"There is no question that we are a better football team now, in every phase of our game . . . we have come light years from where we began two years ago. I think we are on the verge of becoming a very good football team."
Some within the Cowboy faithful are starting to wonder how many light years the "verge" actually spans.
Wyoming has lost 11 straight dating back a year almost to the day, a wild 43-42 OT win over Utah State in Logan. After their expected smacking at the hands of Tennessee to open the 2002 season, they've dropped two straight to teams (Central Michigan and Boise State) they figured they could beat. They haven't won a home game since last year's season-opener against Furman. And if Washington should extend the Cowboy losing streak to 12 – as they are easily expected to do this Saturday night in front of a national audience - it will set an all-time school record for futility.
Wyoming ranks 103rd in the country in scoring offense, 110th in scoring defense, 99th in total offense and 114th in total defense. And after losing their best defensive back, one of the Mountain West conference's best kickers, and then this past Tuesday their best defensive lineman to season-ending injuries, coach Koenning concedes that it's becoming more of a struggle to keep his team focused on positives.
"As a coaching staff, we're challenged in keeping the kids in tune with how we want to do things," says a more subdued Koenning. "We haven't had a lot of success, and all of us are soul-searching."
"But we've got to continue to try and get it done the way we want to do it, in all phases. We've got to be able to play, throw and catch, run the football, and enjoy the experience. The kids still have to learn how to win. Guys are trying awful hard, and they're pressing."
Husky coach Rick Neuheisel knows the Wyoming struggles, yet he also knows his team has a penchant for lethargic openings, and another San Jose State-type first half could toss a wounded Cowboy a welcome lasso. "I don't think there's any question we'll get their best shot," says Neuheisel. "Whenever you're playing a team that's on the ropes, you always worry about their devil-maker strategy to a game that could be wide open. They could do things that might not be the norm in a contest.
"There looks to be very little risk for them right now in terms of what they can do and what they can try, so you get nervous about that."
Instead, what Neuheisel wants is for his Huskies to start revving up for the conference wars ahead, right from the opening whistle. "We all have to understand that we haven't played good enough football to be where we want to be if we really want to compete for a conference championship. We have to go out and do that, starting with Wyoming. We have to start it right now and continue it on until the Pac-10 conference.
Neuheisel, as well as 70,000 band-night fans, will be looking for a quality first quarter out of his team – heck, a few points would do for starters, that big zero is haunting like a full moon – before they start pressing for it. "It's important for us to come out to be really eager to play," says Neuheisel. "We can't be wasting 15 minutes of action and expect to come back, not in our league.
"Hopefully, they're as eager as I am. I'm pretty sure they are."
And after a 14-day wait, we're pretty sure 70,000 band-night fans will be, too.
TEAM STATS: 13.3 points, 292.3 yards (77.3 rush, 215.0 pass) RUSHING: Kit Bradshaw 24-68-0 TD (2.8) Derek Armah 14-68-0 TD (4.9) Leonard Jones 13-66-0 TD (5.1) PASSING: Casey Bramlet 52-108-5, 645 yards, 5 TD RECEIVING: Brock Ralph 9-163-2 TD (18.1), long 53 Jovon Bouknight 9-143-1 TD (15.9), long 35 Malcolm Floyd 6-117-1 TD (19.5), long 67
Wyoming returned 10 starters from last year's offense that produced some glossy passing numbers. The Cowboys averaged 282 yards through the air, and more such fireworks were expected this season. Injuries and suspension threw some kinks into the machinery, and the going has been slow to begin 2002. But the unit is whole again this week, and coach Koenning hopes to surprise Washington with some gifted receivers of his own.
Junior quarterback Casey Bramlet (6-4, 220) earned second-team All-Mountain West honors while throwing for the fourth-most yards in Cowboy history as a sophomore, cracking the 3,000-yard barrier while completing over 20 passes per game. Bramlet has been pressing as the losses mount, something he attributes to "execution. Mentally, we have to learn how to win in every situation," says Bramlet. "We've been hoping for something good to happen instead of making it happen." Bramlet moved into 8th on the all-time Wyoming passing yards list last week with his 215-yard performance against Boise State. Younger brother Corey, a redshirt-freshman, is Casey's backup.
Wyoming will spread the field a lot, and it starts with two tall and very talented receivers in juniors Ryan McGuffey (6-1, 204) and Malcolm Floyd (6-6, 210). McGuffey, who suffered a concussion against Tennessee but returned against Boise State, averaged seven receptions per game last year and was a first-team All-MWC choice. Floyd will be a handful for the Husky corners, averaging 18.2 yards per career reception. He caught a 67-yard TD strike against Central Michigan, and needs 93 receiving yards to break 1,000 in his career. Both McGuffey and Floyd are working on 22-game streaks with at least one pass reception. Senior Brock Ralph (6-3, 182) is also an inviting target, and is having a big senior campaign so far, leading the ‘Pokes with two TD receptions.
Last year's leading rusher Derek Armah (5-10, 205) ran afoul with the law in July after a bar fight and was suspended for the Tennessee game, but has since returned. He now shares backfield time with sophomore starter Kit Bradshaw (6-1, 208) and junior Leonard Jones (5-9, 165). Wyoming ran for a season-high 125 yards last week against Boise State, but has only one rushing TD on the year – and that one by Bramlet.
