No. 86: Wyoming
By Paul Myerberg // Jun 6, 2011
The problem with winning right away under adverse circumstances? It builds expectations to a unhealthy level: not only is a second-year coach expected to duplicate his first-year mark, he’s expected to build upon it, putting together an even better team in year two. So the standard was set at seven wins for former Missouri assistant Dave Christensen, even if — and I was guilty of this as well — folks expected far too much from his Cowboys in 2010. In hindsight, perhaps we should have considered the following: Wyoming was 10 minutes of game time away from eight losses in 2009; Christensen won with smoke and mirrors, at least to a degree; and given his offensive preference, it was going to take Christensen time to get his pieces in place. In hindsight, the slide, not a continued upward climb, should been expected.
15 (7 offense, 8 defense)
Last year’s ranking
- Sept. 3
- Sept. 10
- Sept. 17
at Bowling Green
- Sept. 24
- Oct. 8
at Utah St.
- Oct. 15
- Oct. 29
at San Diego St.
- Nov. 5
- Nov. 12
at Air Force
- Nov. 19
- Nov. 26
at Boise St.
- Dec. 3
at Colorado St.
Last year’s prediction
There’s no ignoring this schedule, try as I might. Unfortunately, no team could possibly face a tougher slate over its first eight games than do the Cowboys. There’s really only an average chance that Wyoming returns to bowl play; the Cowboys would need to steal one of the above six — Toledo, no powerhouse, represents the best opportunity — beat Southern Utah and sweep their last four. Doable, of course. But I can’t project that to occur. Which is unfortunate: these Cowboys are better than last year’s version, thanks to the added year of experience in Christensen’s system and the return of most of last season’s starters. Wyoming is capable of repeating its 2009 win total. I feel safer projecting the Cowboys to win five games, however, with a hot final month giving this squad the confidence it needs to enter 2011 as a Mountain West contender.
In a nutshell The struggles most expected in 2009 were postponed until last fall, when the Cowboys scuffled nearly throughout in a three-win finish. The offense was a particular concern: the group finished strong, putting up some nice numbers over the last four games, but the struggles over the first two months of the year were a continual source of frustration; the scoring high against F.B.S. competition through Oct. 23 was 20 points, notched twice. The defense was not quite up to doing all the work, though it is important to note that this group – one still led by perennially underrated Marty English – was far too often left holding the bag by an offense not prone to turnovers but prone to the dreaded three-and-out. Ironically, once the offense began to deliver the defense took a step back: the key in 2011 will be putting both sides together. As always, unparalleled analysis.
High point In terms of most impressive, a 20-15 win over Toledo. It came on the road, making it doubly surprising, and came about despite the fact that Wyoming gained 100 fewer yards of offense. The defense was stingy when it mattered: Toledo was a combined 1-19 of third and fourth down. How the Cowboys played down the stretch, even if the wins didn’t follow, was also a good sign. After coming close against San Diego State, Wyoming played its most complete game in a 44-0 whitewashing of Colorado State in the season finale.
Low point Well, about the play down stretch: Wyoming sandwiched a competitive loss to San Diego State and that win over the Rams with losses to New Mexico and U.N.L.V., two of the worst teams in the country. No team had a worse two-game stretch in 2010; it’s as bad a two-week stretch by any team in my recent memory. The Cowboys also came up well short against the Mountain West’s best, losing to T.C.U. and Utah by a combined score of 75-6.
Tidbit Wyoming will schedule a patsy or two during non-conference play. We can see that by looking at the start of the 2011 schedule: Weber State and Texas State. That’s a nice 2-0 start, however. The Cowboys do always add a power to round out the non-conference slate, with Nebraska filling that role this fall. Typically, Wyoming — or any non-B.C.S. program — has to go to Nebraska twice in exchange for one home game; the Cowboys head to Lincoln in 2013 and 2016. Here’s who Wyoming has added through the 2018 season: at Texas in 2012; at the Cornhuskers in 2013 and 2016; at Oregon in 2014; home for Oregon in 2015; at Missouri in 2017; and home for Missouri in 2018. If Christensen and Gary Pinkel stay put, those last two games will be interesting.
Tidbit (Wyoming-Nebraska connection edition) Speaking of Nebraska: Wyoming has lost all five dates with the Cornhuskers, all on the road, but hung tight with the eventual national champs in 1994. On the first of October, Wyoming gave Nebraska all it could handle, taking a 21-7 first half lead but eventually falling, 42-32, and drawing then-Nebraska coach Tom Osborne to be as critical of his team as you’d ever see: “If we don’t play better, we’re going to have a hard time from here on out.” Wyoming and Oklahoma were the only two teams to come within 10 points of the Cornhuskers that season, and Wyoming was the only team to score more than 21 points.
Former players in the N.F.L.
7 WR Malcolm Floyd (San Diego), OT Adam Goldberg (St. Louis), RB Devin Moore (Indianapolis), OT Ryan Otterson (San Diego), S Chris Prosinski (Jacksonville), DT Mitch Unrein (Denver), S John Wendling (Detroit).
