Cowboys vs. Broncos: How we see this shaking out
LARAMIE — Today we break down the 15th all-time meeting between Wyoming (2-3) and Boise State (4-1, 4-0)). Kickoff is scheduled for 4 p.m. Saturday from War Memorial Stadium in Laramie.
When the Pokes have the pigskin: Last Saturday we thought we might see the Cowboys air it out. Statistically, New Mexico features one of the worst pass defenses in the nation. Boy, were we wrong. Levi Williams and Gavin Beerup combined to complete just five passes. Wyoming racked up 91 yards through the Las Vegas sky in the 17-16 upset loss to the previously winless Lobos. We were wrong about offensive coordinator Brent Vigen's game plan. Let's try this again. Boise State features the 103rd-ranked rush defense in the country, allowing nearly 204 yards on the ground per outing. This should be right in Vigen's wheelhouse, right? No one loves to run the ball quite like he does. Couple that with a snowy, blustery day on the high plains and the return of one of the Mountain West's top running backs in Xazavian Valladay, I'd say we are on to something here. The Cowboys boast the No. 9 rushing attack in America. They average 247 yards per game. On a day when temperatures might not get out of the teens, a smash-mouth attack might be just what the doctor ordered, especially if Williams can't go. Remember, the redshirt freshman left late in last week's game with an apparent shoulder injury. It was to his throwing arm, too. Do the Cowboys still need to make some hay in the passing game? Of course. This looks like a perfect day to put the ball in the hands of some big tight ends like Nate Weinman, Treyton Welch or Jackson Marcotte. Also, don't be surprised to see Ayden Eberhardt get targeted. He wasn't last week, which is still a head scratcher. Isaiah Neyor has proven to be a big-play threat. Time to pull out all the stops. This is it.
When Boise State is on offense: Boise State's offense is also going to have to deal with that snow, wind and ice. Running the football hasn't exactly been their forte this season, either. The Broncos, like the Cowboys, could be receiving a boost in their backfield Saturday. George Holani is scheduled to suit up for the first time since Halloween. He's a workhorse. In his absence, Bryan Harsin has relied on the combination of Andrew Van Buren and wide receiver Khalil Shakir. They average just 125 yards on the ground per outing. Boise State, led by sophomore gunslinger Hank Bachmeier, is still one of the nation's best when it comes to the passing game. The Broncos average 258 yards per contest in that department. If conditions allow -- or they don't -- expect Bachmeier and Co. to sling it. Shakir leads the way with 529 receiving yards and six touchdowns. CT Thomas has snagged 16 balls for 312 yards and a pair of scores. Tight end John Bates also has 117 yards on just 12 catches. Boise State will still reach into its bag of tricks. They aren't afraid to do anything to be deceptive and get the ball in their playmakers' hands. That should come as no surprise. Wyoming's defense is holding opponents to just 128 yards on the ground. A secondary that was torched for 420 yards passing in the season opener has settled in as of late. CJ Coldon, Azizi Hearn and others have held opposing quarterbacks to just 207 yards through the air. Last week, New Mexico threw for 92 yards. Wyoming will be without outside linebacker Charles Hicks (injury) and defensive end Cameron Smith (suspension) this week. Chad Muma will start this one after being ejected in the second quarter last week for a targeting call. Boise State has allowed just 10 sacks this season. If Garrett Crall and crew can get in Bachmeier's kitchen, this game could go much differently than the oddsmakers think it will.
Special teams edge: Boise State. We could end the discussion there, but let's take a look at just how terrifying the Broncos' special teams units really are. They average 28 yards per kick return. Punt returns, those are good, too. Boise State is averaging 17.2 per. Both of those stats rank in the Top-10 nationally. Avery Williams is a major reason for that. The senior speedster has a kick return for a touchdown, a punt return and a blocked punt for a score. He blocked two in the first quarter alone against Colorado State. Wyoming has to know where No. 26 is at all times. Preferably, they should not even let him touch the pigskin. Wyoming has not been good on return coverage. There's plenty of reasons for that, but the reality remains -- the Cowboys have been gashed. The Pokes return defense ranks 105th nationally. They are 75th in punt-return defense. Broncos' placekicker Jonah Dalmas is a perfect 4-for-4 on field-goal attempts. His long is 42. Wyoming's John Hoyland is 10-for-11. The freshman walk-on is a perfect 16-for-16 on extra points.
Historically speaking: This series has been lopsided -- to say the least. Boise State has won 13 of the previous 14 meetings. The Cowboys' lone win came back in 2016. Josh Allen was under center then. Wyoming played for a Mountain West title that season. The Cowboys battled the Broncos on the blue turf last fall to a 17-17 tie at the end of regulation. Boise State booted a field goal in overtime. It was just enough. Wyoming has hung tough with the Broncos on a number of occasions, but there have been a few woodshed games, too. In 2006, the Cowboys were one of the only teams to come close to upsetting the Broncos. A 61-yard Quinton Jones pick-six was the difference maker as Wyoming fell 17-10 in Laramie. Boise State, a member of the Western Athletic Conference back then, finished the season 13-0 and stunned the college football world with a 43-42 overtime victory over No. 7 Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl.
The score. Oh, the score: Will Boise State be fully invested in this one? First of all, the Broncos have already punched their ticket to next week's Mountain West championship game against San Jose State. Secondly, Harsin made some news off the field this week when some of his August emails were made public. He expressed his desire for the university to look for avenues to leave the league when the Mountain West initially canceled the 2020 season because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. It wasn't a good look. Granted, it was an emotional time for everyone. Third, the Broncos haven't played a football game since Nov. 21. Could rust play a factor, too? On the flip side, there's no sugarcoating it, Wyoming is coming of a humiliating loss to a program that was the not-so-proud-owner of the nation's longest losing streak at 14 games. New Mexico hadn't won a league contest in 20 tries. The Cowboys shot themselves in the foot all night long, especially in the third-down department, where they finished 1-of-11. Can the Pokes bounce back from that? Will the desire be there with no postseason on the line? I think it will be. I also think this game will be closer than many people think. Hey, if the Lobos can win, anyone can, right? Still, I think the Broncos will be too much in the end. Their talented roster can overcome all of the ills mentioned above. The young Cowboys haven't proven that just yet.
Boise State 31