LARAMIE, Wyo. — A year ago, the idea of Wyoming being involved in a defensive slugfest might have sounded unthinkable. The Cowboys, a team that played one game that ended in a score of 69-66, scored more points during conference play than any other Mountain West team. And their defense ranked ninth in the conference in points allowed and 10th in yards allowed.
That Wyoming would be in a defensive slugfest against Fresno State might have sounded even more outlandish. The Bulldogs didn’t win a single game last year against a Football Bowl Subdivision opponent, and while they were in the middle of the conference in yards and points allowed (sixth and seventh, respectively), it’s not as if teams had to score many points on them. Fresno State had the fourth-worst scoring offense in the nation last year.
And yet, Saturday’s game between the Cowboys and Bulldogs is shaping up to be a defensive affair. Wyoming, under first-year defensive coordinator Scottie Hazelton, leads the Mountain West and is 14th nationally in points allowed per game (18.1). Fresno State, under first-year head coach Jeff Tedford and defensive coordinator Orlondo Steinauer, is second in the Mountain West and 15th nationally in the same category (18.3).
Fresno State’s defense is second in the Mountain West in yards allowed, and Wyoming’s defense is third.
“We want to be put in situations where we have to win games on defense,” Wyoming junior safety Andrew Wingard said, “and it’s going to be exciting to play a defensive battle. Hopefully it’s a defensive battle. Hopefully we can hold them to as minimal amounts of points as possible.”
Wyoming is coming off a game in which its defense held Air Force, which began the game as the highest-scoring offense in the conference, to just 14 points.
“Three turnovers, 14 points, that’s a good performance, but . there’s always things we can improve on and things we’ve got to get better at,” senior linebacker Jalen Ortiz told the Casper Star-Tribune. “So we’ve just got to improve on those things during the week and hopefully it’ll show on Saturday against Fresno.”
The Cowboys did allow the Falcons to gain 378 yards of offense, the second most by a Wyoming opponent in conference play this year. That 175 of those yards came through the air was a surprise to the Cowboys.
“We didn’t practice for it that much all week,” senior cornerback Rico Gafford said. “We were just worried about stopping the run and stopping the dive and stuff like that. So I was very, very, very on edge about it, and when it came, I tried to make plays and do what I can, but they schemed against us and everything like that, so I’m very happy that we were able to keep them to 14 points and do what we can to help the offense make plays and get the ball back.”
The Wyoming defense could be in the spotlight even more than usual Saturday as quarterback Josh Allen is questionable with a shoulder injury. But even if backup Nick Smith is the one leading Wyoming’s offense, its defense says there’s no added pressure.
“We’ll still take the week as we always do and try to do what we do and create turnovers to get the ball back for them,” Gafford said, “because we know that (offensive coordinator Brent Vigen) is going to do what he can to call plays that could help us get in the end zone. So having Josh is a huge plus for us, obviously, because of who he is, but if he’s going through things right now, I’d rather him sit out and not get hurt anymore because there’s always chances of that.
“So we’ll see how the week goes and if he practices, stuff like that. I’m pretty sure the coaches, they’ll make the decision for him.”
The Cowboys got a test run of that scenario in the second half of Wyoming’s win at Air Force when Allen left the game.
“Our mindset really didn’t change,” Wingard said. “We were like, ‘They can’t score another point.’ That’s what we have to do. But obviously, Nick was cold, hadn’t gotten any reps, so we knew we had some added incentive. They definitely can’t score again.
“But Nick, seasoned guy, always there mentally, and he’s a great player, and he was able to do everything that Josh could do, putting it in positions for guys to make plays. But other than that, we just knew we had to play the way we were supposed to play.”
With one of the conference’s best defenses on the other sideline, that will be even more crucial.
Information from: Casper (Wyo.) Star-Tribune, http://www.trib.com