Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) -
2013 SEASON IN REVIEW: A 4-8 record in 2012 was hard to swallow for the Wyoming Cowboys, especially since the team played in the New Mexico Bowl the year before.
Head coach Dave Christensen had his work cut out for him in 2013 as he tried to bring a winning attitude back to Laramie. The Cowboys narrowly missed a major upset win in their season opener as they bowed to 18th-ranked Nebraska by just three points on the road, 37-34. With that effort Wyoming figured to be heading in the right direction, and that was certainly the indication as the group rattled off wins against Idaho, Northern Colorado and Air Force, but those were teams that the Pokes should have beaten.
Unfortunately, the Cowboys took a step back in late September when they were trounced by Texas State, 42-21, on the road. After an additional week to prepare, Wyoming slipped by New Mexico in October, 38-31, but after that there was very little for the hometown fans to cheer about.
The team was trapped in a four-game slide against Mountain West Conference foes, giving up a combined 199 points to the likes of Colorado State, San Jose State, Fresno State and Boise State along the way. It was an abysmal defensive display and it was about to get worse, to a degree.
On Nov. 23, the Cowboys closed out the home portion of their schedule with a meeting against Hawaii and while the hosts were able to pick up the win, the defense was still called into question during the 59-56 overtime thriller. A week later Utah State ended a season of misery for the Cowboys with a 35-7 victory in Logan, dropping Wyoming to 5-7 overall and 3-5 in MWC action, leaving the squad fourth in the Mountain Division standings.
After five seasons, coach Christensen had a 27-35 record in Laramie and had worn out his welcome. While Christensen has moved on to become the offensive coordinator with the Utah Utes, the Cowboys brought in Craig Bohl to become the 32nd head coach in program history.
In charge of the North Dakota State Bison since 2003 when the program was a member of the North Central Conference, Bohl put together a dominant squad that advanced through four years of Great West Conference play before making it to the Football Championship Subdivision level in the Missouri Valley Conference.
Bohl's teams have posted a combined record of 43-2 in the least three years and won the national title in each of those campaigns. For his efforts, Bohl was named the most outstanding FCS coach and honored with the Eddie Robinson Award, presented by The Sports Network, in both 2012 and 2013.
"Rarely do you get an opportunity to hire a head coach who has won multiple National Championships and has a reputation as a program builder," said University of Wyoming Athletics Director Tom Burman during the introduction of Bohl.
"I am absolutely confident we hired one of the best football coaches in the country. All you have to do is look at his record, including several wins over FBS (Football Bowl Subdivision) programs."
OFFENSE: The biggest challenge for the Cowboys heading into this season is finding a replacement for quarterback Brett Smith, one of the top passing threats in the MWC last year. Sure, Smith was overshadowed by the play of Fresno State's Derek Carr, but still the Cowboys' gunslinger was a feared offensive source. Not only did Smith throw for 3,375 yards and 29 touchdowns, against just 11 interceptions, he was also second on the team in rushing with 573 yards, leading to another four scores.
Attempting to fill the void left by Smith, the Cowboys have Colby Kirkegaard listed atop the depth chart, at least initially. Kirkegaard is a transfer from Phoenix Community College who was redshirted a year ago after earning a spot on the roster in 2011. Tom Thornton, Sam Stratton and Aaron Young fill out the early chart for the Cowboys, and could easily see some time under center depending on how the competition plays out leading up to the season opener.
Unfortunately, of the aforementioned foursome, only Thornton had a chance to even attempt a pass last season, completing 3-of-4 for 15 yards in his four appearances.
Not only is the search on for a new quarterback at Wyoming, the coaching staff also has to adjust for the loss of Robert Herron who caught 72 passes for 937 yards and a team-best nine scores in 2013. The good news is that Dominic Rufran (75 catches, 960 yards, eight TDs) is back for another go around. Jalen Claiborne, who is penciled in as the primary punt returner for 2014, figures to play a more prominent role at receiver after posting 33 receptions for 452 yards and five TDs last season.
On the ground, Shaun Wick led the way for the Pokes last year with 979 yards and nine touchdowns, averaging just under six yards per attempt, yet it is D.J. May who has played his way into a starting spot. May missed all of last year after redshirting due to injury, but has shown the coaching staff more than enough in the way of speed and quickness to earn considerable playing time.
DEFENSE: Slowing down opponents was a major concern for the Cowboys last year as they ranked 109th nationally with 36.7 ppg allowed. The squad surrendered a hefty 482.0 ypg (111th), and was equally deficient against both the run and pass. The good news is that the Pokes are bringing back as many as nine starters, which means there will be some experience to draw upon, not to mention the incentive for many players to prove that last season was a fluke more than anything else.
The Cowboys had a total of three players with no less than 100 tackles in 2013, and two of them are back to make an impact this season. Jordan Stanton, who topped everyone with 134 stops, will be back at his middle linebacker spot, while Mark Nzeocha (101 tackles, 10 tackles for loss), will be joining him in the middle of the field.
Sonny Puletasi, who made just 47 tackles in 12 games, was credited with 10 TFL and 4.5 sacks of his own, which is why he was named to the 2014 Butkus Award Watch List.
Pressure at the point of attack will be applied by defensive end Eddie Yarbrough, the team leader in TFL (12.0) and sacks (6.5) a year ago when he also forced a pair of fumbles and recovered two for the squad.
"Honestly, it is off the charts," Yarbrough says of the team's enthusiasm. "With the new regime coming in, coach Bohl, how he is with the community, you can't ask for more excitement going into your first game."
One major area of focus for this group will be how quickly they can get off the field and get some rest before their next series begins. A year ago, the offense controlled the ball for just 25:02 per game which, while ranking last among all 123 FBS programs, forced defenders to expose themselves for far too long each week and that's no way to win football games.
SPECIAL TEAMS: In terms of field goal kicking, the Cowboys didn't use it often at all as Stuart Williams made just four of his seven attempts throughout the 2013 season. Williams knocked through just one field goal from 40 or more yards, which doesn't exactly scream confidence, but perhaps the new coaching staff with have another way of looking at that phase of the game.
Williams is also listed as the backup punter for the Cowboys, behind Ethan Wood who, as a freshman, handled 69 kicks to the tune of 42.0 yards per, but only four of those were fair caught and 17 found their way inside the opponent's 20-yard line.
Clearly there are concerns in the special teams from a kicking standpoint, but having Claiborne as a punt returner should provide a level of excitement to the game once again.
OUTLOOK: Finding someone to run the offense will not be an easy task, but at least coach Bohl will be given some slack during the learning process. As if the scheduling gods were looking down on the Cowboys, the team enjoys three of its first four games at home against the likes of Montana, Air Force and Florida Atlantic, each of which should result in a positive outcome.
Mixed in with the first month of games is a trip to Oregon to face the high- flying Ducks, a contest that could prove disastrous, but that would be the case no matter who was coaching this group of Pokes. The other non-conference bout on the slate has Wyoming dropping in on Michigan State near the end of September, that being another loss more than likely.
The good news is that the team will be home against two of the tougher Mountain West members in Utah State and Boise State, and between the two the Cowboys enjoy a bye week.
Breaking even after a 12-game schedule might be a lot to ask for this squad, but it is not impossible.