The question we’ve all been asking since the opening night (or morning as the case may be) victory over Northern Illinois is “are these Wyoming Cowboys for real?”
The Cowboys are off to their best start since 2013 when they opened the season at 4-2 and went on to lose five of six, and eventually led to Dave Christensen’s firing. Prior to that the Cowboys started the 2011 season at 4-2 and ended up in the New Mexico Bowl vs Temple.
As evidenced above being off to a 4-2 start can have varied results for the Cowboys if recent history serves as any warning. Watching the Cowboys this season gives the fans hope that there might be something there. The Pokes haven’t played really good football this year, and haven’t necessarily played really bad football this year. I don’t think we’ve seen everything this team is capable of on the offense.
With the exception of a pretty terrible fourth quarter vs Nebraska, and some bad quarters against Eastern Michigan it’s safe to say the Cowboys have played more good quarters than bad. That would be a change from last year.
When August arrived many people thought there was no way that Northern Illinois was going to be the team that they were. That game set Wyoming moving forward in a positive direction for the first time since Craig Bohl took the job at Wyoming. At the time the Northern Illinois win looked like a really good win. Now that the season has progressed the Huskies have become just another stepping stone in the Pokes’ current season.
The Cowboys played Nebraska respectably for three of four quarters and were within striking distance of a tie ball game at the end of the third quarter. Four Josh Allen interceptions later the Pokes were down 35 points and the season could have been over.
Instead the Cowboys went back to work and easily took care of business against FCS UC-Davis in front of a Laramie crowd. The Cowboys did not beat their FCS opponent the previous year, which was another small milestone.
The Cowboys went to Eastern Michigan with revenge on their mind after the Eagles came into Laramie and beat the Cowboys. The Eagles also knocked Josh Allen out of that game and ended his season. The Cowboys didn’t exactly get their revenge and lost on the road in Ypsilanti, Michigan. The message boards and internet comments were in mid-season meltdown mode and were ready to send this staff out the door. Losses to Eastern Michigan were not acceptable anymore.
To be perfectly fair to Eastern Michigan they are now 4-2 on the season as well, sitting third in the MAC West behind leader Western Michigan. I guess they’re having their own football renaissance in Ypsilanti as well under Chris Creighton.
To the average fan the 4-2 record the Cowboys have going into their bye week and the second half of the season looks really good on paper. If you look under the hood of that 4-2 record you’ll see that it’s more than just a number on paper. The offense is statistically better. The defense is statistically better. The special teams are much improved. The Cowboys have a quarterback that they’re comfortable with and has, knock on wood, been injury free. Shaun Wick is back. Even time of possession is better.
Compared to the final statistics of last year, and the mid-year statistics this year the Cowboys are better on offense by 38 yards per game. That doesn’t seem like a lot, and it’s not, but the Cowboys are being better with the football.
Last year the Cowboys finished the season at -11 in turnovers which ranked them at 113th in FBS. This season the Pokes are at +3, which has them at 35th in FBS. That’s a considerable improvement. The Cowboys defense is 2nd in the country with four defensive touchdowns, tied with Ohio State and three scores behind Alabama. The Cowboys are taking the ball way at a much higher rate than last year, and even turning them into points this season.
The defense is also getting more pressure on the quarterback this season. In the offseason the Cowboys lost sack master Eddie Yarbrough to the NFL (and now CFL) and Uso Olive to a transfer after the season was completed. It was unknown if the Cowboys would be better this season at getting to the quarterback. Last season the Pokes had 10 turnovers all season. At the halfway mark of this season they are at 13 sacks and still climbing.
This past week it was ruled that Carl Granderson would miss the rest of the season due to an ACL injury. Granderson had been a big part of why the Cowboys were getting to the quarterback with more frequency this season. Granderson led the team with four sacks and six tackles for loss. His injury will undoubtedly have an impact on the defense, but they are still far ahead of last season.
The special teams have also been improved this year with the addition of true freshman kicker Cooper Rothe and freshman basketball transfer Austin Conway. Cooper Rothe brought stability to a position immediately that was in serious need of help. Last year the Pokes were only able to convert two field goals and were 2/8 on the season with Tristan Bailey. This season Rothe has converted 6/11 field goals and perfect on extra points. Being 6/11 isn’t ideal, but Rothe is still a true freshman kicking on his biggest stage. When the season is over we’ll look back on him and think he provided an offensive boost to the team that needed it.
Last season Ethan Wood had a stellar season for the Pokes and was named to the Ray Guy award watch list. This season he was named again to the watch list and this season he’s putting together an even better season. Wood is changing the field position game for the Cowboys every week by punting the ball where most offenses would prefer to not start. Wood is only averaging 39.3 yards per punt but of his 33 punts on the season 18 of them have landed inside the 20.
Adding another dimension to the improved special teams play is redshirt freshman punt returner Austin Conway who is doing good work on punt returns. Conway is changing field position in his own way, giving the Pokes a chance when they force a punt. He is currently averaging 7.2 yards per punt return and 23.5 average in kick returns. DJ May is averaging 25 yards per kick return.
The Cowboys are still considered one of the youngest teams in FBS, not quite as bad as last year, but still young. Despite the amount of youth on the team they have all matured in the last year and are far more familiar with what they’re supposed to be doing on and off the field. Many of these players that got on the field as true freshmen, or are now playing as redshirt freshman are having success on the field. Andrew Wingard is having another season for the ages, despite being only a sophomore. Wingard ranks 10th in the country in solo tackles with 36.
And last but not least, let’s not forgot about the offensive work horse in Brian Hill. Hill is currently sixth in FBS in rushing yards with 721. Two other Mountain West backs are ahead of Hill, Donnel Pumphrey and James Butler. Hill broke the all-time career rushing yards record this year, taking it from Ryan Christopherson and Devin Moore. By the time his Cowboy career is over he will lead this list by a long shot. Right behind him is back field teammate Shaun Wick who is sixth in Cowboy rushing history and could overtake Marques Brigham and Wynel Seldon by the time the season is over.
The Cowboys are a much better football team this year, and doing a lot of the smaller things better this year. Turnovers and being able to line up for a field goal stand out to me as being the biggest factors in the success of this season. If the Cowboys can continue doing these things 7-8 wins is not out of the realm of possibility.