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TGS 2012 COLLEGE FOOTBALL PREVIEW...WYOMING COWBOYS
by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor


Brown is beautiful!

Don’t worry, we’re not making any political statements here. We’re just trying to stick up for a very underrated color that seems to be the target of much abuse from those who think it is an unappealing or awkward shade for football or basketball uniforms.

We could not disagree any more, and think it is about time that someone spoke up for this most underrated of colors. Credit the Wyoming Cowboys for making such a bold statement on the behalf of brown with their new set of uniforms, unveiled last season.

Brown has been getting short shrift for a long while. Coaches have been even known to violently dislike the color. When the legendary George Allen arrived at Long Beach State for one memorable season (1990) at the end of his distinguished career (and, as it turned out, life), one of the first things he did after being hired was dump the school’s brown uniforms, which he considered hideous, and replace them with black. The school didn’t even bother to put up a fight, and subtly changed the 49ers’ colors for all sports away from the time-honored brown. Western Michigan has done something of the same, although it still lists brown as one of its shades. But even the Broncos have “gone Long Beach” and replaced it with black as the main uniform combo with gold, and brown appearing only as a WMU highlight color these days.

By us, brown is extremely underrated. Its various hues are the base for “earth tones” and standard for house and office decorations. Yellow, gold, red, orange and even green offer often-appealing and complementary color combinations. So why the overt hostility from the sports masses toward brown in football and basketball uniforms?

The sports exception to the anti-brown rule has been the Cleveland Browns, granted a pass by the herd-like media which accepts the Brownies’ color combo only out of respect to tradition, yet never seems to note the fact that Cleveland’s brown and orange mix has always been a very tasteful combination. Although we think the Browns erred when ending their one-year experiment with brown pants (2009) along with their white uniforms.

Black, by comparsion, has emerged as a wildly popular uniform color, “hip” and macho by today’s standards, although we believe it hardly blends as well as brown with various other hues. Yellows and reds and oranges clash with black, often in garish combinations. Take a look at what Maryland did with its uniforms last season and tell us you don’t disagree.

The Cowboys from Laramie, however, struck a blow for the few of us brown fans last season when introducing an appealing new ensemble of interchangeable uniforms in shades of brown, goldenrod, and white. Although the goldenrod hue was a bit bold and came close to the garish line, the corresponding brown, unlike black, softened its impact. Besides, the goldenrod was a distinctive and bright version of the gold hue, far more appealing than the washed-out shades now fancied by sorts such as the New Orleans Saints, Washington Huskies, and UCLA Bruins, whose football pants now look as if they have been through the washing machine cycle about 900 times, having lost their sparkle and color.

By us, Wyo was the smartest-dressed team in the Mountain West last season, if not the country, with its vast variety of combinations. The brown helmets, worn a few times, were especially cool, although the “Cowboy Joe” logo on the bucking bronco would look neat in any color.

Still, with Long Beach having dropped its football program 20 years ago, and Western Michigan de-emphasizing the color, as far as we can tell only aptly-named Brown University (which highlights its brown unis with red and sliver in very appealing combos, as shown at right) stands alongside the Cowboys in the modern-day brigade of schools where brown remains a featured uniform color.

Long live brown!

Now that we’re done with our bit as fashion critics, we can get down to the football business in Laramie, where there is some excitement building for the hometown Wyoming Cowboys after qualifying for their second bowl in three seasons. All of this under HC Dave Christensen (left), the former Missouri o.c. who has subtly deflected interest from potential suitors and seems quite comfy at home on the range, adapting to the rural lifestyle of Laramie and, outwardly at least, seeming quite content to stick around for a while at a school that is also known as Dick Cheney’s alma mater.

Most interesting about Christensen’s success in Laramie (no easy feat) is that he accomplished as much with freshman quarterbacks in his bowl seasons of 2009 and 2011.

