3 Quick takes: Questionable play calling aides in OT defeat
BOISE, Idaho -- "One play doesn't lose a game."
Logan Wilson said that twice. So did Wyoming head coach Craig Bohl.
They are absolutely right. It was two plays -- make that play calls -- that aided in the Cowboys heartbreaking 20-17 overtime loss to No. 22 Boise State on a cool Saturday night at Albertsons Stadium.
Neither had to do with senior place kicker, Cooper Rothe, who missed a 37-yard field goal wide right, either.
The first one came on Wyoming's final offensive drive of regulation. Tyler Vander Waal, who was making his first start at quarterback since the 2018 finale, marched the Cowboys 36 yards in nine plays down to the Broncos 39. Facing a 4th-and-1 with 36 seconds remaining, Boise State burned its final timeout.
When both teams arrived back at the line of scrimmage for that crucial play, Wyoming (6-3, 3-2) came out in its typical double tight end package. The Broncos, well, let's just say they have seen this movie before. They put nine in the box, overloading the right side.
What did the Cowboys do? Ran right up the middle, of course. Waiting there was uncovered linebacker, Riley Whimpey.
Xazavian Valladay lost a yard. Threat averted.
Then there was the one in overtime.
Trailing 20-17 and facing a 3rd-and-4 from the Broncos 19, Wyoming offensive coordinator, Brent Vigen, again dialed up his trademark call of run right up the pipe into a collective mass of men, including his own.
Let's call it the "2019 special."
And guess what -- this time Boise State had 10 men in the box. End result: Valladay, loss of two. Whimpey, once again, untouched.
Rothe missed the field goal on the next play; Wyoming's Mountain West Championship aspirations all but dashed.
Valladay said it all in one quote.
"They just staked the box," he said of that fourth-down play late in regulation. "They just rushed the A-gap. I mean, credit to them. There is nothing else we could do right there."
Yes, yes there is. Don't call the predictable play.
Bohl and Co. weren't talking about play calling after this one. They rarely do -- unless it works. Bryan Harsin, Boise State's sixth-year head coach, sure wasn't fooled. And why would he be?
"There were only a few options," Harsin said of Wyoming's offense in overtime. "We made the right call and the guys stepped up."
Harsin alluded to the fact that the Cowboys had ran that same play time and time -- and time again. It's on film. It was on full display again in Boise.
Valladay hit triple digits in the yards column for the third straight week. He was a workhorse again Saturday night, carrying the ball a season-high 37 times for 124 hard-earned yards. Only a 21-yard touchdown run that put the Cowboys up 17-10 with 2:35 left in the third quarter seemed to come easy for the sophomore.
Valladay got pounded on. He even temporarily left the game with an apparent ankle injury on the previous drive. He averaged just 3.4 yards per carry. He was the only Wyoming tailback to carry the ball all night.
What's the point?
Boise State (8-1, 5-0) was keying on him. There was no mystery. I'm sure the 33,000-plus in attendance were scratching their collective heads more than celebrating.
"They scouted for X," Vander Waal said of Valladay. "On the few run plays we didn't convert, we got blown off the ball. Their mantra was 'punch us in the mouth before they punch us in the mouth.'
"They blitzed off the back side and executed better on that play than we did."
I received texts messages from two former Wyoming players after this one. They went something like this -- "WTF is this play calling?"
“I know, as a coaching staff, we’ll be in the office bright and early tomorrow morning getting our game plan ready for the Utah State game next Saturday,” Bohl said.
Maybe this blueprint will include some creativity? Trust in play makers?
That would be a nice change. Unfortunately for the Pokes, the stakes are much lower now. Sure, there's pride. There's the assurance of actually earning a bowl bid. Hell, next week Jim Bridger's rifle is on the line.
There is only one guarantee tonight, this one hurt.
"Yeah, most definitely," Valladay said when asked if this was the worst loss he has suffered in his playing career. "I really felt this one. I really did. It was a big game. Everyone knows Boise this and Boise that, but we're tough, too."
This phrase is used way too often, but nothing could be more true tonight -- these guys left it all on the field.
Too bad their offensive coaches didn't.
How about that back-up QB?
How many of your friends told you the season was toast when Sean Chambers went down with a left leg injury and was lost for the season?
Come on, admit it. It was maybe even you?
How are you feeling about those thoughts now? No, Vander Waal didn't light up the stat sheet Saturday night. No, he wasn't the running threat that Chambers was. No, he didn't lead the Cowboys to victory.
No, Vander Waal was none of those things, but he did more than enough to put his team in a position to win. Unfortunately, he doesn't call the plays.
Vander Waal completed 15-of-23 passes for 160 yards and scored the Pokes' opening touchdown of the game in the second quarter on a 3-yard RPO keeper. He didn't make mistakes, either. There were a couple of close calls, especially a floater in overtime that was somehow dropped by Whimpey in the end zone, but overall, Vander Waal was solid all around in the loss.
Where I thought the sophomore was most impressive was in his demeanor. The stage was not too big for him, just like he said it wouldn't be. He was talking back to fans as he ran on the field and after his touchdown run. After an early sack, Vander Waal jawed back and forth with a Boise State defender. He was elusive. He was a gunslinger.
At times, it looked like a guy who used to wear No. 17 at Wyoming.
When Vander Waal left the locker room post game to talk to the media gathered outside, he had a tear drop under his left eye. He was sniffling between sentences.
You think this game meant something to him?
"Just quiet. You can hear a pin drop," he said of the visitor's locker room. "No one likes to be in that situation ... no one wants to lose like that. It was heartbreaking."
Vander Waal wanted this one badly. His family was in the stands. He has close friends at Boise State. He wanted to prove the doubters wrong.
Despite the loss, he did just that.
UW's O-line keeps pounding
Wyoming's front five have taken a physical beating this season.
Eric Aboje, arguably the Cowboys best run blocker, is gone for the season. So is Gavin Rush. Zach Watts has missed the entire 2019 campaign. Bohl said at his Monday press conference that Watts could be available in Boise. He wasn't.
Neither was Alonzo Velazquez. Logan Harris was also out for a few games with a concussion he suffered in Tulsa.
You get the point.
Despite all the bumps, bruises and the revolving door at nearly every position, this group has shown toughness, resiliency and depth. They did it again on the blue turf tonight.
"I thought our offensive line did a nice job -- we’ve got a lot of young guys in there," Bohl said.
It wasn't the most productive rushing effort of the season, and the line wasn't able to get the push for those crucial yards in the scenarios above, but it was another gritty effort from the big guys.
Frank Crum, a redshirt freshman from Laramie, lined up against Curtis Weaver most of the night. You might have heard of him. He is the conference's all-time sack leader with 33. He picked up two more tonight, but it could've been so much worse.
Keegan Cryder, Wyoming's center, was a one-man wrecking crew on Valladay's 21-yard touchdown run. He blew his guy off the ball, then found another guy to punish.
Bart Miller is a great coach. I don't know how Wyoming snagged him, but they should do whatever it takes to keep him around here for a long time. He has been an offensive line coach at Minnesota and Wisconsin.
When you think of great college lines, those are at or near the top of the list. He played for Rocky Long at New Mexico. He knows toughness. He knows winning.
He has this group believing. They believe in him, too.
Remember when this group was considered a weak link? They were too young. They had too many injuries. You didn't know their names.
Now, you do.
This group is solidifying itself as one of the best offensive lines in the nation.