The Washington State Cougars begin their football season away from the friendly confines of Martin Stadium for the first time in three years when they venture south and east to Laramie. The Wyoming Cowboys jump-started their season a week early by handing New Mexico State an unexpected whipping last Saturday, which looked a whole lot more impressive before a decidedly mediocre Minnesota team hung 48 on NMSU Thursday night.
The Cougs waited five years to get their first season-opening win under head coach Mike Leach, and they will have to get through a very good Wyoming defense if they want to make that into a season-opener win streak.
The game kicks off Saturday, Sept. 1, at 12:30 p.m. PST on CBS Sports Network. While the Cougs opened as -3.5 favorites, the line currently (as of Thursday night) sits at WSU -1.0. Wyoming is calling for a “Gold Rush” so expect a lot of yellow on your TV.
Craig Bohl and long time offensive coordinator Brent Vigen have an established history of being a Midwest style power running team with West Coast passing elements sprinkled in to complement what they do on the ground. The Pokes dropped from 39th in Rushing S&P+ in 2016 — when they won the MWC with stud Brian Hill — to 109th last year, which drove their plummet to 119th in total offense S&P+, despite having a quarterback capable of being (potentially) wildly overvalued by NFL scouts.
Last weekend saw a return to Vigen’s comfort zone. The Cowboys rushed 55 times for 313 yards. Nico Evans led the way with 190 yards, gaining nearly three times the yardage he did all of last season (over 11 carries) on a single 56-yard scamper.
New Mexico mostly showed a 5-2 front against the Cowboys, who opted to slide their offensive linemen playside and get their running back downhill through the C Gap.
They’ll run this to either side out of single-back, I-formation, and will occasionally motion fly-sweep to dress it up a bit. The backside guard is the stud on this play. He shuffle-steps at the snap to clear the center and QB on his reverse-out drop to the RB, then eyes the playside guard and tackle.
The playside guard does what he can to get his hat on the inside of the DT. The tackle takes a near horizontal line to the A Gap, forming a lateral double team with his guard.
The backside guard eyes this double-team on his pull and jets inside, hunting color. They don’t scheme to block specific players in this, they’re all on gap assignment, which makes it a really flexible play to run against a shifting defensive front like Wazzu.
It’d be tough to beat Wyoming without shutting down their running game, and A Gap Power is at the heart of it.
What has me concerned about Wyoming
Knowing the dance steps: The Cowboys already have a game under their belt and return a bunch of starters on a good defense — which are both huge pros in a T-chart — but that’s not really the “experience” that we’re talking about here. WSU has swapped in an uncanny number of assistant coaches this offseason who’ve never worked a game together. That sort of thing matters, especially with a team this close to green on both sides of the ball.
Ground and Pound: Wyoming looked real strong on the ground against NMSU and are particularly skilled at running directly at the heart of a defense. Which is exactly where WSU has the most question marks to start the season. Coug backers are borderline great but that won’t matter much if they have to cover for a failing, undersized DL every snap.
Poke D: The Cowboys return all but a corner to a defense that allowed 17.5 points per game, leading the Mountain West. Their front is fast and aggressive, ranking 9th in DL havoc rate last season, and their safeties/nickel combined for 13 passes defensed and nine INTs.
Wyoming ran a lot of press man last week when they were more of a zone team (Tampa-2) the last time Wazzu faced them. We aren’t sure if that’s the new normal under second-year defensive coordinator Scottie Hazelton. Coug WRs haven’t had the greatest run of success against teams that press them in coverage, so pay attention to where those corners are to start the game.
Connor Cunningham, author at Wyonation.com was kind enough to give us some insights on the Cowboys
What are you most confident in about the Wyoming Cowboys?
“Wyoming’s defense is far and away their strength. They are as deep and as talented as they have ever been. It starts with their defensive line, particularly #93 Youhanna Ghafain and #91 Carl Granderson. These two guys are freakishly athletic and seem to be involved on every play.
“Behind them LB Logan Wilson is a very solid player and has a nose for the football. They have two safeties that are each starting their 4th year in Marcus Epps and Andrew Wingard. Wingard is probably the best defensive player in the Mountain West. He was second team all MW his freshman year and 1st team the last 2 years. He was named as the MW preseason POY and second team pre season AP all-American. This is a defense that brought back 8 starters from a year ago where they caused 38 turnovers.
