Defensive tackle rotation should look much different this fall
LARAMIE -- Admit it, you probably didn't know who Jordan Bertagnole was.
The same can be said for Gavin Meyer.
What you did know is the Cowboys' defensive tackle spot would already be thin with Mario Mora and Claude Cole opting out of the 2020 season. Tack on a season-ending injury for Ravontae Holt, arguably Wyoming's top interior lineman who was lost in Week 2, and an indefinite suspension of Victor Jones late in the season.
That left Cole Godbout as the only player in the program with any snaps at that position.
Despite the youth and inexperience up the middle, something crazy kept happening -- no one could run on the Cowboys.
Nevada's top ball carrier Devonte Lee rushed for just 65 yards in the opener. Hawaii's Miles Reed racked up just 54 yards on the ground. A'Jon Vivens, Colorado State's top back, gained 62 yards, and UNLV quarterback Max Gilliam, not top rusher Charles Williams, tallied 63 yards. Williams was held to just 24.
It wasn't until a Week-5 meeting with the Lobos in Las Vegas that the Cowboys' defense took its first black eye on the ground.
"I thought really the only game last year that we got moved a little bit up front, or we didn't kind of didn't handle some things the way that that I thought we could, was against New Mexico," Second-year defensive coordinator, Jay Sawvel, said of his defense, which gave up 223 yards on the ground in a stunning 17-16 loss inside Sam Boyd Stadium in Las Vegas. "That was kind of their style anyways, a little bit of ground and pound type of thing in that regard. I thought that was the only game that we kind of got moved around a little bit."
Wyoming bounced back the following week in a driving blizzard in Laramie, holding Boise State's Andrew Van Buren to just 79 yards on 25 carries.
The Cowboys boasted the 21st best rushing defense in the nation last fall, allowing just 125.3 yards per game on the ground. Wyoming was one of 14 teams in the nation to hold its opponents to less than five yards per play in 2020.
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How did a walk-on, a true freshman and a second-year player hold down the fort? The Cowboys had no other options.
Turns out, they didn't need any.
"I was really pleased with how they played," Sawvel said, adding that Bertagnole, specifically became someone the team relied on week in and week out. "... It is one of those things where, those guys played. They weren't getting moved all over the field. If people are rushing for 250 yards a game on you, then that's one thing. That wasn't the case in that situation."
Bertagnole, a walk-on from Natrona County High School in Casper, racked up 30 tackles and 2.5 sacks last fall. That tied him four fourth among UW tacklers. He was second on the squad in sacks. Meyer added two stops in a limited role.
Godbout, who registered 30 tackles and a sack from the nose guard spot, echoed his coach's sentiments about Bertagnole and Meyer.
"Honestly, I think he stepped up to the plate more than anyone expected," Godbout said of Bertagnole. "I thought he did a great job. Honestly, I think he filled the roll really good. As far as Gavin, you know, coming in as a true freshman -- I never did that. So, what he was able to accomplish, I thought he did a great job."
The hope this fall is for Sawvel and his defense to welcome back a healthy Holt, who is still recovering from ACL surgery. There's a chance Jones could be in the mix, too. Cole and Mora are back, and Bertagnole, who is missing the spring while recovering from offseason surgery, should also be 100% by the time fall camp rolls around.
It's a good problem to have if your Godbout.
"Honestly, it's been great," he said. "Upfront defensively, I feel like it's the strongest that we've been since I've been here, really."