Cowboys, Wolf Pack finally kick off season in Reno on Saturday night
Although the circumstances have changed, Wyoming is still hoping to build off of last season's eight-win campaign. That tied for the most wins by the Cowboys in a season since going 10-2 back in 1996 when the WAC still existed.
Matching that total will be difficult this season, however, since Wyoming is only scheduled to play eight games as part of the Mountain West's shortened slate because of COVID-19. But the goal remains the same — get a berth in the conference championship game. The path to that starts Saturday in Mackay Stadium against a Nevada team with the same end in mind.
"Big ball game," Wyoming head coach Craig Bohl told reporters. "It's great to get started. We're excited."
While the Cowboys, who were 5-3 last year in conference play, have only finished first in their division once in the last four years (2016), there's reason to believe they can return to that perch in 2020. The biggest would be because of the promise of an upturn in offensive production to complement a solid defense.
The changes for this season also include the fact that instead of divisions, all 12 teams in the Mountain West will be lumped together, meaning the two teams with the best winning percentage in conference games will play for the title.
So the competition to finish in the top two spots appears to even tougher. That's no bugaboo for Bohl & Co., however. They're game. And it doesn't scare Nevada, either.
Those in the Wolf Pack camp are, indeed, preaching high expectations — think, at least, six victories and more like the seven they earned last year in a 13-game schedule.
Owning one of the conference's easiest schedules might just help them achieve that, although opening against a Wyoming program that is expected to be on the rise — just like themselves — and that's won the last three against Nevada makes for a difficult first task.
"We're just really excited to finally have something to zero in on," Wolf Pack head coach Jay Norvell told reporters. "At the end of the day, you've got to win the games that you play, and at the end of the year, the cream should rise to the top."
Wyoming at Nevada
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 24 at 7 p.m. ET
Spread: Wyoming -4.5
When Wyoming Has the Ball
The Cowboys would love to have a healthy Sean Chambers for an entire season. After all, the sophomore quarterback is 9-2 as the starter, but he hasn't been able to stay in the game. His injury list includes a broken leg in 2018 and then getting knocked out of action early last year with a season-ending knee injury.
So Wyoming has an insurance policy in place heading into this season with ever-improving redshirt freshman Levi Williams, who took over as the starter late last year and went 2-1, including a decisive, 38-17 victory over Georgia State in the Arizona Bowl.
Both quarterbacks can run the ball, and both, by all accounts, have raised their passing games in the lead-up to Saturday's game, in which a two-QB game plan will be employed.
"To have two guys show they can play at a high level is certainly encouraging," head coach Craig Bohl told reporters. "We feel that both guys have deserved an opportunity to play. How that's going to play out we're going to find out over the course of the game. But I can tell you right now that you'll see both guys."
The hope is it'll improve the offense across the board, which lagged in the national rankings in three of the four major categories last season. Nevada also will be breaking in a new defensive coordinator, Brian Ward, who comes over from Syracuse. Fortunately for Ward, he has defensive stud Dom Peterson to anchor his defensive line. A first-team All-Mountain West honoree last season, Peterson finished second in the conference in both sacks (9.0) and tackles for a loss (15.0) last year. He's on the watch-lists for the Outland Trophy, Bronko Nagurski Award and Chuck Bednarik Award this season.
Wyoming wants to put up more points than in any of the three seasons since quarterback Josh Allen, now starring with the Buffalo Bills, took his talents to the NFL. The Cowboys averaged 25.4 points per game in 2019, eighth in the Mountain West and 91st nationally.
"I'll be disappointed if we're not scoring more points this year," Bohl said. It also doesn't hurt that Wyoming brings back the conference's leading rusher (Xazavian Valladay, 1,265 yards), along with senior receivers Ayden Eberhardt and Dontae Crow and junior Gunner Gentry. "If you look at some of the players we have returning, I think we can be more productive on offense."
The Cowboys also welcome back four starting offensive lineman returning, although projected left tackle Alonzo Velezquez is likely done for the season with a shoulder injury.
When Nevada Has the Ball
There are four key offensive reasons for the uptick in expectations in Nevada Nation. One is sophomore quarterback Carson Strong, who quietly boasts promise and hasn't thrown an interception in 151 consecutive passes. Overall last season, Strong threw for 2,335 yards, 11 touchdowns and seven interceptions while completing 63.4 percent of his attempts.
"I thought he did an excellent job throughout the year," Craig Bohl told reporters. "And he got better without question and played well against us."
Meanwhile, running back Toa Taua, a punishing ball carrier, is back after putting up 807 yards and six touchdowns on 196 carries as a sophomore. He also added 52 catches for 387 yards and another score and has established himself as an effective backfield weapon.
Strong has other quality targets to throw to, namely senior Elijah Cooks and junior Romeo Doubs. Cooks has appealing size (6-4) and he used that to mass 926 yards on 76 catches, along with eight touchdowns (tied for fourth in Mountain West). Doubs is more of a deep threat because of his speed, as he averaged 14.8 yards per reception and scored four times.
The Wolf Pack need all of their weapons to show up on Saturday night against a Wyoming defense that finished 11th in the nation in both points and rushing yards allowed per game last season, as well as 43rd in yards.
But that unit has been hit hard by COVID-19, with four players — including projected starting defensive end Solomon Byrd, nose tackle Mario Mora and free safety Rome Weber — opting out. Additionally, senior defensive end Garrett Crall, one of the team captains, will miss this game as he recovers from offseason foot surgery.
Despite the late start and the complications caused by the coronavirus, hopes are high for huge seasons in both camps. So getting off to a quick start in the season opener is of paramount importance.
While Wyoming is expecting more from its offense, Nevada is looking for more consistency from its defense after getting outscored by nearly 11 points per game last season.
Recent distractions may prevent either team from finding a rhythm early on. Wolf Pack head coach Jay Novell, who recently signed a three-year extension to continue coaching Nevada through 2024, left the team early this week to be with family following the death of his father. And the program also is dealing with the unfortunate news that defensive tackle Chris Green was recently arrested and charged with two felonies, including customer engaging for soliciting a child for prostitution. The projected starting nose tackle, he's been suspended from the team.
The off-field news takes away from the excitement of the start of a new season, complete with the unveiling of slick new glossy silver helmets.
Hey guys, we're getting a little anxious over here for the season to start. So to tide us over for a while we wanted to give you all a sneak peek of our new lids.#BattleBorn // #NevadaGrit pic.twitter.com/uWGY3PJ0yX— Nevada Football (@NevadaFootball) October 11, 2020
Unfortunately, the new headgear won't be able to drown out all of the external noise for the home team nor will they help them beat the Cowboys.
Prediction: Wyoming 35, Nevada 21
(Dom Peterson photo courtesy of Nevada Athletics)