Sunday, December 20, 2009

WYOMING wraps up, winning (!?!)

Five months ago, the Wimple was unsparing in its criticism of Wyoming, and recommended to Cowboy fans to gird their loins and focus on next season. 2009 was going to be painful, said he, because Wyoming couldn't, and for a few months more, wouldn't run Dave Christensen's spread offense very well at all. Today, seven wins later, it appears that the 'Pokes are a fair stretch further down the road to competence than the Wimple expected them to be at season's end.

That road has been a rocky one, however. Christensen acknowledged the Wyoming was an underdog in every game it had against a D-1A opponent. Once he settled on Austyn Carta-Samuels as QB after a three-game audition between the true freshman and JUCO transfer Robert Benjamin, and moved to a run-first version of his up-tempo spread, Christensen's Cowboys improved. Carta-Samuels endured a frustrating shut-out at Colorado before leading the team to three straight victories, including two over conference foes UNLV and New Mexico, keeping Wyoming out of the MWC's cellar, mocking most pre-season polls. After a three-game skid to the conference heavyweights, the freshman led a remarkable come from behind win at San Diego. The 'Pokes scored 24 points in the fourth quarter to recapture .500 and a chance to go bowling. TCU's whooping of Wyoming may have deflated a less spunky team, but these Cowboys rallied to beat Colorado State in the final regular season game, clinching bowl eligibility for the first time in any of the team member's college careers.

Wyoming got its signature win as a Christmas present, knocking off Fresno State in double overtime in the surprisingly exciting New Mexico Bowl-- making the second takedown of the WAC's Bulldogs by a Mountain West underdog in Albuquerque in as many years. The game's highlight (sadly not included in the ESPN's highlights, but embedded in full, below) came in the first overtime, when Fresno State had Wyoming on the ropes, with a first-and-goal at the one. Four times they ran it up the gut, and four times the brown-and-gold denied them the endzone. Wyoming's missed field goal made that effort statistically irrelevant, but consider that four-and-out the senior-laden d-line's gift to the program this season. It paved the way to the bowl win, which the 'Pokes haven't savored since President Bush was popular, and gives the team that much more leverage going into 2010. Ironically, the d-line will be the team's biggest question mark next season.

Starting with the defense, which garnered plaudits in the pre-season, and came through big for the Cowboys when it had to. Number one: it's filled with young guys at LB and in the secondary. Wyoming will return all seven late-season starters off the line, including the Gipson brothers ('10 juniors) at corner, safety Shamiel Gray ('10 sophomore), and tackle-monsters Chris Prosinski (S, '10 senior), Gabe Knapton (LB, '10 junior), and Brian Hendricks (LB, '10 junior). Proskinski, Knapton, and Hendricks all finished in the national top 20 for tackles this season. Wyoming's back seven in 2010 will be the team's strength.

The big news for the Cowboys was up front however, where the trio John Fletcher (pictured), Fred Givens, and Mitch Unrein turned in a third (fourth?) and final year as starters. Fletcher is the team's sole all-MWC first teamer, and it's entirely unclear who'll replace these gents' pass rush in 2010. Backup end Mike Neuhaus also graduates; two true freshman played this season some. A trio of D-line recruits will join the fray this fall, but the three front spots are the Cowboys' biggest unknown for 2010. The contenders appear to be Purcell, Willis, and Felker.

And then there's the offense. It's just as young. RBs Alvester Alexander ('10 sophomore) and Brandon Stewart ('10 junior), and QB Austyn Carta-Samuels ('10 sophomore) accounted for over 84% of the Cowboys' rushing yards this season. In fact, as Coach Christensen realized his team just wasn't going to pass its way into the post season this year, he relied even more on this trio to run their way to a 13th game. They proved up to the task, and will be joined by the team's best rated recruit, Canadian Nehemie Kankolongo, in the fall. Wyoming's backfield is in good shape.

But what of the passing game? That's what Christensen does, and tried mightily to get his Cowboys to do for most of 2009. Wyoming's lack of reliable receivers turned the team into a run-first offense by the end of the season, and sent Christensen to junior colleges for more hands; Wyoming signed three JUCO wideouts this week. Anthony Amos, DeJay Lester, and Mazi Ogbonna enroll this January, joining four of this season's top six pass catchers for the 2010 lineup. This season juniors David Leonard, Zach Bolger, and Travis Burkhalter led the team in catches. TE Orlando Arnold and WR Greg Bolling graduate, but Chris McNiel ('10 sophomore) was also in the top six and returns. TEs Tooley ('10 RSFr) and incoming T.J. Smith will contribute. If those nine can give grow with Carta-Samuels into a viable passing threat, Wyoming will be a dangerous foe.

Standing in their way, however, is the offensive line. This group had to undergo the biggest transition with the new offense in '09, and performed... about as expected, which is to say, not very well. They paved an inconsistent way for the 75th best rushing game in the country this year, down from 33rd last season. Their calling card must become pass blocking, however, which would be a new addition to their card collection. This season Wyoming's pass offense was 103rd nationally, which was up from 114th. To date, Christensen hasn't coaxed many linemen to Laramie; one JUCO (Nick Puetz) joins the team in January. Another joins in the fall, and one redshirted this season. How Wyoming replaces seniors C Russ Arnold and G Zack Kennedy and T Ryan Otterson is almost as open a question as its replacements for d-line seniors.

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