“They looked every bit the part last week against New Mexico State, not allowing a first down until the final minute of the first half.”
What has me confident about the Cougs
Minstache: Count me among Gardner Minshew’s fans. All we have to go on at this point is a nine minute highlight video, a quote Coach Leach gave Spokesman-Review beat writer Theo Lawson comparing Minshew to a mix of Brett Favre and Jim McMahon, and pictures from camp showing Minshew rocking a lip toupee. I’m sold. Let it Rip.
As great as Luke Falk was, it often felt like the offense was operating with a governor last season. Papercutting defenses is less fun than shredding defenses. I’m thinking we’ll see Minshew take Wazzu back to the spread em’ and shred em’ roots of the Air Raid.
3-of-5: While Wyoming may have the slight edge in experience on defense, they also started three redshirt freshman along the offensive line last week. NMSU wasn’t able to do anything with that but WSU just might.
Abundance at the Diva Position: Wazzu is stacked at receiver despite losing the top two guys from last season. There’s currently 11 on the depth chart, which will eventually have to be trimmed down a bit, but for now, take that as a sign of healthy competition. There’s an awful lot to be excited about...and Tay Martin is doing stuff like this in practice.
So, Mr. Cunningham...
What about Wazzu should concern the Pokes?
“I think the biggest concern for Wyoming is their offense. Last year Wyoming had a QB that went #7 in the draft struggled to score points. This season, they brought back 9 starters, but lost Josh Allen. They replaced Allen with RS Freshman Tyler Vander Waal.
“Vander Waal certainly has a lot of talent but the concern is whether or not he is ready to step on the big stage and make plays. He needs a solid running game in order to open things up for him and last season the Wyoming running game was atrocious. The Cowboys ran the ball well last week, amassing more than 300 yards on the ground and that took the pressure off of Vander Waal to have to carry the load. It will be interesting to see if the running game and offense is able to step up and make plays against a Pac-12 defense.
“The other concern is that out of Wyoming’s top 4 corners, 3 are freshman. I think Leach’s Air Raid attack has to be of some concern. The defensive line certainly needs to apply consistent pressure.”
How I see the game playing out
Everything needs to work through the running game for Wyoming’s offense as WSU is too skilled in the secondary to get straight beat by Cowboy receivers. This will happen at points during the game; Wyoming will get push, run downhill, then boot Vander Waal and work mid-level drags against backers and safeties overcompensating for the run. And they’ll have some success with it.
I just don’t think it happens consistently enough for them to take the air out of the ball entirely. Wazzu will get their shots and I think there’s a strong advantage with Coug outside receivers over Cowboy corners, especially if they try to man them up all game.
Mix in a healthy dose of Jamire Calvin (here’s his Awesome Play from last year), Travelle Harris, and Renard Bell (here he is roasting USC) firing go routes at safeties and wheels to the boundary and I think there’s a real opportunity to beat Wyoming over the top...provided the line can keep their talented pass rush at bay long enough to let it happen.
We don’t have a concrete feel for how much they’ll involve the running game or how aggressive they’ll be downfield, but whatever the Coug offense ends up being, it will be enough to outpace a Wyoming offense that doesn’t quite have answers for when the running game stalls.
Final Score: WSU 31 - 24 Wyoming
“Wyoming’s defense is good enough to keep them in any game this season and Saturday shouldn’t be any different. It should be a fun atmosphere at War Memorial Stadium.
“I think it will take a couple turnovers, maybe even a defensive touchdown but for some reason I think the Cowboys walk away with a win. Craig Bohl had a history of knocking off P5 opponents while at NDSU, but he hasn’t been able to have the same kind of success at Wyoming. I think this is the week that changes.
“I will say Wyoming 24 Washington State 20, in what should be a fun, competitive game.”
Huge thanks to Connor for taking the time to answer our questions, you can follow him on twitter here; check out their Wyoming coverage at wyonation.com ; and check out their “5 on 5” series of questions about the Cougs here.