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TGS 2011 COLLEGE FOOTBALL PREVIEW...WYOMING COWBOYS
by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor


For almost as long as we can remember, Dick Cheney’s alma mater Wyoming has been the truck stop of college football. Coaches stop for a quick cup of coffee, then leave. The Cowboys have won on occasion but for the most part have never been able to sustain a run of excellence, mainly because any coach who wins in Laramie usually takes it as a chance to escape.

That theme has been repeated countless times for the past 60 years, beginning with Bowden Wyatt using Wyo as a springboard to jobs at Arkansas and alma mater Tennessee in the ‘50s. Later in the ‘50s, the legendary Bob Devaney turned the Cowboys into a regional power, compiling a 31-7-2 mark his last four years in charge before taking the Nebraska job in 1962, and eventually elevating to iconic status in the Cornhusker State. Fred Akers used Wyo as a 2-year stopover in the mid ‘70s before returning to Texas, where he had been an assistant coach between 1966-74, to become Darrell Royal’s successor in 1977. Pat Dye did Akers one better, lasting only one year as Cowboy coach in 1980 before moving to Auburn. Ditto for the peripatetic Dennis Erickson, who stayed just one season in Laramie, 1986, before jumping to Washington State. Joe Tiller at least stuck around for six years before taking the Purdue job in 1997. Other notables, such as Fritz Shurmur, Bill Lewis, and Dana Dimel all held high-profile jobs after leaving Wyo.

We have always believed it was no coincidence that under the two coaches who didn’t view the Cowboy job as a springboard, Lloyd Eaton and Paul Roach, Wyo enjoyed some of its greatest successes over the last half-century. Indeed, the Cowboys raised as high as sixth in the national polls in the wild year of 1967, finishing the regular season 10-0 and qualifying for the Sugar Bowl, where Eaton’s best team, led by RB Jim Kiick, had LSU pinned to a 13-0 deficit in the 3rd quarter before the Bayou Bengals rallied for a 20-13 win, breaking what was then the nation’s longest win streak of 14 games. Eaton unfortunately got involved in the middle of a racial dispute within the program in 1969 and subsequently departed after the 1970 season, eventually to move into a player personnel role with the Green Bay Packers. As for Roach, he always viewed Wyo as his last coaching job, and qualified for bowls in three of four seasons between 1987-90 while compiling a 35-15 record. And there have been several notable players who have passed through Laramie as well, including RBs Jerry Hill, the aforementioned Jim Kiick, and Vic Washington, G Conrad Dobler, and TE Jay Novacek. All things considered, the Cowboys have held their own pretty well over the years, especially noting the obstacles involved in such a remote outpost as Laramie.

Which brings us to the present, and 3rd-year HC Dave Christensen, who arrived in Laramie from a successful stint as Gary Pinkel’s offensive coordinator at Missouri and proceeded to stun the Mountain West by getting his first Wyo team bowl-eligible, then upsetting Fresno State in the New Mexico Bowl. Things, however, became unstuck last season when the Cowboys slumped to a 3-9 mark that included losses to wretched New Mexico (whoa!) and an embarrassing blowout at UNLV (double whoa!). It was all eerily similar to the pattern exhibited by nearby rival Colorado State, which in 2008, a year before Christensen’s arrival at Wyo, had also emerged from nowhere under the Rams’ own first-year HC, Steve Fairchild, surprisingly qualifying for the New Mexico Bowl, where it also beat Fresno State, then slumped to...you guessed it, 3-9 in Fairchild’s second season, also losing at New Mexico. (We weren’t joking about the eery stuff.) Cowboy backers hope the similarities end right there, since they have no interest in Christensen continuing to follow the Fairchild pattern, not after the Rams stalled again with another 3-9 mark in Fairchild’s third campaign a year ago.

