Boise State Wyoming FOOTBALL10.JPG

Wyoming quarterback Levi Williams (15) evades a tackle from Boise State's Kekaula Kaniho (28) during the game on Friday, Nov. 12, 2021 at Albertsons Stadium in Boise.

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A once promising 2021 college football season has taken a turn for the worse for Wyoming, which had high expectations after returning 20 of its 22 offensive and defensive starters from a year ago.

The Cowboys jumped out to a 4-0 start, although, in all fairness, they didn’t play the toughest preseason schedule. Nevertheless, Wyoming had seemingly turned a corner offensively as they poured in 50 and 45 points in back-to-back wins over Northern Illinois and Ball State.

Unfortunately for Wyoming, that momentum didn’t transfer over into Mountain West play. The Cowboys have lost five of their first six conference games, and they failed to score more than 17 points in four of those contests. All of a sudden, a team picked to finish second in the MW’s Mountain Division was reeling a bit.

Nevertheless, the Cowboys can still somewhat salvage their season with at least one more win, which would give them the minimum of six needed for bowl eligibility. To be fair, Wyoming would likely need to upset Mountain Division leader Utah State on Saturday evening in Logan, and then defeat Hawaii at home next week to secure a bowl bid. A 6-6 Wyoming team would probably be left out of the bowl picture, especially one with a 2-6 record in conference play.

“(Going to a bowl) would mean everything, and that’s what we’re looking at,” senior linebacker Chad Muma was quoted by WyoSports. “We understand right now that getting one game is probably not going to do it to get a bowl game. We have to finish the season strong and get these last two wins. We’re really capable of doing it; we just have to finish strong and take it one week at a time.”

One encouraging thing for the Cowboys is they have not been blown out in any of their five losses this fall. Wyoming always has a fighting chance essentially every time its step on the field because of its continued excellence on defense.

The Cowboys currently rank first in the Mountain West and fourth among all FBS programs in pass defense (162.6 yards per game), plus fourth in the MW and 27th nationally in total defense (330.8 ppg). Wyoming’s defense has also scored a trio of touchdowns this season, which is tied for the No. 8 spot nationally.

Wyoming’s defense is anchored by linebacker Chad Muma, who is a legitimate Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year candidate. Muma leads the conference in tackles per game with 10.3, just like he did en route to garnering first-team all-MW honors a year ago. The 6-foot-3, 242-pounder also finished third nationally during the COVID-19 shortened season with 11.8 tpg.

In addition to pacing the Cowboys in tackles, the senior is the team leader in interceptions with three — two of which he returned for touchdowns. Muma is one of 16 semifinalists for the Butkus Award, which is handed out annually to the top collegiate linebacker.

“Muma is as good as anybody in the country at that position,” USU head coach Blake Anderson said during Monday’s press conference. “He runs well, he's a downhill player. He literally makes plays from sideline to sideline and he appears to be just super, super sharp in terms of football IQ. You can see him communicate and he keeps them in the right spot, and he just doesn't miss a step.”

Wyoming’s second-leading tackler is linebacker Easton Gibbs, who has chipped in with 72 stops this season — 20 more than third-leading tackler C.J. Coldon. Coldon, a cornerback, is the team leader with eight passes broken up.

Defensive ends Solomon Byrd and Victor Jones have each contributed with 3.5 sacks for the Cowboys, who have recorded 18 sacks and have also given up that same amount. Wyoming’s pass rush has been solid, but not as good as it has been in recent seasons.

Wyoming has a veteran safety in Esaias Gandy, who was a honorable mention all-conference selection last fall. Gandy is one of five Cowboys who has picked off one pass apiece in ’21. The Cowboys have intercepted eight passes and have only recovered three fumbles this season, and are minus-six in turnover margin.

The Cowboys have struggled offensively in Mountain West play and they only average 342.0 yards of total offense an outing, and 186.0 of those come on the ground. Wyoming does have a first-team all-conference running back in Xazavian Valladay, who is only the second player in program history with more than 3,000 career rushing yards (3,006 total).

Valladay has gained 797 yards and has scored five TDs on 156 carries as a senior for the Cowboys, who average 4.6 yards per rushing attempt. He also ranks third on the team in receptions (20) and receiving yards (214).

“The running back, they play physical, he runs physical and he's got speed to get to the end zone if you don't do a great job of maintaining leverage on him,” Anderson said. “That style of offense fits him perfectly, with a quarterback that can run the ball. ... If the quarterback wasn't mobile and couldn't run, you might be able to attack the running back with another body. But you've got to make sure you always account for the quarterback and that makes for a challenge.”

Titus Swen, Wyoming’s second-leading rusher, has also been productive this fall as he has contributed with 549 yards and five TDs, and has averaged 5.5 ypc.

Wyoming’s third-leading rusher is sophomore quarterback Levi Williams, who has emerged as the starter over incumbent Sean Chambers. Chambers started the first seven games, while Williams has taken over for the last three. The 6-5, 224-pound Williams has gained 217 yards on the ground and has averaged 5.2 ypc.

Williams and Chambers have only completed 51.4 and 50.6 percent of their passes, respectively, in ’21. Williams has thrown for 460 yards and five TDs, vs. four INTs. Chambers has thrown more INTs (seven) than TDs (six) this fall.

Anderson is leery of Williams, who eclipsed the 100-yard rushing barrier in Wyoming’s 31-17 victory over visiting Colorado State. The Cowboys gashed the Rams to the tune of 385 yards on the ground in their lone conference victory.

“I think (Saturday’s) game looks a lot like Colorado State,” Anderson said. “They don't disguise a whole lot. Now, they obviously have the ability to bootleg and play action pass without a lot of bodies built into the box, but they've built a very big, physical team. They have a big, physical quarterback that can run and can really run. They pound it at you and then they're able to tie you down with the run game and throw the ball over the top.”

Wyoming has a star in the making at the wide receiver position in imposing sophomore Isaiah Neyor, who is listed at 6-3, 210. Neyor ranks second in the Mountain West with nine touchdown catches and he’s averaging 18.4 yards per reception. Neyor turned a relatively short catch into a 74-yard score in last week’s 23-13 road loss to Boise State.

Neyor has contributed with 588 receiving yards this season, which is 290 more than Ayden Eberhardt — the team’s second-leading target in the passing game. Neyor has all but two of Wyoming’s scoring receptions.

The Cowboys have an extremely experienced offensive line — one anchored by first-team all-MW performer Kegan Cryder (center) and right guard Logan Harris, who was a honorable mention selection the previous two seasons. Cryder has been in the starting lineup 41 times, only once more than Harris. Left tackle Alonzo Velazquez has 30 career starts under his belt.

Wyoming received some encouraging news at the beginning of the week as starting left guard Eric Abojei was healthy enough to return to practice.

Wyoming’s placekicker is John Hoyland, who garnered second-team all-conference accolades a year ago as a freshman. Hoyland was successful on 13 of 14 field goals attempts last season, but has missed 3 of 9 in ’21.

A productive freshman has handled Wyoming’s punting duties in Ralph Fawaz, who has averaged 42.9 yards on 47 punts.

The Cowboys have only averaged 3.8 yards on 12 punt returns and 19.4 yards on 11 kickoff returns. Conversely, Wyoming has allowed 9.2 yards on 13 punt returns and 22.8 yards on 13 kickoff returns, which includes a 72-yarder.

Jason Turner is a sports reporter for The Herald Journal. He can be reached at jturner@hjnews.com or 435-792-7237.

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