Senior tackle Adam Goldberg (6-7, 322) makes his 34th consecutive start for the Cowboys. The Lombardi candidate is a two-time All-MWC selection, and leads an experienced offensive line that includes seniors Mike Irvin (6-3, 281) -- who was moved to guard to help protect an oft-injured hand after three years at center -- and Rob Kellerman (6-6, 308). Sophomore center Trenton Franz (6-3, 272) is also a professional Frisbee Disc player in his spare time.
TEAM STATS: 38.0 points, 475.7 yards (194.3 rush, 281.3 pass) TACKLES/TFL: Jacque Finn 26/1 Nate Young 23/1.5 Herman White 20/2.5 PASSES DEF/INT: Jacque Finn 2/0 Nate Young 1/1 Gary Wright 1/0 SACKS: Tyler Gottschalk 1.0 Guy Tuell 1.0 Jon Aimone 1.0
Frankly, the numbers don't lie -- Wyoming has had a terrible time stopping the run. They've allowed nine touchdowns on the ground, and they've forced just three turnovers in three games (while the offense has coughed up eight). They've been getting beat up front, which cannot sit well with defensive coordinator Matt Wallerstedt, whose 1997 defense ranked second in the nation in sacks. Three of Wyoming's top-four tacklers toil in the secondary.
An already smallish line took a major hit on Tuesday when it was announced that senior defensive end Jon Aimone will have to retire from football after suffering the latest of a string of neck stingers last Saturday against Boise State. The obviously somber co-captain said, "The doctors are worried I would lose strength in my right arm permanently (if I continued)." Sophomore Zach Morris (6-2, 265) now inherits the "BANDIT" end spot from Aimone. Senior Josh Rollins (6-3, 259) is having a good season on the other side, sharing time with junior starter Casey Adams (6-5, 260). WILL backer Tyler Gottschalk (6-4, 243) and MIKE backer Herman White (6-0, 230) have 42 tackles between them. The Cowboys utilize a ROVER in the middle third, and junior Jacque Finn (6-2, 196) leads the 'Pokes in tackles from that spot. Finn recorded 11 stops against Central Michigan, and has broken up a pair of passes.
Junior free safety Nate Young (6-1, 182) has Wyoming's lone pass interception, and is the second-leading tackler with 23. True sophomore Guy Tuell (6-1, 208) is proving to be one of the better young safeties in the conference. Sophomore Gary Wright, the Cowboys' best cover man, was lost for the season after injuring his knee in the Central Michigan game, so Chris Dixon (6-0, 180) and senior walk-on Ryan Calahan (5-10, 193) will be expected to step up and deliver. Junior safety Armand Woodson is the younger brother of Dallas Cowboy's DB Darren Woodson.
WYOMING SPECIAL TEAMS
PLACEKICKING: Scott Parker 0-1 FG (blocked), 3-4 XP
PUNTING: Luke Donovan 20-41.5 (long 56), .450 inside-the-20
KICK RETURNS: Leonard Jones 11-18.6 (long 31), 0 TD
PUNT RETURNS: Scottie Vines 5-6.8 (long 22), 0 TD
Washington isn't the only team this week with special teams issues. Start with losing your All-Conference kicker (J.D. Wallum) for eight weeks after attempting a kickoff return tackle and see where it takes your kicking game. Wallum was coming off a 2001 season in which he tied the school record (and ranked 3rd in the NCAA) with 20 field goals. So RS-freshman Scott Parker was thrust into the placekicking spot, and his debut last week was less than auspicious. He had his only FG attempt – the first in his career – blocked, and he also missed an extra point.
The return teams haven't fared so well, either. The coverage teams have allowed an average of 35.4 yards per kick return, while leading return man Leonard Jones has averaged half that. Scottie Vines does have a 22-yard punt return to his credit, and punter Luke Donovan has been stellar, averaging 41.5 yards per boot while placing nine of his twenty kicks inside the 20.
KIBBLES AND BITS
High Up: Wyoming's War Memorial Stadium, at 7,220 feet above sea level, has the highest elevation of any Division 1-A football stadium in America. And it does get easier for the ‘Pokes in two weeks, when The Citadel pays a visit to Laramie . . . When Washington fell behind SJSU 10-0 at halftime, it marked the first time in seven years the Huskies trailed at that half at home . . . Note to Rich Alexis: The Cowboys have allowed at least one 100-yard rusher in nine straight games . . . Quarterly dividends: Wyoming can claim victory in second quarters so far, outscoring their opponents 14-13 in that frame. However, the other three panels leave ample room for improvement. In the 1st, 3rd, and 4th quarters respectfully, it's 34-6, 41-7, and 26-13, in favor of the opposition . . . Wyoming's Ryan McGuffey is the only receiver in the Mountain West Conference listed on the Biletnikoff Watch list . . . Rick Neuheisel is 0-2 versus the Mountain West in his Washington career, losing to BYU and Air Force in his first two games as the Husky head coach. He did win his first five tries (four versus Colorado State) while at Colorado. Overall, Washington is 15-8 against the MWC . . . There are no players from the state of Washington on the Wyoming roster, and there are no Huskies hailing from Wyoming. Washington wide receivers coach Bobby Kennedy did serve on Joe Tiller's Wyoming staff in 1993-94 . . . Both Wyoming offensive captains – Casey Bramlet and Ryan McGuffey – are juniors . . . Cody Pickett will set a school record the next time he throws for 300 yards. It will mark his fifth such effort. No Husky has ever had more than four in a career . . . After three weeks (alright four, if you picky ones wanna count August 24), the PAC-10 is an astounding 22-4 in non-conference play . . .
Rick Samek can be reached at RSAMEK1@ATTBI.COM . . .