Philadelphia, PA – 2011 SEASON IN REVIEW: In 2009, the Wyoming Cowboys finished the regular season with a .500 record (6-6) and earned a postseason bid which led to a bowl victory over Fresno State (35-28) in double overtime, but then in 2010 the Pokes fell back into anonymity as they won a total of just three games and were 1-7 in Mountain West Conference action.
In 2011, Wyoming again turned it around for head coach Dave Christensen in his third season as the team opened with three straight victories, albeit against sub par competition in Weber State, Texas State and Bowling Green. The Cowboys got a real wake-up call in the two games immediately following the strong start, bowing to nationally-ranked Nebraska (38-14) and Utah State (63-19). However, Wyoming went back to the drawing board and designed a couple of winning plans which went into effect against UNLV and San Diego State to begin MWC play. A loss to TCU (31-20) was somewhat expected since the Horned Frogs were still a dominant force, but to score 20 points against one of the toughest defenses in the country should have been a moral boost for Wyoming.
The team moved on after the TCU defeat and captured consecutive victories over Air Force and New Mexico to move to 7-3 overall and 4-1 in conference with two games remaining in the regular season. Against eighth-ranked Boise State the Cowboys had their hands full, and yet they still didn't completely fold in a 36-14 loss on the road, a level of confidence that helped push the squad to a 22-19 victory versus Colorado State in Fort Collins in early December.
At 8-4, the Cowboys had earned themselves another trip to the postseason, but in one of their most disappointing efforts of 2011, the squad lost to Temple, 37-15, in the New Mexico Bowl after having just two weeks to prepare for the contest.
Wyoming, which had won the New Mexico Bowl following the 2009 season, had some serious issues when it came to attacking the line of scrimmage and slowing down opposing running attacks in 2011 as the group ranked sixth in the conference and 115th in the nation with 232.0 ypg allowed on the ground, and also notched just 4.4 tackles for loss per outing which was fifth in the MWC and 108th nationally. Even though the season didn't work out as well as he may have liked Christensen, who signed a new five-year contract which runs through December of 2016, was nonetheless named the MWC Coach of the Year, the first coach of the year award for a Wyoming head man since Joe Tiller claimed the honor in 1996.
OFFENSE: Quarterback Brett Smith made his mark with the Cowboys in 2011 as he became the first freshman signal-caller in conference history to generate more than 3,000 yards of total offense, finishing with 3,232 as he was named the MWC Freshman of the Year. Smith was among the top freshmen producers in all of college football and the expectation in Laramie is that he is only going to get better.
Smith, who has been named to the 2012 Manning Award Watch List, missed virtually all of the contact drills during the Spring according to coach Christensen, but the staff expects the budding star to make up for time lost in order to be better prepared this year than he was heading into 2011.
"Brett (Smith) is a great competitor and I don't think he is the type of individual who will reflect on last year and just expect things to be the same," said Christensen. "...he's a focused individual who's constantly striving to get better. I don't think that will change."
The good news for Smith and the offense is that the top three receivers from a year ago are ready to make headlines again this season. Dominic Rufran led the way with 44 catches for 402 yards, leading to a couple of touchdowns, while Robert Herron accounted for 43 receptions for 379 yards and 3 scores. Chris McNeill managed to stretch the field more than anyone else with 504 yards on 42 catches through just nine games, landing in the end zone four times.
If the Pokes want to keep their offense running at peak performance, they'll have to figure out a way to satisfy Smith's penchant for running with the ball (710 yards, 10 TDs) while also keeping him off the injury list. Last season he was fourth on the team with 364 yards on 66 attempts, but Brandon Miller could be the person to help fill that role.
DEFENSE: While the offense lists only five returning starters, the defense appears to be much better fortified with as many as seven players coming back who started games a year ago. Unfortunately, of the top four tacklers from 2011, only one is coming back in Luke Ruff. Second on the unit in total stops last year, Ruff finished up with 102 tackles at his strong safety position and while that sounds like he made plenty of plays for the Cowboys, what it really means is that far too many opponents were picking up significant yardage on a regular basis and it was up to Ruff to put a stop to it.
Also coming back in the secondary are senior Luke Anderson, junior Marqueston Huff and sophomore Blair Burns, the trio having combined to log 9 interceptions for the Cowboys, the former also responsible for a team-high 9 pass breakups as well.
Playing in front of the foursome will be linebackers Devyn Harris and Korey Jones and even though they too are returning starters, the duo along with everyone else will have to study up in order to learn some of the new concepts installed by defensive coach Chris Tormey and his staff.
SPECIAL TEAMS: The kicking pairing of Daniel Sullivan and Tim Gleeson is rather green, although the former did handle placekicking duties a year ago and knocked through 7-of-11 field goal attempts as a true freshman. Gleeson, a native of Australia, is entering his first year with the squad as he takes over for four-year starter Austin McCoy.
"Tim Gleeson made nice progress," Christensen said of his performance in the spring. "He has a ways to go in terms of technique, but he definitely has the leg strength that we need from our punter."
OUTLOOK: "I think the schedule lays out well," notes Christensen. "It will be a challenging schedule, but I think it is a great home schedule for our fans."
Selected to finish in the top half of the MWC standings this season, the Cowboys kick off the 2012 campaign against Texas on the road, an opponent that has defeated Wyoming in all four of their previous meetings. Following that, the Pokes line up across from a couple of first-time opponents in Toledo and Cal Poly in back-to-back home dates. The squad then catches another break in the scheduling with a meeting against Idaho before the start of the conference slate versus Nevada on the road.
Of the remaining three road dates in league action, all are winnable outings versus the likes of Fresno State, New Mexico and UNLV. Even though the Cowboys are catching Boise State at home, the Broncos are still a more dominant program in the eyes of almost everyone assessing the upcoming MWC campaign.