (27 tackles). Add that pair to former starter Patrick Mertens, who missed all of last season due to an undisclosed illness, and Wyoming has a very strong interior presence. This trio, along with a few backups – like B.J. Sumter and Max Gustafson – should help Wyoming improve upon last year’s disastrous performance against the run.
The issues at end stand out. One player who could help matters is JUCO transfer Justin Bernthaler, though he wasn’t on campus in time for spring ball. Bernthaler and redshirt freshman Eddie Yarborough are two dark-horse candidates to grab starting roles at some point during the season, but look for the Cowboys to open play in September with a starting end pairing of senior Miraldo Michel or junior Jeff Roueche on one side and sophomore Sonny Puletasi on the other. Barring a breakout season from Yarborough, Bernthaler or one of the projected starters, Wyoming is going to suffer a significant decline in production at end.
Game(s) to watch
The return to an eight-game conference schedule hurts Wyoming, which benefited greatly from the increased number of non-conference games a year ago. While the Cowboys should have no trouble getting past Cal Poly and Idaho, it’ll be important to notch a win over Toledo to head into M.W.C. play at 3-1 – Texas is a loss, obviously. The conference schedule is kind in one regard: Wyoming gets rebuilding Fresno State, awful New Mexico and abysmal U.N.L.V. on the road. While it’s hard to imagine this team beating Boise State anywhere, getting teams like San Diego State and Air Force at home is good for the bottom line.
Season breakdown & prediction
In a nutshell Is Wyoming a bad team? Not in the least. Is Wyoming that good, on the other hand? Not really. This is Wyoming: good enough to feast on the low end of the totem pole – Idaho, New Mexico, U.N.L.V. – but still not at the point where it can hang with the more talented teams on its schedule. Add that fact to the idea that this is a program constantly searching for consistency and I’m left wondering if this team can land a second straight winning season for the first time since 1998-99. The reasons why the Cowboys can make another bowl trip are simple. If not the best quarterback in the M.W.C., Smith is certainly the most proven – and he’ll only get better. The receiver corps has enough talent to keep the passing game rolling. The interior of the line is strong enough to imagine Wyoming making a somewhat large improvement against the run. The secondary is in better shape than it was at this point a year ago. These are solid facts in Wyoming’s corner. However, I look at the big-picture question marks on defense, themes like a still-worrisome run defense, a lack of a pass rush and new faces along the front seven, and am curious how Wyoming plans on getting stops inside and out of Mountain West play. In addition, the offensive line remains in flux while the Cowboys try out three new starters at some key spots, including at left and right tackle. I can see Wyoming getting to five wins with some ease, and perhaps getting to six with some steadier play against the run from the front seven. I do not see the Cowboys as a valid M.W.C. contender, however.
Dream season Wyoming goes 3-1 in September and 6-2 during conference play, tying Nevada for second place in the Mountain West. This would mark the program’s first nine-win season since 1996, Joe Tiller’s final year in Laramie.
Nightmare season The Cowboys drop two painful games to Toledo and Idaho before stumbling out of the gate during M.W.C. play. While the Cowboys bounce back to win road games against New Mexico and U.N.L.V., the team finishes with a 3-9 mark for the second time in three years.
In case you were wondering
Where do Wyoming fans congregate? You can frequent the long history of GoWyoGo.com and the openness of WyoNation.com in the search for healthy Wyoming chatter, as a loyal reader informed me two years ago. For a blog’s take, check out Cowboy Altitude, 7220 Report and Wyoming Cowboys Blog. As always, list your favorite sites below. I know you won’t, but you could.
Wyoming’s all-name nominee RB Nehemie Kankolongo.
Through 46 teams 164,449.
Who is No. 78? Tomorrow’s university was founded in the same year as a fraternity whose past members include the only male to win a Nobel Prize in two different fields.
Tags: Blair Burns, Brandon Miller, Brett Smith, Chris McNeill, Chris TOrmey, Dave Christensen, Dominic Rufran, Eddie Yarborough, Ghaali Muhammad, Gregg Brandon, Korey Jones, Luke Ruff, Mark Nzeocha, Marqueston Huff, Mike Purcell, Mountain West, Nick Carlson, Patrick Mertens, Tyler Strong, Wyoming
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