The Wyoming defense that most fans expected to see this season only made brief appearances Saturday in the Cowboys’ home opener against Washington State.
That, combined with an offense unable to move the chains in the second half, resulted in a 41-19 loss to Washington State of the Pac-12. After Cooper Rothe’s 30-yard field goal on the opening drive of the second half gave the Cowboys a 19-13 lead, the Cougars scored touchdowns on four of their final five drives.
“I’m not going to point a finger at anyone because we all could have done our individual jobs a lot better than what we did,” junior linebacker Logan Wilson said. “We didn’t execute the best we could.”
The Cougars’ offense closed the game with touchdown drives of 75, 48, 54 and 62 yards. The Cowboys’ offense, meanwhile, ran 18 plays that produced 0 net yards.
“I’m frustrated and disappointed,” head coach Craig Bohl said. “Our coaches are frustrated and disappointed, and I’m going to assume there’s a bunch of young men in that locker room that are frustrated and disappointed because we can play better and we need to play better.”
While Washington State is known for its “Air Raid” offense under head coach Mike Leach, there was reason to believe Wyoming could at least slow down the vaunted passing attack. After all, the Cowboys returned eight starters to a unit that finished last season as the No. 9-ranked scoring defense. One week prior, Wyoming had limited New Mexico State to 135 yards of total offense – 93 of which came on the final drive against the Cowboys’ backups – and had four sacks in a 29-7 defeat of the Aggies.
Saturday, Washington State finished with 394 yards of total offense and the Cowboys failed to record a sack. It marked the first time the UW defense was held without a sack since a 56-35 loss at New Mexico on Nov. 26, 2016.
“We just didn’t come out and execute like we normally do up front,” senior defensive end Carl Granderson said. “We had a game plan, but as a front four we didn’t get the job done.”
After limiting the Cougars to a field goal on their opening drive, the Cowboys were in position to get the ball back to their offense. But questionable personal foul penalties on Granderson for a late hit and on Marcus Epps for hitting Washington State quarterback Gardner Minshew below the knees kept the drive alive. The drive culminated with a 2-yard touchdown pass from Minshew to running back James Williams for a 10-0 lead.
Wyoming’s defense returned to form the next two times Washington State had the ball.
Three pass plays netted only 4 yards and forced a punt. The snap then sailed over the punter’s head and UW freshman Jevon Bigelow tackled him in the end zone for a safety.
After Wyoming went three-and-out on the ensuing drive, the next Washington State possession ended after one play when sophomore defensive end Garrett Crall forced a fumble and came up with the loose ball.
Two drives later, redshirt junior cornerback Antonio Hull intercepted Minshew. Both turnovers resulted in touchdowns as the Cowboys took a 16-13 lead into the locker room.
Those were the first two takeaways of the season for Wyoming, which led the nation with 38 last season.
“We are going to need to do more of that,” Bohl said.
With the Cowboys’ front four unable to apply consistent pressure, Minshew seemingly made a habit of throwing at redshirt freshman cornerback C.J. Coldon. Cougars’ wide receiver Easop Winston got behind Coldon in the end zone for a 7-yard TD catch and a 27-19 Washington State lead early in the fourth quarter. Coldon also was flagged for pass interference to keep WSU drives alive.
“We were never really able to generate any pressure with a four-man rush,” Bohl said. “So we went to some pressure stuff and that’s going to leave some of our young corners on an island.”
Coldon refused to blame the lack of a pass rush for his struggles. And it can only help that he has veterans like Hull and senior safeties Andrew Wingard and Epps to turn to for advice.
“It was definitely frustrating,” Coldon said, “but a good learning experience. I have to use technique more.”
Things won’t get any easier for the defense this weekend when the Cowboys travel to Missouri to take on the Tigers from the SEC. Missouri opened with a 51-14 home victory against UT-Martin, with quarterback Drew Lock completing 19 of 25 passes for 289 yards and four scores.
“It was a tough one,” Hull said, “but we’ll rally together and we’ll get better from this game. We played hard. It wasn’t easy for them at all. We had some missed opportunities, but we definitely played hard.”