3 Quick takes: Passing attack sets tone in rout of Wolf Pack
LARAMIE — Who said this team can't throw the ball?
Oh, yeah -- me. And I wasn't alone.
Boy, was I proven wrong Saturday afternoon. Sean Chambers completed 6-of-9 passes for 158 yards and a pair of touchdown strikes in the Cowboys 31-3 rout of visiting Nevada.
He did that in one half of football.
The redshirt freshman quarterback spend the second half on the sideline in street clothes with an ice pack on his left knee. Craig Bohl did not want to comment on the severity of the injury but said he hopes to have Chambers back over the bye week.
It didn't matter in this one.
In his weekly press conference Monday, Bohl joked that his squad wouldn't be mistaken for a Mike Leach "air raid" attack against a poor Nevada secondary.
He was right. But the results were the same.
And it all started before the smoke from the end-zone cannon made its way over War Memorial Stadium and into the cool Laramie fall air.
The Cowboys first offensive play, to be exact.
Lined up in a short-of shotgun wish-bone formation, Chambers faked a hand-off to Rocket Ismail and found Xazavian Valladay all alone in the secondary. All he did was take the pass 53 yards into the end zone to give the Pokes the early lead.
"That’s been in the repertoire for a while," Bohl joked when asked how often they practiced that play. "We thought it could go well. It did better than we thought."
Valladay was more forthright.
"We practiced that a bunch of times this week," he said. "Coach (Brent) Vigen and Bohl had a good game plan for us. Just me and Sean were working on throwing the ball deep and all the route trees we have. We just practiced that and it just came down to executing during the game."
We've said time and time again that Chambers simply needs to complete 60-plus percent of his passes to be successful. The number of passes is really irrelevant in a lot of ways.
Saturday, he completed 66.7 percent and finished with a quarterback rating of 265.3. I'm no mathematician, but that's efficiency.
It just adds another weapon to Vigen's offensive holster.
Not to be understated, the Cowboys (6-2, 3-1) also threw their first screen pass of the season. That went to Valladay for 21 yards. Make no mistake, that's a big part of a pro-style offense. It's featured in every NFL stadium on Sundays. That chapter is back in Wyoming's playbook.
Ismail showed up in a big way, too. The senior was the go-to target Saturday. He snagged four passes for a career-high 93 yards and hauled in a picture-perfect 37-yard touchdown pass from Chambers in a second quarter that saw the Pokes tack on 10 more points to a 14-3 lead.
Ismail left a few yards on the field. Maybe another touchdown, too.
Why did the Pokes have so much success today?
"They played man," Ismail said bluntly. "We have a lot of fast receivers. We've got a team full of cats that can run 20-plus miles per hour on a consistent basis. If that was the game plan, shout out to them, but it didn’t work."
Wyoming also got its tight ends involved. Jackson Marcotte caught a 25-yard touchdown strike from Tyler Vander Waal in the third quarter, and fifth-year senior Josh Harshman pulled in one pass for seven yards.
Even Austin Conway made his return to the stat sheet with a 22-yard catch.
Statistically, this was Wyoming's best passing day this season with 221 yards through the air. The previous high was 193. That came in the road loss at Tulsa.
This win came with balance and well-timed throws, which opened things up for the running game. You know, the way this whole football thing is supposed to work.
"We really strive to be more run and pass," Bohl said. "That certainly stresses a defense ... we are throwing the ball better. We are encouraged about that."
Valladay is the real deal
"X" as his teammates call him, eclipsed 280-yard all-purpose yards in the victory over Nevada. He gashed, cut and hammered his way to a 206-yard day on the ground.
He had a long of 53. He averaged 7.9 yards per carry.
It was the best day for a Cowboy back since Brian Hill registered 302 versus this same Wolf Pack team in 2016.
"He’s a great back. I know he’s doing some great things in the league," Valladay said of Hill. "I’m kind of speechless. I'm just keeping tunnel vision, staying humble and controlling what I can control."
No one really knew what to expect from the Cowboys ball carriers this season. There was a mass exodus of players during the offseason. The Mountain West's leading rusher, Nico Evans, graduated. Who would step up?
He shined in the season-ending win over New Mexico in 2018 and carried that right into the Missouri game where he torched the Tigers for 118 yards on just 15 carries.
In back-to-back weeks, Valladay has gone over the 100-yard mark. It was his first career 200-yard game Saturday. He is the new workhorse with Titus Swen and Trey Smith on the shelf.
He doesn't mind that one bit.
"It means a lot," he said. "It's next man up. You put the team on your back because you have a lot of guys counting on you. You don’t want to let your brothers down."
Pokes D flexes its muscles
The better question at this point is -- what can't Alijah Halliburton do?
The senior safety -- once again -- was all over the field Saturday afternoon. He had a bone-crushing blindside sack on Nevada quarterback Carson Strong. No clue how he didn't fumble that ball.
Halliburton says he "needs to work on that."
That might be the only thing he needs to work on. The Aurora, Colo., Cowboy finished with seven tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss and picked off his first career pass.
"I know I can get there," Halliburton said of seeing the ball in the air. "I hit the receiver and the ball just pops up off of him. I just snagged it -- oh i'll take that. I'm excited about that one. First career. Doesn’t get any better than that."
That was just a glimpse of what this defense can do as a whole.
Nevada's offensive numbers look like this:
81 rushing yards
254 passing yards
2.9 yards per carry
8 tackles for loss
“We just didn’t finish. We couldn’t find a way to execute it and score," Nevada head coach Jay Norvell said. "We need to protect better and run the
ball better, too. We are averaging like 2.9 yards a rush this game, which is not nearly good enough. We have to find better ways to convert on third down.”
The Wolf Pack (4-4, 1-3) have scored just 13 points in their last two outings at Utah State and in Laramie.
Logan Wilson led the way today with eight tackles and a tackle for loss. Solomon Byrd, the Pokes stud freshman defensive end, racked up 2.5 sacks and the same number of stops behind the line of scrimmage.
Wyoming shutdown the Wolf Pack's slew of running backs, holding Toa Taua to just 26 yards on 11 carries. Strong, who is not known for his wheels, picked up 23 yards on seven carries.
The Cowboys also caused three fumbles, recovering one.
What was the secret? Halliburton says not much.
"(Nevada) did have some good athletes and big backs," he said. "I think our defense has great athletes and we can do whatever we want."
If this version of Jake Dickert's defense can show up over a brutal four-game stretch to end the season, Wyoming will compete. This was arguably the best defensive effort of the season for the home team. They were suffocating at times. They got back to basics. Two takeaways always helps, too.
Not many people outside of the Cowboy State will give the Pokes much of a chance to give Boise State a run in two weeks. With this type of all-around game on both sides of the ball, some might be changing their tune.