Wyo’s collapse was comprehensive last season, with both the offense (ranked 116th in the nation) and defense (ranked 92nd) slumping at the same time. The meltdown of the strike force was particularly discouraging, from not only a production standpoint but also because of the ramifications of the collapse. Looking to change the recipe, Christensen has enlisted former Bowling Green HC Gregg Brandon, a noted spread devotee, as the new offensive coordinator, tasked with reviving the dormant attack. But no sooner had Christensen made that switch than 2-year starting QB Austyn Carta-Samuels, who completed 61% of his passes last season, decided to transfer (to where still a mystery, as reports of his enrollments at Vanderbilt and Arizona apparently false alarms). Then, redshirt frosh Emory Miller, who won the QB job in spring, decided to leave Laramie, too, transferring to Sam Houston State. Which leaves a couple of true freshmen, Brett Smith and Adam Pittser, competing for the job. Mountain West sources suspect Smith, who enrolled early and impressed in spring, likely has inside track on the opening-day start vs. Weber State, although Pittser was the slightly higher-regarded recruit, and blew off a very-interested Colorado in order to have a chance to become a Cowboy. The receiving corps also has a new look about it after last year’s top pass catchers David Leonard and Zach Bolger graduated. Neither, however, was much of a downfield threat, something Christensen and Brandon expect explosive soph Robert Herron or jr. Chris McNeill (more of a possession receiver the past two years) to provide in the fall.

To give the new QBs a chance in Brandon’s version of the spread, the OL must take it up a notch or two (or three) from last season. And though only two listed starters are back from 2010, plenty of returnees were in the rotation last fall, giving Christensen his most experience and depth on the forward wall in his three years at Laramie. Big things are expected of jr. C Nick Carlson, on the Rimington Award watch list this fall. Note, however, that the OL has allowed 68 sacks the past two seasons, and didn’t open many holes (3.57 ypc) for the backs last year when Wyo ranked 98th in rushing, which could again limit the contributions of slashing jr. RB Alvester Anderson, who still managed to gain 792 YR and score 14 TDs last fall.

If Christensen didn’t have enough to worry about with the offense, he also has to plug some alarming leaks in the defensive dike. Ongoing inabilities to control competent infantry attacks could doom the Cowboys again after they were bowled over consistently a year ago when allowing a hefty 206 ypg and ranking a poor 109th vs. the run. Christensen and d.c. Marty English hope that the return of all four DL starters will greatly assist the healing process, and expect the front four to become more disruptive now that sr. DE Gabe Knapton has a year under his belt on the edge after moving from a LB spot, with fellow sr. bookend Josh Biezuns, another ex-LB, ready to improve upon his team-best 6 ½ sacks last season. How much improvement jr. DT Mike Purcell displays as a run stopper will also be crucial, because the back seven might need all the help it can get with a relatively new look that includes five first-time starters.

English is doing some juggling with another undersized LB corps, moving leading returning tackler Brian Hendricks to the outside from the inside, with a couple of touted juco transfers, Korey Jones and Mark Nzeocha, likely on the opposite flank. The LBs will hopefully make up in speed what they lack in brawn. And any improvement in the pass rush (which generated only 20 sacks last year, ranking a lowly 84th) will help a pass defense that returns only one starter in the secondary, three-year starting CB Tashaun Gibson. On the other side, soph Marqueston Huff provides plenty of athleticism, prompting English to be cautiously optimistic about perhaps having a pair of shutdown corners. But new safeties Kenny Browder and Luke Ruff are undersized, and cannot afford to be overworked in run support if the front seven proves suspect once more in that area.

Spread-wise, note that Wyo has covered 9 of its last 12 on the road since early ‘09, although the overall pattern began to shift last season when the Cowboys dropped 5 of their last 7 vs. the number after covering 12 of their first 16 under Christensen.

Summary...As much as Wyo fans don’t want to hear it, we suspect the recent comparison to rival Colorado State could continue this fall. This was the hardly the time for QB Carta-Samuels to leave the Cowboy program, basically leaving Christensen to start from scratch with a new QB to go along with new receivers and a new offensive system geared to the spread. And it’s been years since the Wyoming “D” has been of the shut ‘em down variety. The schedule, with FCS Weber State and Texas State visiting Laramie out of the gate, provides a chance to exceed last year’s three wins, but we suspect things could begin to go downhill in a hurry after Nebraska, in a long-delayed “thank you” to Wyo for sending Bob Devaney to Lincoln, makes a rare trip to Laramie on September 24. All that likely keeps the Cowboys out of the Mountain West basement will be visits from expected loop bottom-feeders New Mexico and UNLV, both traveling to War Memorial Stadium this fall. But what we're really looking forward to is the new-uniform look, with as many combinations of brown-and-yellow-and-white as the Pittsburgh Pirates had with their black-and-gold-and-white unis in the late 70s!


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