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Washington State Cougars vs. Wyoming Cowboys Prediction and Preview

Washington State Cougars head coach Mike Leach

Washington State Cougars head coach Mike Leach

Now the real test for Wyoming's stingy defense begins as the Cowboys are set to face the always potent Air raid offense of Washington State when the Cougars come to town on Saturday.

Wyoming (1-0) showed serious potential for fielding an elite defense this season when it smothered New Mexico State in a 29-7 victory last weekend. The Cowboys allowed just 135 total yards and 93 of those yards came on the Aggies' final drive of the game.

Washington State is expected to experience some drop-off from a year ago when it boasted the nation's second-ranked passing attack. In Luke Falk's final season, the Cougars generated 366.8 passing yards per game. If they can decide on a starting quarterback, those numbers should still remain high enough to make opponents feel uncomfortable.

Washington State leads the all-time series 4-2. The Cougars beat Wyoming 31-14 in Pullman when the two teams last met in 2015. The Cowboys' last win over Washington State came in 1990, a 34-13 road victory. Wyoming is 0-2 against the Cougars in Laramie.

Washington State at Wyoming

Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 1 at 3:30 p.m. ET


Spread: Washington State -1.5

Three Things to Watch

1. Who will start at quarterback for Washington State?

Finding a capable successor to Luke Falk remains a work-in-progress for Washington State heading into the season opener. Cougars head coach Mike Leach didn't tip his hand with the depth chart released earlier in the week. Four different players — Gardner Minshew, Anthony Gordon, Trey Tinsley and Cammon Cooper — are listed as co-starters at quarterback.

Tyler Hilinski was poised to take over for Falk until he tragically committed suicide in January. Minshew, a graduate transfer from East Carolina, is the now most likely candidate to get first crack at running the offense against Wyoming. The 6-foot-2 senior threw for 2,140 yards and 16 touchdowns last season. Minshew originally planned to go to Alabama for his final season, but changed his mind and opted to join the Cougars.

He is the only one of the four quarterbacks with playing experience at the position at the Division I level. Minshew played in 17 games over two seasons with East Carolina. During that time, he threw for 3,487 yards  with 24 touchdowns and 11 interceptions.

2. Can Wyoming's defense shut down the Cougar pass attack?

Wyoming offered up plenty of evidence that it hasn't taken a step back on defense. The Cowboys led the nation in takeaways and ranked ninth among FBS teams a year ago. They returned eight starters from that unit and, against New Mexico State, picked up right where they left off.

The Aggies generated just seven first downs and totaled minus-nine (-9) rushing yards. Wyoming tallied four sacks and eight tackles for a loss. That ability to pressure the quarterback could loom large against Washington State. The Cougars gave up 44 sacks last season, which placed them 126th in the nation. To put that another way — just four FBS teams gave up more.

Wyoming's run-oriented offense seized control and eventually wore down New Mexico State's defense. The Cowboys picked up 312 yards on the ground out of 449 yards of total offense. Senior running back Nico Evans did not let his first career start go to waste. Evans recorded his first career 100-yard game, piling up 190 yards and two touchdowns on 24 carries.

3. Will the Cougars' defense stay strong?

Lighting up the scoreboard hasn't been the sole key to Washington State's success the past few seasons. An opportunistic defense has always played an integral part in the Cougars' winning formula. The big question coming into this season is: Will the defense stay at an elite level?

Last season, Washington State led the Pac-12 in turnovers gained (28) and fumble recoveries (13). The Cougars ranked eighth among FBS teams with 103 tackles for a loss. Their pass defense (170.9 ypg) ranked ninth nationally and they were 16th in the FBS in total defense (323.3 ypg).

Replacing Hercules Mata'afa on the defensive line is a concern and Washington State is breaking in a new defensive coordinator in Tracy Claeys. Still, the Cougars do have solid depth at linebacker and Jalen Thompson is back to lead the secondary. Thompson led the team with 73 tackles last season. He also tallied four interceptions and recovered three fumbles.

Final Analysis

History does not favor Washington State in this clash. The Cougars have dropped their last seven season openers on the road, dating back to 2004. Wyoming has an elite defense and Laramie is never an easy place to play. Washington State struggled to protect the quarterback a year ago and that could spell trouble as the post-Falk era gets underway.

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Prediction: Wyoming 24, Washington State 21

— Written by John Coon, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Coon has more than a decade of experience covering sports for different publications and outlets, including The Associated Press, Salt Lake Tribune, ESPN, Deseret News, MaxPreps, Yahoo! Sports and many others. Follow him on Twitter @johncoonsports.