Making the grade: UW vs. Nevada
LARAMIE – We all get graded, right?
Whether it’s in school, at work or your significant other, we are always under some sort of pressure to learn and produce results.
So, let’s see what Wyoming’s final grades were after a dominating 31-3 victory over Nevada Saturday afternoon at War Memorial Stadium.
The Cowboys backfield looked like this on the opening offensive play Saturday: Sean Chambers in shotgun, Brett Brenton to his left, Raghib Ismail Jr. to his right and Xazavian Valladay behind him. The redshirt freshman faked the handoff to Ismail Jr. and lofted a perfect pass right over a Nevada linebacker and into the arms of Valladay. The sophomore tailback took care of the rest, bolting down the west sideline for a 53-yard touchdown. How's that for a passing attack? Chambers only played the first two quarters before leaving the game with an apparent knee injury. Before he left, Chambers completed 6-of-9 passes for 158 yards and a pair of touchdowns. His second one was a perfectly placed 37-yard scoring strike to a streaking Ismail Jr. Chambers also scored his 10th rushing touchdown of the season. That was the play that got him hurt. Tyler Vander Waal took the reins of the Cowboys offense in the second half, completing 3-of-10 throws for 63 yards. He did hit Jackson Marcotte for a 25-yard touchdown on the opening drive of the third quarter. We've been saying all along -- Chambers needs to hit better than 60 percent of his passes for this offense to be effective. Saturday, he hit 67. We will forgive the red-zone interception here. Chambers had a bum knee. Vander Waal probably should've finished that drive anyway. Nice outing for the youngster.
RUNNING BACKS: A+
Valladay is turning into the next great back at Wyoming. His performance Saturday put him right up there with names like Brian Hill, Devon Moore, Ryan Christopherson and others. "X," as his teammates call him, rushed for 206 yards on 26 carries. He also caught that touchdown pass mentioned above. He also snagged a 21-yard screen pass from Vander Waal. Over the last two weeks, Valladay has carried the ball 62 times for 333 yards. That's nearly 5.4 yards per carry. Did we mention he is doing this with a banged up offensive line? Did we mention that he is doing this without the luxury of injured backups, Titus Swen and Trey Smith? Valladay is the workhorse. Craig Bohl said his staff was worried initially about giving Valladay this type of workload. Id' say he has responded. The Illinois product can get the tough yards, deke defenders or hit the home-run ball. With no timetable -- as of yet -- on the return of Swen or Smith, Valladay will be key for the Pokes down the stretch. If the guy who showed up these past two weeks comes to play in Boise, Logan, against Colorado State and in Colorado Springs, Mountain West Conference -- beware.
WIDE RECEIVERS/ TIGHT ENDS: B
Ismail said Nevada made one critical mistake Saturday afternoon. "They played man," the senior said with a smile. He also added that if that was their big plan to shutdown the Cowboys receivers, "It didn't work." Ismail had his biggest outing in a Wyoming uniform, snagging four passes for 93 yards and a touchdown. He also had a nine-yard carry on an end-around play. Austin Conway was the only other Cowboy wideout to haul in a pass. That was a 22-yarder from Chambers. Marcotte pulled in the scoring strike from Vander Waal and Valladay took that opening pass in for the quick six. Josh Harshman also finished with one catch for seven yards. Aside from Ismail, these numbers aren't eye-popping. But considering what this passing attack -- or lack there of -- has looked like through seven weeks, this was a big one for the confidence category, both in Chambers and this unit of receivers and tight ends. The screen pass to Valladay in the first quarter was the first called this season by offensive coordinator Brent Vigen. Imagine of that chapter is back in the playbook? This was the first semblance of a balanced attack from the Cowboys this season. That will come in handy with a gauntlet coming up on the schedule.
OFFENSIVE LINE: A
We should probably just quit being shocked every time this unit crushes it. Saturday, the Cowboys front five -- Rudy Stofer, Pat Arnold, Keegan Cryder, Logan Harris and Frank Crum -- opened gaping holes for Valladay and kept Chambers and Vander Waal upright. Wyoming averaged 5.9 yards per rush. It's not like Nevada had a poor rush defense either. The Wolf Pack were allowing just 131 rushing yards per outing, about even with New Mexico. Wyoming coaches love to preach the "next-man up mentality." You believe it when you see it. Well, we are seeing it each and every Saturday. This line is not over matched, despite being without starters, Eric Abojei and Alonzo Velazquez. The Cowboys are 15th in the nation running the football. That's 239.4 yards per game. That's the second most in the MWC behind only Air Force. Let's face it -- these guys are good. All of them.
DEFENSIVE LINE: A
Some stars have been emerging on the Cowboys defensive line. Let's start with freshman -- yes, freshman -- Solomon Byrd. The defensive end was a thorn in Nevada's side all afternoon, registering 2.5 sacks and the same number of tackles for loss while also racking up seven stops. Mario Mora and Cole Godbout, the Pokes two interior guys, combined for six tackles against the Wolf Pack. Mora, who missed the New Mexico game with an undisclosed injury, also picked up half-a-sack and half-a-tackle for loss. You already know about Garrett Crall. He recovered a fumble Saturday. He leads the team in sacks with four. As a team, Wyoming has 26 sacks, which is good enough for 14th in the nation. They had 19 all of last season. Nevada and its stable of physical backs got the barn door shut in their collective faces Saturday. The Cowboys defense held them to just 81 yards on the ground. Toa Taua, Nevada's 210-pound hammer, carried the ball 11 times for just 21 yards. These guys are solid across the board.
That Crall fumble recovery -- that was caused by Logan Wilson. The Casper product and three-time team captain led the Cowboys with eight tackles Saturday, including one for loss. In fact, Wyoming finished with eight tackles for loss on the day. The Pokes are 16th in the nation with 62 tackles behind the line of scrimmage. Cassh Maluia finished with five tackles and Chad Muma added three. Keyon Blankenbaker, the Cowboys nickle back, also had five tackles and a pass breakup. These guys, as always, were all over the field in the Pokes latest victory, which made them bowl eligible for the fourth straight season. Wyoming entered the contest giving up a little more than 100 yards on the ground per game. That number went down against Nevada. The Cowboys boast the 13th-ranked rushing defense in the nation, allowing just 98.4 yards per outing.
It wasn't all sunshine and roses for the Cowboys defense Saturday, but these guys stepped up once again and kept the Wolf Pack out of the end zone. Nevada did rack up 254 yards through the air, but most of that came with the Cowboys nursing a 31-3 lead early in the third quarter. You know how Valladay is becoming a Wyoming great at running back? The same can be said for senior safety Alijah Halliburton. The only bad part about that is he has just four -- maybe five or six -- games left in his Wyoming career. He saw limited playing time thanks to a pair of guys named Andrew Wingard and Marcus Epps. Both of them are plying their wares in the NFL. Halliburton, who is 12th in the nation in tackling this season, recorded seven more Saturday. He also picked off his first career pass. He said it was like getting a monkey off his back. He also finished with 2.5 tackles for loss and a booming blindside quarterback sack on Carson Strong. Azizi Hearn finished with five tackles and Rome Weber added four and a pass breakup. Tyler Hall and Jordan Murry had two tackles each. This group is showing improvement each week. AJ Cooper, the Cowboys run-game coordinator, credits the secondary with allowing the pass rushers to go to work. It all works in unison, he says. The Cowboys will need all of that with trips to Boise and Logan on the horizon.