3 keys to beating the Aggies
LARAMIE -- Craig Bohl has a few keys of his own on how his Cowboys can walk into Logan and knock off Utah State:
Take away space.
Limit the run game.
Sounds straight forward enough, huh? Like always, though, it's easier said than done, especially against this new-look Aggies squad that features one of the top offenses in the nation, averaging 467 total yards per game.
More than 315 of those come through the air. The rest of that yardage can be credited to a duo of running backs -- Calvin Tyler Jr. and Elelyon Noa -- who both average more than 4.2 yards per carry.
Arkansas State transfer quarterback Logan Bonner is completing more than 60% of his passes and has 2,749 yards through the air to go along with 25 touchdown passes.
"That's what makes their offense so prolific," Wyoming's eighth-year head coach said. "They have good players, they have good schemes and they utilizers players in their scheme."
Speaking of utilizing.
First-year head coach Blake Anderson has taken full advantage of the NCAA Transfer Portal to put his rebuild in Logan on the fast track. He added 25 FBS transfers and 11 junior college players to a decimated roster that mustered up just one win in last year's COVID-19-shortened season.
It's working, too.
With a Boise State loss at New Mexico and a win over Wyoming, Utah State will go from worst to first in a matter of 11 months and claim a Mountain Division title.
Bohl's Pokes can play spoiler Saturday -- and come home with some hardware.
These two programs battle for Jim Bridger's Rifle. With bowl eligibility a long shot, hoisting regular season trophies is now the main goal. The Cowboys already possess the Bronze Boot. In the final two weeks of the regular season, Wyoming can add a rifle and the Paniolo Trophy to the case in Laramie.
Here are a few things the Cowboys need to do if they hope to stroll into Utah and pick up the upset win:
1. DON'T GO THERE
Savon Scarver loves playing against the Wyoming Cowboys.
More specifically, returning kicks.
Scarver, the 5-foot-11, 175-junior, has made light work of the Pokes' kick-coverage unit in the last three meetings between these Mountain Division rivals. In 2018, the speedster from Las Vegas dusted the Cowboys for a 99-yard return for a touchdown in a 24-16 victory in Laramie. He added two more returns for a total of 58 yards.
The following season in Logan, Scarver averaged more than 20 yards per return. Same can be said for the meeting in 2017.
Scarver has seven career returns for touchdowns. That is tied for the NCAA record.
"It's going to be critical," Bohl said of containing Scarver and the Aggies return unit. "This game, as you know, they have a great kick return game. I was concerned last week when I saw (Boise State's Khalil Shakir) go back for some punts. You know, that hidden yardage and field position is so critical -- and we work hard at it."
Scarver is currently ranked No. 18 in the nation in average yards per return at 25.9.
Kick coverage wasn't exactly a strength for this Wyoming squad early in the season.
Northern Illinois' Treyvon Rudolph averaged 22 yards per on four returns. He had a long of 35. In a Week 3 meeting with Ball State, the Cowboys nearly allowed the Cardinals to get on the board just before half thanks to a 72-yard return from Justin Hall. Four different return men from UConn torched Wyoming for 26.5 yards per return. Brian Brewton led the way with a 43-yard jaunt.
If there's one area of play that the Cowboys have improved in since conference play rolled around, it's in this category.
Well, against Fresno State and New Mexico, Wyoming didn't do a whole lot of kicking off after scoring just a combined three points in those back-to-back losses. John Hoyland also forced touchbacks in losses at Air Force and Boise State. San Jose averaged just 10.7 yards per return in three attempts. Colorado State's Thomas Pannunzio averaged 24 yards on a trio of attempts in UW's 31-17 win over its Border War rivals.
"We allocate a lot of time to it during practice and in meetings," Bohl said. "Then, we look at a personnel, you know, particularly on the kickoff coverage."
Bohl pointed to a couple of standouts on that unit: Sebastian Harsh and Wyett Ekeler.
"The special team part of the game is going to be critical," he continued. "So our cover skills and our kicks will be really important."
That's an understatement.
Utah State scores enough points on offense. Allowing a Scarver touchdown return -- or even a big one -- will only add elevation to the uphill climb ahead of Bohl's bunch in Logan.
No. 2 LIMIT THE EXPLOSION
Deven Thompkins is the real deal.
The 5-foot-8 junior receiver from Fort Myers, Florida was named a semifinalist for the Biletnikoff Trophy earlier in the week. That, of course, is awarded to the best pass catcher in the country.
Thompkins has certainly been that, hauling in 77 catches for 1,441 yards and eight touchdowns. Logan Bonner's favorite target? Yes. The quarterback's only option? Not even close.
Derek Wright is another big-play receiver for the Aggies. He has 32 catches for 519 yards and also has eight receiving touchdowns. Brandon Bowling also has 35 grabs for 495 yards and five scores. Justin McGriff adds 29 catches for 341 yards. He's also found the end zone four times.
Paging CJ Coldon, Azizi Hearn, Keonte Glinton, Keyon Blankenbaker, Cam Stone and Isaac White, among others in the UW secondary.
That group will have its work cut out Saturday.
Utah State has run 52 plays this fall that have gone for 20 yards or more. Bonner and his corps of wide outs are responsible for 42 of those explosive outcomes, including 14 passing touchdowns.
Wyoming does boast the No. 4 pass defense in the country, allowing just 162.6 yards per game through the air.
These guys, along with the Cowboys' pass-rushing unit of Garrett Crall, Victor Jones, Jaylen Pate and DeVonne Harris and others, will be very busy in Logan.
Expecting the Cowboys to completely shutdown the Aggies passing game isn't realistic, but if they can limit the big pass plays, Bonner and Co. will be forced to go on long drives.
Yes, Utah State is one of the top third-down conversion teams in the nation, but the Aggies have also made plenty of mistakes on offense, throwing 11 interceptions and losing five fumbles in 10 games.
No. 3 THE OBVIOUS
Let's make this short and sweet -- Wyoming won't win this game unless it finishes on the plus side in the turnover margin.
We've beat this dead horse into dog food, but it's the truth.
Levi Williams tossed a late costly interception last Friday night that all but sealed the deal for Boise State in a 23-13 victory over the Pokes. That was the only turnover of the night.
A week prior, the Cowboys snagged two interceptions off the right arm of CSU's Todd Centeio. Glinton stepped in front of a pass and Chad Muma scooped up a tip at the line by Jones. However, Wyoming running back Xazavian Valladay also put the ball on the ground twice.
UW survived finishing even against the Rams.
Utah State isn't CSU.
The Cowboys haven't won the turnover battle since a Week 3 win over Ball State. That must change Saturday in Logan.
The poorly-timed, backbreaking penalties need to cease, too.
Wyoming was flagged eight times for 50 yards in last week's loss to the Broncos. One offside call on a field-goal attempt gave Boise State new life inside the UW 5-yard line. That turned into six two snaps later. A downfield holding call erased a 22-yard pickup by Valladay that would've had the Pokes inside the Broncos' 30. Instead, the ball came back to their own 43 and Williams' pick followed.
There were false starts that stalled drives. There was even a delay of game on the heels of a holding call. You know, the unforgivable stuff.
Bohl constantly talks about his team's need to "play clean."
Wyoming will need more than that to come away with a win in Logan, but it's a start. The Aggies will be a tough enough opponent. The Pokes don't need to battle themselves, too.