COLUMN: ‘Next man up’ not just a cute slogan for UW’s defensive tackles
LARAMIE -- There's no Mario Mora.
Claude Cole opted out this season, too.
Defensive tackle Ravontae Holt missed the entire 2019 season with a torn right ACL. In the second quarter of Friday night's 31-7 victory over Hawaii, big No. 98 laid flat on his back on the War Memorial Stadium turf as trainers maneuvered around his left leg.
The redshirt junior walked off under his own power. He didn't play another snap. Craig Bohl hopes to have him back next week.
Think back to last August.
You know, the first time you really start to analyze the Cowboys' depth chart for the upcoming season. You knew Wyoming would have to find a way to replace Carl Granderson, Kevin Prosser and Youhann Ghaifan. Those are enough holes to fill. The loss of Holt just added to the unknown.
What names did you browse over?
Cole Godbout, Victor Jones, Alonzo Hall, Jordan Bertagnole, Mora and others. That's when you probably said something like this -- "we're screwed." To make matters even worse, big, bad Missouri was coming to town for the opener.
Starting to sound familiar at all?
By now, you know that Wyoming featured a Top-10 rush defense in 2019. The Pokes got to the quarterback 31 times, just nine behind conference leader, Boise State.
They upset the Tigers, 37-31.
This fall, when the excitement faded from the announcement that the Mountain West was going to play an eight-game season despite the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, you probably gazed at that roster again. This time, knowing that Mora and Cole were not a part of the equation. Same goes for defensive ends Solomon Byrd and Devon Wells-Ross.
Were you worried? Sure you were. I read it all over social media.
Are you worried now?
You shouldn't be.
In the win over the Rainbow Warriors, Wyoming held Hawaii to just 123 yards rushing. A nice chunk of that came on a 32-yard jaunt by Miles Reed. The Cowboys surrendered just 76 yards on the ground in the season-opening loss at Nevada. Like Friday night, a 29 of those yards came on a single run by Devonte Lee.
"I think we played a lot more together," Godbout said postgame. "Last week, we weren't really unified. There were some gaps in our play. But, I think we made some adjustments. Coach always says the most improvements are made from first game to the second game, and I think we upheld that."
Will it always be perfect? No.
But the defensive tackle position, under the leadership of coach Pete Kaligis, isn't rebuilding, it's reloading.
Kaligis has been a miracle worker of sorts during his 12 seasons in Laramie. A prime example is what he did with former tackle Chase Appleby.
By his own admittance, Appleby was barely going through the motions his first couple of seasons in Laramie. Now, he will always be remembered for the sack-fumble of Brett Rypien to clinch a win over Boise State in 2016. That October, he also had a 55-yard pick-six in the Pokes' final Border War at Hughes Stadium.
Fast forward to Friday night.
Bertagnole is a preferred walk-on from up the road in Casper. His chances of playing as a redshirt freshman was somewhere between slim and none. Especially not this much. He's 6-feet, 4-inches tall and weighs in at 254 pounds.
That isn't exactly an ideal weight when you tussle with 300-pound guards and centers every weekend.
That doesn't matter. The proof is on the field.
Bertagnole has nine tackles through two games. He has 2.5 sacks and a fumble recovery.
"Bert did some exceptional things tonight," Bohl said. "It's great to see those guys out there and competing."
Godbout added that even he didn't know what to expect from the former Natrona County standout.
"I think Jordan really stepped up to the plate," he said. "I always knew he had potential, but he stepped up to the plate. We had two big guys opt out and we didn't know if Ravontae was going to be back.
"I think he's had a huge impact for our team."
The defensive game plan this week almost solely focused on this group. The idea was the line would shutdown the 'Bows rushing attack, make them throw the ball and clamp down on their receivers in the process.
"If they give us the pass, then we’re gonna pass," Hawaii quarterback Chevan Cordeiro told the local media earlier in the week. "If they give us the run, then we’re gonna run. We’re just gonna adapt to what they’re gonna give us."
All these guys did was help hold Cordeiro to just one rushing yard a week after he gashed Fresno State for a team-high 116. Wyoming harassed him all night, sacking him five times. Three of those belong to the tackles.
Hawaii did throw the ball. Twenty-six times to be exact. Cordeiro completed just 11 of those for 106 yards.
"What we were able to do was really make them one-dimensional," Bohl said. "We knew they had some semblance of a running game. We knew if we could take that away, that allowed us to open up a lot of different calls and put pressure on the quarterback."
You don't build game plans around a rag-tag group of no-name defensive tackles, right?
I bet Hawaii knows their names now. Nevada, too.
"Next man up" is a slogan fit for the back of a t-shirt.
In Laramie, when it comes to the defensive tackles, it's reality.