Christensen is also said to be a student of college football history, and appreciates the fact that Wyo’s might be the most-interesting of any Mountain West entry. Indeed, the Cowboys were one of the first teams in the region to make a splash on the national stage, and Laramie has long served as a stopover point for high-profile coaches.

Bowden Wyatt took Wyo to its first bowl, the Gator in 1950, where the Cowboys won 20-7 over a Washington & Lee side that was minus its star fullback, future New York Jets coach Walt Michaels, who was sidelined by an appendicitis attack. Wyatt then moved to Arkansas and eventually Tennessee, but later in the ‘50s it was Bob Devaney putting the Cowboys back on the map with a Sun Bowl team in 1956 before being lured away to Nebraska. In later years, familiar coaching names such as Fred Akers (1975-76), Pat Dye (right, 1980), and Dennis Erickson (1986) made brief pit stops in Laramie before making their names elsewhere,

Perhaps the most successful, and certainly most controversial, Wyo coach was Lloyd Eaton, whose Wyo teams featured future NFL All-Pros such as RB Jim Kiick and OG Conrad Dobler. Kiick was a member of the 1967 Sugar Bowl squad that finished the regular season 10-0 and ranked sixth in the final regular-season polls. Those Pokes, helped by a couple of field goals (including a then-Sugar record 49-yarder) by All-American kicker Jerry DePoyster, also took a 13-0 halftime lead in the mud of New Orleans on New Year’s Day vs. LSU before the Tigers, behind QB Nelson Stokley (a future coach and papa of modern-day WR Brandon Stokley), rallied for a 20-13 win.

Eaton’s enduring legacy, however, involves a much more controversial theme, as he was caught in the middle of a planned protest by 14 black members of the Cowboys before an October 19, 1969 home game against BYU. The players, whose plight has been recorded in the recently-published book entitled Black 14 by Ryan Thornburn, wanted to wear black armbands in protest of the LDS policy of not allowing blacks into the priesthood, and of course targeted the game against the LDS school, BYU, to implement their subtle protest.

At the time, Eaton’s 1969 squad had gotten off to a flying 4-0 start and would climb as high as 15th in the polls that season, but the events in and around the BYU game would haunt the program for years.

The Wyo campus was mostly free of the racial tension and anti-Vietnam war strife that had gripped many campuses in the late ‘60s. There were sporadic but small anti-war protests in Laramie, such as a march in the fall of 1969 in support of an anti-war moratorium. But inspired by actions of students on other campuses, a small number of black students at Wyo formed a Black Student Alliance, whose influence soon spread to the black members of the football team.

As detailed in the excellent book, College Football, by John Sayle Watterson, on the Thursday prior to the BYU game, Eaton (shown at right with LSU's Charlie McClendon at the '68 Sugar Bowl) had heard from the Alliance of a demonstration planned for the clash vs. the Provo, Utah-based Cougars. Summoning Joe Williams, one of his team captains and a member of the BSA, Eaton warned that any players who wore the black armbands on the field for the BYU game would be dismissed from the team.

On Friday morning, Williams and the other 13 black members of the Cowboy team appeared in Eaton’s office, wearing their armbands, and asked for a meeting with the coach. Eaton obliged--sort of--leading the players to the bleachers of the adjacent War Memorial Flieldhouse and thus delivered a lecture. At the outset, Eaton laid down his law. “I can save you fellows a lot of time and a lot of words,” said Eaton to the assembled 14. “You are all through at Wyoming.” When the players tried to plead their case, they were told to shut up.

Remember, these were sensitive racial times, not long after urban unrest had resulted in devastating riots in locales such as Watts, Detroit, Newark, and Washington, D.C. And even though Laramie was off the beaten path, news spread quickly. State authorities reacted as if their university had come under siege; the board of trustees rushed to Laramie to hold a special session with Governor Stanley Hathaway, Wyo president William Carlson, and the dissident players. The meeting, which lasted for hours, failed to reach a settlement with the 14 athletes, who would not back down from their vow to wear their armbands in the game. Eaton’s decision to dismiss the players was thus upheld.

