The Cowboys have experience at this: a highly ranked Bowl Championship Series foe coming to Laramie, Wyo., with the entire town giddy with anticipation. But that experience did not factor in a Wyoming team that's 3-0 for the first time since 1996.
Nationally ranked Nebraska (3-0) comes to War Memorial Stadium on Saturday for a clash against the unbeaten Cowboys. The game has been sold out for months, and the hype is greater than it was in 2009 when Texas and quarterback Colt McCoy came to Laramie.
The Cowboys actually had a 10-6 lead in the second quarter before the Longhorns settled down and scored 35 unanswered points to win going away, 41-10. That experience is coming into play this week as Wyoming faces Nebraska with its confidence at an all-time high - despite two of the Cowboys' wins coming against Football Championship Subdivision foes. Wyoming knows it can't succumb to the hype surround the game.
"To me, it's just the same as anyone else coming in here to play," senior defensive lineman Gabe Knapton told the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle. "We've got to prepare just as hard, but maybe put in a little more work in and get ready to go. It will be a fun game."
That's the key to Wyoming's hopes on Saturday. Coach Dave Christensen says the Cowboys have nothing to lose, which should take the pressure off the players and help them react, rather than think and slow down.
The prevailing thought about this game before the season was that the Cowboys might be hard-pressed to produce enough offense to mount a challenge, and Wyoming's defense would have to keep the game a low-scoring affair.
Wyoming figured to be better on defense this season in the second go-round using the 4-3 scheme. After a tough opener against Weber State, the Cowboys have been opportunistic, forcing 10 turnovers on the season. It has given up 414.7 yards per game.
The Cowboys, however, may be required to engage in a shootout against the Cornhuskers. Wyoming is No. 16 in the country in total offense at 492.8 yards per game, while Nebraska ranks 13tth in scoring offense at 44.3 points per game.
"They know Nebraska's not going to roll over for them," Christensen told the Tribune-Eagle. "It will take our absolute best effort, and we have to play better on offense and defense to have a chance to win."
--P Austin McCoy enters Saturday's game against Nebraska on a down cycle. The senior is averaging 43 yards per punt between the first and third games of the season. However, in Game 2 against Texas State, McCoy averaged just 21.3 yards per punt, and if form holds true, he may have a subpar performance against the Cornhuskers.
--Wyoming's three blocked kicks on the season is one fewer than the other seven Mountain West teams' total combined. The Cowboys have 11 blocked kicks since the start of the 2009 season . Air Force and Boise State rank second in the conference with eight apiece. "There's nothing to it except effort, really," Gabe Knapton said to the Casper Star-Tribune. "That's all it is. Most people take the field goal off and stuff and that's when they kick it through. But we're all about effort and that's why we go 100 percent every play."
--Senior defensive end Josh Biezuns earned Mountain West Co-Defensive Player of the Week. He forced one fumble, recovered one fumble, had two sacks and five tackles in Wyoming's 28-27 victory over Bowling Green last week. Ironically, his biggest play of the game came on special teams when he combined with teammate Gabe Knapton to block the Falcons' game-tying extra point with two seconds left to preserve the victory.
SERIES HISTORY: Nebraska leads Wyoming 5-0 (last meeting, 1994, Nebraska 42-32).
SCOUTING THE OFFENSE: True freshman QB Brett Smith already has stared down adversity this season, driving his team for a game-winning touchdown in a come-from-behind victory against Weber State. The question is how he will handle the pressure of facing a nationally ranked team in a big-game atmosphere. The Cowboys have to be able to use their three-headed monster at RB among Alvester Alexander, Brandon Miller and Ghaali Muhammad to keep control of the football and the time of possession. Nebraska's famed blackshirts on defense have been susceptible this season, allowing an average of 364.7 yards per game in their first three games. Against FBS foes Fresno State and Washington, the Cornhuskers have allowed an average of 33.5 points per game.
SCOUTING THE DEFENSE: It all starts with stopping Nebraska QB Taylor Martinez. The Cornhuskers' standout signal-caller is averaging 128 rushing yards per game with a 7.5 yards-per-carry average. He also has scored six TDs. Wyoming has to force him to put the football in the air, where he has been less effective. Martinez is completing less than 50 percent of his passes, is averaging just 163.3 passing yards per game and has just three TD passes compared to two interceptions. The Cornhuskers have put the ball on the ground nine times already this season, although they've only lost the ball thrice. Still, a Wyoming defense that has forced 10 turnovers so far will come into the game emphasizing to their player to strip the football on every occasion.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "We now know it will be the biggest game that's ever been played in Laramie. We're excited about it. It's a great opportunity for us. It's a game where we have nothing to lose. It's going to be a full stadium. It's at our place against a great football team. We can turn it loose and every single guy can play without any stress or tension. Just go out and play and play our best game. If you do, that's how you win a game like that." -- Wyoming coach Dave Christensen, on his team hosting nationally ranked Nebraska.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
THIS WEEK'S GAME: Nebraska at Wyoming, Sept. 24 -- The Cowboys have shown a penchant for responding in big games at home. They played nationally ranked Texas tough at War Memorial Stadium in 2009 for one half. They're used to hosting BCS teams, and as long as they can rebound from any early momentum swings away from them, they might be able to hang around with the Cornhuskers.
KEYS TO THE GAME: The Cowboys have to feed off the emotion of the crowd, much like they did in 2009 against Texas and QB Colt McCoy. In that game, McCoy didn't start to look comfortable until midway through the second quarter. In 2011, enter Nebraska QB Taylor Martinez, who may face a similar adjustment. If Wyoming can get Nebraska's high-powered offense out of whack early, it might be able to extend the game into the fourth quarter, where an opportunistic bounce of the football might give the Cowboys a shot at winning the game.
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
QB Brett Smith - He has been the gunslinger Wyoming has hoped for, averaging 265.7 yards passing per game to rank second in the Mountain West and 27tth nationally. Wyoming has come to show a great reliance on the true freshman, but it has to make sure that he's not trying to do too much against Nebraska, or the game might get out of hand quickly.
--While Alvester Alexander has been the workhorse of the group, RBs Ghaali Muhammad and Brandon Miller have shown they can pick up chunks of yardage to churn out first downs, keep the clock moving and shorten the game. Muhammad is averaging 7.6 yards per carry, while Miller checks in at 6.3 yards per rush. Wyoming has to find production on the ground on Saturday.
--DE Korey Jones - The junior is second in the conference with four sacks, and his presence has helped Wyoming's defensive line generate a greater pass rush than it did last season. The Cowboys stand a better chance of containing Nebraska QB Taylor Martinez if Jones can camp out in the Cornhuskers' backfield.
--Cowboys coach Dave Christensen reported no new injuries for Saturday game.
--True freshman CB Blair Burns is tied for the Mountain West lead and tied for eighth nationally with two interceptions in three games. He has 65 yards on returns to lead the conference.
--Junior transfer DE Korey Jones has been integral to the Wyoming defense's success. Jones is tied for the league lead with San Diego State's Jerome Long in tackles by a defensive lineman with 12.