3 keys to beating the Spartans
LARAMIE -- A very wise man once said -- over and over again -- the real key to winning a football game is to score more points than the other guys.
In Wyoming's case, scoring in general would be a great start.
Craig Bohl's Cowboys are floundering on offense. Over the last 10 quarters of play, his team has one single field goal to its credit. The last UW touchdown came late in the second quarter of a 24-14 road loss to Air Force.
That game was on Oct. 9.
How bad has it been?
Wyoming has made it into its opponents' red zone just twice in that timeframe.
The Cowboys (4-3, 0-3) travel to San Jose State (4-4, 2-2) to take on the defending Mountain West champions Saturday for a 2 p.m. MT kickoff inside CEFCU Stadium. Here's a few things the visitors will need to accomplish if they hope to snap a three-game losing skid:
Steal one -- or three
Believe it or not, the first key will land directly on the lap of the Cowboys' defense.
This unit has been solid all season. Led by middle linebacker Chad Muma, Wyoming features the 16th-ranked defense in the nation, allowing just 311 yards an outing.
This losing streak certainly hasn't been the fault of the guys on that side of the ball, but unlike the first three games of the 2021 campaign, takeaways have been hard to come by during this slide.
In wins over Montana State, Northern Illinois and Ball State, UW led the turnover battle, 7-2. Three of those were interceptions for touchdowns -- two from Muma and another from Keyon Blankenbaker.
Since, the Cowboys' turnover margin sits at minus-2.
Esaias Gandy did snag a pick in a win over UConn and the visitors did recover one of five fumbles in Colorado Springs. Over the last 10 quarters, you guessed it, goose egg.
"Without question, I think it can't be overstated enough, we've got to do a better job taking the ball away," Bohl said, adding that his offense also needs to take care of the football after handing it to the opposition seven times in the last two games. "... That's got to be addressed. It's got to get flipped. We're underwater right now. There's lots of different reasons why but that's my job as head coach to get that flipped around."
This would be the Saturday to do just that.
San Jose State has been very generous with the ball this season.
The Spartans are ranked dead last in the country in turnover margin with a minus-11. Whether it's Nick Starkel -- or presumed starting quarterback, Nick Nash -- under center, those two have combined to throw seven interceptions. SJSU ball carriers have fumbled an eye-popping 17 times through eight games. They've lost nine of those.
The guys in blue and yellow have forced just five turnovers all season, too. Just twice they've finished even in takeaways after a game.
The Cowboys have to finish on the plus side in this category if they hope to get this season back on track in the Bay Area.
Let the kid play
Levi Williams was named the Cowboys starting quarterback on Tuesday afternoon.
He's taking all the snaps with the first team. He's getting the lion's share of the reps in practice.
Now, let him finish what he starts.
In last Saturday's 14-3 loss to New Mexico, Williams played throughout the second and third quarters. He was yanked on Wyoming's first possession of the fourth after a failed exchange with Isaiah Neyor on a sweep play. Sean Chambers went the rest of the way.
Williams' stat line wasn't exactly a work of art -- 3-of-7 for 51 passing yards and five carries for 23 more -- but he did lead the Cowboys on their one and only scoring drive of the afternoon after connecting on a 38-yard pass to Neyor in the second quarter.
Hey, these days, that's important.
It's no secret Williams played the majority of the 2020 virus-shortened season with a separated throwing shoulder and a nagging hip injury. His right arm got crunched to the frozen field in Laramie during a Week 2 win over Hawaii. He never looked the same. Still, the redshirt freshman gutted it out, starting the remaining four games of the season.
Williams scored six rushing touchdowns, including three in a road blowout of UNLV. He was sacked 11 times in that span. A common sight was watching No. 15 pick himself up off the turf as the Cowboys limped to a 2-4 record.
But let's not focus on that. Instead, let's look at what a healthy Williams can bring to the table.
We all know about his first start. That came in the 2019 Arizona Bowl where he completed 11-of-26 passes for 234 yards and three touchdowns. He also added another on the ground to go along with 53 rushing yards.
The Texas product played sparingly late in that regular season. In his first collegiate action, Williams completed both of his passes and carried the ball 13 times for 49 yards and a touchdown in a 17-7 home win over Colorado State. A week later at Air Force, he rushed 15 more times for 79 yards.
In his first three starts last fall, Williams connected on 44-of-80 passes and rolled up 660 yards through the air. He tossed his lone touchdown to Gunner Gentry in an opening-day overtime loss at Nevada.
So, what does all of this mean?
Williams is a young quarterback, who when healthy, has proven he can do some dynamic things with both his arm and legs.
Tim Polasek and the offensive staff are searching for answers this week. It might benefit them to pop on the Arizona Bowl tape.
Williams was deadly in the short passing game, hitting Xazavian Valladay out of the backfield to the tune of 91 yards on three receptions. He also found his running back in the end zone to cap the team's second touchdown drive of the day in that 38-17 rout of Georgia State.
High percentage throws early and often can only help confidence grow on that side of the ball. Opening-drive points -- of any kind -- would certainly go a long way, too.
Let's try this again
San Jose State features on the of the top rushing defenses in the Mountain West Conference, allowing just 126 yards per game on the ground.
The Spartans have allowed only one running back to eclipse the 100-yard mark in a game this fall. Much of that credit goes to linebacker Kyle Harmon, cornerback Nehemiah Shelton and safety Jay Lenard.
Those three have combined for 178 tackles.
For comparison's sake, the Cowboys' top three tacklers -- Muma, Easton Gibbs and Gandy -- have 155. You know how good that trio has been.
"Those players have kind of grown up in the program together," SJSU head coach Brent Brennan said. "They've been through a lot of really hard battles so it's just great to see how they play for each other and just how hard they play. I think that's something that's given us a chance to be in the games that we play each week."
It might not be the ideal opponent to spark your running game against, but it's a must this week.
Consistency and finishing. Those are the two words first-year offensive line coach Derek Frazier used to describe Wyoming's deficiencies in the running game this season, particularly with his veteran front five.
Those issues have to be rectified in northern California if the Cowboys have any shot of coming away with a victory.
Polasek isn't going to deviate too much from the game plan, which to some is a terrifying thought, but expect to see Williams get involved in the Cowboys' dormant rushing attack. Valladay needs to get back to his old self. So does Titus Swen.
"I look at it as a challenge I want to face head on," Swen said of constantly seeing eight -- and sometimes more -- defenders in the tackle box.
Swen, who's averaging five yards per carry, said he feels like a breakout game is on the horizon.
"Most definitely," he said. "I feel like that's coming most likely this week, getting back to that power running game."
Easier said than done.
Wyoming is averaging just 153 yards per game on the ground through seven outings. That ranks the Cowboys No. 77 in the FBS in that category. That's not very Wyoming-like.
"Our clear vision, I think we need to be much more efficient in the running game," Bohl said. "We did a better job knocking people off the ball and sustaining blocks, but that needs to be better this week."
The visitors have to muster up a semblance of a passing game this week to loosen up the Spartans' defense. If that happens, Wyoming needs to parlay that into yards on the ground.
Another thing that can aide this game plan is making hay on second down. Once again, the Cowboys were putting themselves in an early hole on that down all day against New Mexico. Wyoming took 13 snaps on third down. They averaged nearly eight yards to go.
That won't get it done against anyone.
LOOK: Pokes' unis through the years