Meanwhile, a contingent of National Guardsmen had been summoned to Laramie amid rumors that busloads of paramilitary Black Panthers from Denver might raid the stadium during the BYU game. The Guardsmen waited under the grandstands for the trouble, but the buses from Denver never arrived. The 14 dismissed players were in the stands for the game, which an energized Wyo won 40-7, but the seeds of disruption had been planted. After a win the next week over San Jose State to push the record to 6-0, the Cowboys lost their next four games, and Eaton’s regime ended the following season after an unsightly 1-9 mark. It would not be until later in the ‘70s that the Cowboy football program would again be able to attract black recruits in numbers and finally recover.

Meanwhile, years later, the “Black 14" were honored with a statue that now stands in the Wyoming Student Union. And the LDS changed its policy regarding black priests in 1971.

And you thought we were kidding about Wyo’s interesting and controversial football past! Now let’s get to the 2012 Cowboys.

With TCU having departed the Mountain West for the Big XII, and graduation-depleted Boise State likely to regress (if just a bit), some pundits are forecasting the Cowboys as a serious contender in this year’s conference race.

Forgive us, however, for needing a little more convincing. After all, the last time Wyo was coming off a bowl season with a freshman QB, things went so pear-shaped in a 3-9 meltdown two years ago that QB Austyn Carta-Samuels, who took the bulk of the abuse from the fan base, decided to skip out on Laramie and transferred to Vanderbilt.

Moreover, the last time we took a look at the Cowboys, they were being trampled in the New Mexico Bowl by Temple, not to be confused with Alabama or LSU, by a lopsided 37-15 score.

The Owls ran over and around Wyo that afternoon in Albuquerque to the tune of 255 rush yards, a theme repeated all too often a year ago despite the Pokes’ 8-5 W-L record. In each of those defeats, Wyo was abused defensively and lost by double-digit margins, often helpless to stop opposing rush attacks. The Cowboys allowed a whopping 232 ypg (ranking an awful 115th nationally) and a hefty 5.1 ypc on the ground last fall.

These troubling developments set off alarms in Christensen’s office in the offseason. The coach looked at a four-game stretch of tricky games in October vs. run-happy offenses of Nevada, Air Force, Fresno State, and Boise State and decided that he had better make some adjustments in defensive philosophy or the Cowboys, whose best defenses have always featured speed and quickness instead of brawn, were going to be smashmouth victims once again.

Enter Chris Tormey, a veteran defensive assistant with stints as a head coach at Idaho (1995-99) and Nevada (2000-03) and once upon a time one of Don James’ most-trusted aides at Washington. Tormey, most-recently the LB coach at Washington State, replaces Marty English, last year’s d.c. who has moved to Jim McElwain’s new staff at rival Colorado State.

(English, who had been reassigned to the LBs after Torney’s arrival, has been called a Benedict Arnold by some Cowboy Joe Club members after enlisting with the blood rival Rams in February.)

The “Tormey transformation” took place during spring work which Christensen said was the most-physical during his four-season tenure at Laramie. After flip-flopping between 3-4 and 4-3 looks during Christensen’s first three seasons, Tormey’s “D” will attack in 3-3-5 alignments which Christensen believes will put more speed and playmakers on the field.

The adjustment to the odd-man fronts and accompanying aggressive mindset seemed to go without a hitch in spring. Now let’s see if the new alignments work against live action in the fall.

Wyo will nonetheless be going to battle without the heart and soul of its recent stop units, DEs Gabe Knapton & Josh Biezuns, and LB Brian Hendricks. Eight starters do return on the platoon, but Tormey is going to need the likes of sr. linemen Mike Purcell (left, chasing an Air Force runner last November) and Kurt Taufa’asau and perhaps juco DE Justin Bernthaler to at least occupy opposing blockers while the heat-seeking LBs and DBs are allowed to fly around the field and make plays. Tormey is said to be excited about the move of former RB Ghaali Muhammad back to his original LB position, where he could team up with returning OLBs Korey Jones and Devyn Harris in providing plenty of lateral movement and pursuit ability behind the front line.

