3 Quick takes: ‘Pissed off’ Pokes make light work of Rebels
LAS VEGAS -- A perplexed look came across the face of Wyoming offensive guard Eric Abojei.
I asked him if fans could expect a "pissed off" front five when Utah State came to town.
He laughed and said, "Why do you say that?"
He knew exactly why.
After a 34-24 setback in Fort Collins that ended with Colorado State's entire roster blazing a trail across the field to snag the Bronze Boot, there was plenty of blame to go around. The offensive line, one of the most veteran units in all of college football, got the brunt of that.
They were an easy target, too.
Wyoming quarterback Levi Williams was sacked six times that night. Time after time the redshirt freshman picked himself up off the turf. Sure, Xazavian Valladay rushed for 147 yards, but the Rams did bring down UW running backs in the backfield 14 times.
That isn't supposed to happen.
Compounding things even further, other Front Range rival, Air Force, couldn't play the following week in Laramie because of a COVID-19 outbreak at the academy. A little more than 24 hours before kickoff, Utah State officials alerted the conference that the virus wouldn't allow them to travel to Wyoming either.
That's how long it had been since the Cowboys last played a game.
Friday, UNLV (0-5) played the part of a living, breathing tackling dummy in a 45-14 ambush inside Allegiant Stadium. The aggression that was supposed to be levied on the Falcons and Aggies was saved for the winless Rebels.
"I think, personally, it was a mixture of playing in that nice stadium for one, and for two, we haven't gotten to play football in three weeks," senior safety Braden Smith said. "We were also coming off that loss to CSU, so we're still kind of mad about that. I'd say it was a little bit of revenge -- and UNLV just happened to be in the way."
Well, kind of.
Most of the time, the Rebels weren't in anyone's way. Like on the Cowboys' second play from scrimmage when Valladay took a handoff right up the middle untouched for a 78-yard touchdown.
Late in the first half, UNLV finally crossed the 50-yard line on offense. Marcus Arroyo's team punted on its first five possessions. The Rebels amassed just 35 yards of total offense up to that point. Regardless, the numbers didn't mean much after UNLV quarterback Max Gilliam led his squad on a 10-play, 98-yard drive to cut the Pokes halftime lead to 17-7.
They were in this one -- briefly.
A nice drive to open the second half was thwarted when the Rebels decided to go for it on 4th and 3 from the Cowboys' 46. Esaias Gandy stoned UNLV running back Charles Williams after a catch in the backfield for an 11-yard loss.
Nine plays later, Wyoming's Williams was in the end zone.
The Rebels first three drives of the third quarter went like this:
- Turnover on downs
The Cowboys (2-2) responded with three touchdowns. Two from Williams and a 28-yard outburst from running back Trey Smith, who finished with a career-high 164 yards on 24 carries.
Was revenge really a factor?
"That's exactly what it was," Smith said. "That and a lot of preparation. We've been practicing extremely hard for the last two to three weeks, going at it every day. I really think it paid off. This was a really rewarding win for us as a team."
Williams, who completed just 8 of 14 passes for 99 yards, has been a little bit more outspoken than most of his teammates. After the CSU loss, Williams took plenty of the blame and also let the world know basically that Wyoming beat Wyoming that night, not the Rams.
Friday, the Pokes' signal caller carried the ball eight times for 43 yards. He scored three touchdowns on the ground, including a 15-yard touchdown scamper in the second quarter. He shucked a would-be tackler and waltzed right into the end zone.
A Cowboy hasn't scored three touchdowns in a game since 2016.
That guy was Brian Hill.
"I think we were a little pissed off because we didn't get to play the last two games and it wasn't because of us," Williams said bluntly. "It was completely out of our control… I'm just really proud of our guys. They had a really dominating performance."
Wyoming rushed for a season-high 399 yards, its highest total since a 424-yard outburst against San Jose State in 2018. Dawaiian McNeeley saw his first action in the UW backfield. He rushed for 54 yards on 13 carried. Even Brett Brenton got on the field. The Casper product gashed the Rebels for a 19-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter.
When Williams was handing out kudos, it didn't take him long to get to the guys up front.
"They did a great job blocking all game," he said. "... Hats off to them."
Abojei made it abundantly clear what message the Cowboys wanted to send to the Aggies last week. Unfortunately for UNLV, they got the brunt of that frustration.
“We have a chip on our shoulder … We have to win," Abojei said. "We have to make sure we’re the most dominant O-line in the country.”
They sure looked the part on Friday.
Wyoming 45, UNLV 14
The captain's comeback
It didn't take long for Garrett Crall to announce his presence Friday in Las Vegas.
On the Rebels' first play from scrimmage, the senior defensive end stayed in his lane and dragged UNLV running back Tyleek Collins down for a nine-yard loss.
Hard to believe that was Crall's first snap since the Arizona Bowl, huh?
Earlier in the week, Wyoming head coach Craig Bohl said Crall was back on the practice field but he didn't know his status for this game. The senior from Hicksville, Ohio, was still making his way back from offseason foot surgery. He also got hit with a 14-day quarantine for contact tracing.
Would he be "game ready?"
It sure appeared so.
"It was a huge lift," Bohl said of getting Crall back in the lineup. "Garrett is one of our captains and has gone through so much, getting his foot healed then he got contact traced ... It was great to see him out there."
Crall finished with five tackles, a sack and two tackles for loss. He also batted down a pass.
You think this team missed him in its first three games?
"He means everything to us," safety Braden Smith said. "I kept telling him before the game, 'do you need a massage or anything from me to get you right?' ... We needed him back for sure."
Who are those guys?
Bohl joked that he knew who some of his defensive linemen were Friday night. He even could "somewhat pronounce their last names."
"That's about all I knew," Bohl laughed.
It wasn't all smiles earlier in the week when Victor Jones, arguably the Cowboys' best lineman, was hit with an indefinite suspension for violating team rules. Cole Godbout, Wyoming's standout defensive tackle, would miss this game, too.
Who did that leave in the mix?
Justis Borton, Gavin Meyer, Cameron Smith, Caleb Robinson, Jordan Bertagnole and DeVonne Harris.
Heard of them?
With some help from Crall and Jaylen Pate, the Cowboys' defensive front helped hold UNLV to just 3.8 yards per rush. Charles Williams, the Mountain West's fourth-leading rusher, racked up just 24 yards on nine carries.
Crall and Pate each picked up a sack, too.
"It's been really encouraging," Bohl said about the play of that unit. "You're right, there's a lot of unknowns."
This position group has arguably dealt with the most turmoil during this crazy 2020 campaign.
UW's leader in sacks last fall, Solomon Byrd, opted out before the season. So did Mario Mora, Claude Cole and Davon Wells-Ross. Ravontae Holt was injured during a Week 2 clash with Hawaii, ending his season, plus the issues mentioned above.
Still, this team keeps churning them out.
Chad Muma, who led the Pokes with three sacks and 10 tackles Friday, pointed to Crall as a major reason this unit keeps thriving.
"They played fantastic," Muma said. "Additionally, credit to Garrett Crall getting back out there. It was nice to see him and have him. His leadership this last week kind of helped younger guys get in tune."