Arbitrary top five list
Movies set in Wyoming
1. “Unforgiven,” 1992
2. “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” 1969.
3. “Brokeback Mountain,” 2005.
4. “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” 1977.
5. “The Virginian,” 1929.
Dave Christensen (Western Washington ’85), 10-15 after two 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 is 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, I did believe that Wyoming was due for one rebuilding season before beginning its climb up the Mountain West standings; that year happened last fall, not in Christensen’s debut season, but it was due to occur. Now the Cowboys are beginning the run towards long-term success.
Tidbit (coaching edition) Gregg Brandon’s two-year tenure as the offensive coordinator at Virginia started very poorly but gained traction last fall. Still, the Cavaliers didn’t try to hard to retain Brandon’s services after last season, leading him to become available to the Cowboys once coordinator Marcus Arroyo left to become Jeff Tedford’s quarterbacks coach in Berkeley. The combination of Brandon and Christensen is an interesting one: both preach a spread passing attack, which Brandon ran to some nice results over six seasons at Bowling Green. Speaking of Bowling Green: Wyoming head there in September, which provides Brandon with a homecoming of sorts.
Players to watch
The pieces are coming. They’re coming piece by piece, as Christensen continues to identify offensive skill players – at quarterback, as you’ll see below, and elsewhere – well-suited for his system. What we’ve seen thus far: inconsistency, some ugliness and a lack of explosiveness. What we’ll see one day, given time: just pop in an old Missouri game tape, whether Smith or Daniel. Wyoming is getting there offensively, such as along the line, but I still worry about a dearth of explosive play-makers. It may be another year until this offense finds its rhythm.
Four starters return up front, but the competition throughout the depth chart was stiff during the spring. This is not just a good thing but a great thing: competition breeds depth, from top to bottom, and Christensen was very wise to open everything up for debate. This line wasn’t great last fall, either protecting the quarterback or in the running game, and improvement must be made.
Of those four returning starters, only two remain in the lineup as Wyoming heads into the summer. Junior Nick Carlson is still at center, where he started all 12 games in 2010; senior John Hutchins has been moved from right guard to left tackle, supplanting Clayton Kirven, last year’s starter. At worst, Kirven will be a key reserve; at best, he’ll earn back his starting job and push Hutchins inside. Josh Leonard has been replaced at right tackle by fellow junior Kyle Magnuson, while two new faces – one because of Hutchins’ move – are at guard. Tyler Strong takes on the task of replacing four-year starter Sam Sterner on the left side. Brandon Self, a largely inexperienced senior, is currently riding first at right guard.
Alvester Alexander is a big-play threat, as illustrated by his 94-yard scoring tote against New Mexico. Like the offense at large, Alexander turned it on down the stretch: he rushed for at least 88 yards in each of Wyoming’s last four games, scoring 10 times – getting in the end zone a school-record five times against Colorado State. The key will be keeping his hot hand; Alexander missed much of the spring due to injury, so he needs to regain that tempo once camp resumes in August. For the time being – with Alexander on the sidelines – Wyoming went with sophomore Brandon Miller with the first team, with converted linebacker Ghaali Muhammad and incoming freshman Kody Sutton also in the mix for touches.
Wyoming lost leading targets David Leonard and Zach Bolger, so the passing game really needs one of three returning receivers to step up – not just to turn this offense around, but to help break in a new starting quarterback. Chris McNeill is one such returning contributor: he made 28 grabs for 257 yards last fall, tying the aforementioned pair for the team lead with three touchdowns. Mazi Ogbonna is in the same boat; he was right behind McNeill at third on the team with 18 catches, and Wyoming hopes for a big year now that Ogbonna is an added year removed from junior college. The same can be said of DeJay Lester, another former JUCO transfer.
One player that stood out during the spring was sophomore Robert Herron; he played sparingly last fall, but impressed during the spring game. Perhaps a player like Herron, a youngster without experience, will grab a big role. Someone like Herron needs to do so: Wyoming lacks big-play threats, as noted.
The defense will be much, much better. It’s not just because of English, who can coach a defense. It’s about the number of returning starters – eight of them – but also depth, far more bodies than Wyoming has had use of in the recent past, and a second year back in the 4-3, which the Cowboys switched to after years running the 3-4. It begins with the defense line, where English has two very good ends to work with.
Both are converted linebackers; that move works, as we’ve see in Laramie and elsewhere. One is senior Josh Biezuns, who has really came into his own at his new spot: 61 tackles (10.5 for loss) and 6.5 sacks, the latter good for second in the Mountain West. His partner, Gabe Knapton, only moved to end prior to last season; like Biezuns, he’s a great fit with his hand on the ground. There’s depth and talent at end, led by this duo, but issues do exist inside.
At least Mike Purcell (57 tackles, 4 for loss) and Patrick Mertens (39, 2 sacks) are a year older; they weren’t ready for major roles in 2010 but were thrust into action due to a lack of numbers. What is Wyoming going to get from its tackles in 2011? Better play, for starters, but also a better line rotation: Kurt Taufa’asau was missed last fall, which he sat out to injury, but will push Purcell for snaps. JUCO transfer Miraldo Michel should have an immediate impact, and Wyoming is high on redshirt freshmen Riley Lange and Sonny Pelutasi.