All starters return in a secondary that features big-hitting safeties Mark Nzeocha and Luke Ruff, the latter one of the more-versatile defenders in the Mountain West who can be moved all over the defensive chess board by Tormey.

Meanwhile, the Carta-Samuels comparisons are going to be unavoidable for soph QB Brett Smith, who compensates for an unorthodox throwing motion with a ton of moxie and leadership skills. All Smith did in 2011 was break the conference total offense record for a frosh held by TCU’s Andy Dalton, with Smith passing for 2622 yards and running for a team-high 710 more yards out of the spread.

Although held out of most spring work (save for occasional 7-on-7 drills) while recuperating from hand surgery, Smith (right) is expected to be 100% by the time fall camp opens. In his absence during March and April, jr. backup Colby Kirkegaard took almost all of the snaps, including for both teams in the spring game as Christensen tried to get his relief pitcher some much-needed work just in case Kirkegaard is called upon in the fall.

The supporting cast has a slightly different look, especially after RB Alvester Alexander (695 YR in 2011) declared early for the NFL Draft, in which he went unpicked. Who gave Alexander that advice, anyway? Soph Kody Sutton, a 5'8 waterbug whom the coaches would have preferred to redshirt last season, but didn’t, enters fall with the inside track on the starting RB spot ahead of jr. Brandon Miller, who gained 364 YR in 2011 but is more likely to be used at WR.

Christensen, however, is on record as saying he would like for QB Smith to not have to carry as much of the offensive burden this fall, which means fewer runs for him out of the spread and less likelihood of taking the sort of extra pounding that could result in injury. Although his escapability helped reduce the number of sacks Wyo allowed (only 12 all of last season), Smith will also have to learn to “slide’ instead of trying to run over defenders, hardly advisable for QBs not named Tim Tebow or Cam Newton.

There is room for a couple of more WRs to emerge in Christensen’s 4-WR sets which return starters Robert Herron (left, vs. UNLV last October) and Chris McNeal, who combined for 85, mostly short-yardage receptions last season. A downfield passing threat is being stressed by Christensen who has high hopes that soph Trey Norman, who played in all 12 games as a frosh, can fill the long-ball role that was occupied (but only occasionally) by graduated Josh Doctson last season.

Special teams, especially the kicking units, often produce good numbers at Laramie’s 7220-foot elevation, and Australian true frosh P Tim Gleeson, who was weaned on Aussie Rules Football, wowed ‘em in spring when averaging better than 50 yards per punt (altitude-aided, of course) in several scrimmages.

As mentioned, the Mountain West schedule gets pretty dicey in October, and the Cowboys play their last eight games without a bye. The opener at Texas is also a lot tougher than last year’s lid-lifter vs. Weber State (which Wyo barely won, 35-32).

Pointspread-wise, Christensen’s Wyo teams have not been able to sneak up on anybody since his 2009 debut campaign when the Pokes posted a stellar 9-3 mark vs. the line; they’re only 12-13 since. The Wyo trend to note the past two seasons has been a 16-8-1 “under” mark.

Summary...We don’t always buy the “history repeats itself” angle, but there were so many similarities between the 2009 and 2011 Wyo breakthroughs that we would be remiss if at least not being conscious of the 2010 meltdown. Having said that, Mountain West sources suspect that Brett Smith is a more substantial QB than the since-departed Austyn Carta-Samuels, but we have questions about the balance of the Wyo offense. And, much like 2009, we note that the Cowboys won almost all of their close games last season (four wins by three points or fewer), and were physically overmatched by the better teams on the schedule. A return to bowl action is no guarantee unless new d.c. Chris Tormey’s defensive adjustments help to better slow the run, or if QB Smith’s supporting cast can’t carry some of the attack-end burden.


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