It says much about the status of Wyoming’s linebacker corps that Christensen could afford to move Muhammad, one of last year’s starters, across the ball to running back – where he’ll be a reserve. This year’s group is very strong – the strength of the defense – and ready to lead this defense, albeit with a slightly different look.
Two starters will change roles. Senior Brian Hendricks (80 tackles) will move from the middle to the weak side, where he’ll be asked to do far more than just fill holes against the run. He’s good enough to do so, but Hendricks will face a slight transition with this move. Sophomore Devyn Harris will move inside, where he’ll battle senior Oliver Schober (46 tackles) for the starting role. That just leaves the strong side, where Wyoming will have another competition: Korey Jones holds a slight lead, but freshman Mark Nzeocha is right at his heels. Both are new additions; Jones comes off the JUCO ranks, Nzeocha – wait, guess – from Germany. Did you guess right?
Consult Wyoming’s depth chart in the secondary and you’ll find one name: Gipson. It’s been that way for five years now, dating back to when Tashaun and Marcell were freshman, and thanks to an early redshirt season Wyoming still has the services of the former, now a senior. He’s the most experienced defensive back in the Mountain West, not to mention a key, game-tested figure in a new-look secondary.
Without his brother on the opposite side, Gipson will be joined at cornerback by sophomore Marqueston Huff. He played quite a bit as a freshman, making 18 tackles and an interception, and has a nice future as a starter. The losses at safety includes the losses of both of last year’s leading tacklers, Chris Prosinski and Shamiel Gray, so it’s a position of concern. Luke Ruff and Kenny Brewster are the answers at strong and free safety, respectively, but you wonder how each will fill some big shoes.
Position battle(s) to watch
Quarterback Austyn Carta-Samuels opted to leave the program after spending two years as Wyoming’s starting quarterback — a real head-scratcher, to say the least. The one sure thing we can say today about Wyoming’s ensuing competition at the position is this: his replacement will be a freshman. It may be a redshirt freshman like Emory Miller, who despite his youth is the most experienced quarterback on the roster. It might be a true freshman, either one who arrived in time for spring practice, like Brett Smith, or a fall arrival like Adam Pittser. We know that for sure. Here’s what else we know: all three are promising, perhaps the incoming freshmen a bit more than Miller, and all three will have their respective chances at making a claim for the starting role. You do have to think that Miller and Smith have a slight leg up on Pittser thanks to their time spent with the offense during the spring; for Miller, that experience dates back an extra season. But Christensen has stated several times that the competition will go until as late as possible, which precludes making a decision prior to giving Pittser some snaps to see what he can bring to the table. While we haven’t seen Pittser on the field, it’s been said that he’s a bit more of a pocket presence; Miller and Smith are both in the dual-threat mold of a Carta-Samuels. But you don’t sign a well-regarded recruit like Pittser and not give him a shot, which he’ll get come the fall. All three are intriguing prospects, and whomever Christensen selects might have the incredible opportunity to be a multiple-year starter in his friendly system. Just ask Brad Smith and Chase Daniel how much fun that can be.
Game(s) to watch
The first three non-conference games: Weber State, Texas State and Bowling Green. Wyoming should be 3-0 before hosting Nebraska, which should really fire up the home crowd for what is set to be a nationally-televised game. There are more winnable games on the Mountain West schedule, but bowl hopes may hinge on how the Cowboys fare against a San Diego State or Air Force, for example.
Season breakdown & prediction
In a nutshell Wyoming shouldn’t forget about poor, miserable Arizona State: last fall, the 6-6 Sun Devils stayed home from bowl play last fall thanks to a pair of wins over F.C.S. competition – fair or no, those are our bowl rules. If Wyoming does get to six wins, in my mind, it will be with the help of wins over Texas State – soon to be F.B.S.-bound – and Weber State. 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. Yeah, the losses in the secondary are troubling: Gipson is very good, but he’ll be surrounded by some new faces. Yet the linebacker corps is strong, the defensive line talented and far deeper, especially along the interior. 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. Christensen is a very, very nice coach, and he’ll have Wyoming in bowl range for each year that he’s around, beginning in 2011. There’s still work to be done.
Dream season The Cowboys are back in bowl play after a one-year absence, adding two upset wins during conference play during an eight-win finish.
Nightmare season The program does continue to grow under Christensen, but this progression doesn’t seem to be found in the win column: 3-9, 1-7.
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 a year 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.
Through 35 teams 94,777.
Who is No. 85? A two-time Grammy-nominated musician spent a single semester at tomorrow’s school during the 1990s, though it’s unknown if he cites the university in his lyrics.
You can also follow Paul Myerberg and Pre-Snap Read on Twitter.
Tags: Adam Pittser, Alvester Alexander, Brett Smith, Dave Christensen, Emory Miller, Gabe Knapton, Gregg Brandon, Josh Biezuns, Marty English, Mountain West, Tashaun Gipson, Wyoming
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