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2011 Non-Conference Preview: Wyoming Vs. Nebraska

The Wyoming Cowboys will be starting fall camp in a few weeks.  And if there was ever a time for the Cowboys to step up, it would be this season.  The Mountain West Conference has a lot on the line with a petition for a waiver for BCS inclusion for the 2012 and 2013 seasons pending---a decision that could be worth millions of dollars to the league.

Why the pressure on Wyoming?  There is no question that bottom half of the league needs to improve and that they could hold the MWC keys to the BCS kingdom.  The MWC needs a big win coming from the middle or bottom of the conference.  Wyoming is perhaps the only one in good position who can help make that win happen.  Schedule-wise, the Cowboys have Weber State, Texas State and Bowling Green to practice up on before they take on Nebraska.  Wyoming actually holds a home field advantage.  Throw in the high altitude, some guts, luck, and a lot of gritty determination and the possibility of an upset over a storybook opponent is there.  A win by Wyoming over Nebraska would be massive, and it would shake up the BCS as well as strengthen the MWC case for AQ inclusion.

It's not just me calling for a signature win.  Matt Hinton (Dr. Saturday) also mentioned the MWC needs a "miracle upset" by Wyoming over Nebraska on Sept. 24 at Laramie.  Sure the Nebraska Cornhuskers look like a troop of big, tough, shaved gorillas out there on the field---all mean and scary looking.  But don't forget they gave up 3 games last year, and even a small school like Idaho went into their cornfield and managed to rack up 17 points on them while holding the huskers to 37 points.  Even more telling is the fact that Nebraska was very lucky to eke out a narrow win over Iowa State (5-7) last year, and it took overtime to come up the the 31-30 point win.

So let's look at the 2011 Cornhuskers:

The recent announcement that Nebraska backup quarterback Cody Green has asked for a release from the team is not the end of the world for the 'huskers but it could make a difference going forward.  Right now they have Taylor Martinez 6' 1" 205 lbs., as QB.  He's rated at 138.8 percent and last year he only completed 59.2% of his passes making 116 of 196 for 10 TDs.  He also threw 7 INTs and was sacked 26 times.  The QB team as a whole is ranked 113th in passing, and this year, leading wide receiver Niles Paul is gone.  But they still have Brandon Kinnie, 6' 3" 220 lbs, Kyler Reed, 6' 3" 230 lbs, and Mike McNeill, 6" 4" 235 lbs to do the catching.  Rushing wise, Nebraska was rated 9th in the nation last season.  But they have lost star running back Roy Helu, Jr., leaving QB Martinez as his own leading rusher.  To be sure, however, they still have others who can run, like Sophmore RB Rex Burkhead, 5' 11" 210 lbs and an arsenal of backups to pound at the Cowboy D-line. 

Defensively, the Cornhuskers return 8 starters on a defense that only allowed 17 points a game.  Still, the huskers have two new defensive coaches calling the shots at secondary and linebacker and that could be a weakness in those areas. 

And about Wyoming?   Well, for starters there is lots of bad, but some good.  Wyoming starting quarterback Austyn Carta-Samuels has decided to leave the program after a tumultuous 2010 season.  Then we learn from Jeremy Mauss that co-starting quarterback, Emory Miller has also decided to leave the program and transfer due to personal reasons.  That means that Wyoming doesn't have a single quarterback on the roster who has taken a snap in a college game.  On the positive side you can say the Wyoming QB's that are on the roster have never tasted defeat.  And the Cowboys have two who are looking pretty good, even though both are true freshman.  One is QB Brett Smith, 6' 3" 195 lbs.  During the spring game in April, he was 16 of 24 for 153 yards and an interception.  He also ran for 22 yards and punched in a TD run.  No starting quarterback has been announced and no one will know until the week before the first game as to who it is going to be, according to head coach Dave Christensen.  "We want the competition there," he said before Miller had decided to pull the plug. "They're both playing well. We have another young man (true freshman Adam Pittser) coming in who we think will compete also."

Pittser is the other freshman QB who could end up having one or two big, huge Cornhuskers all up in his grill on September 24th.  There is a four letter word for that: OUCH.  But Rivals three-star rated Adam Pittser was a standout catch and Wyomings "big fish" recruit last season so he might be able to handle a few bone-jarring hits and body-slams while slinging a few balls down field.  For now, he and Smith are the only scholarship quarterbacks left on the roster.  But the Cowboys do have several walk-ons, there is a junior college transfer who might also be in play: a 2012 commit named Cody Sokol who could enroll in Wyoming this August to join the team.  Sokol is an experienced and seasoned QB from Scottsdale Community College.  He's a  6' 3" 210 lb. pro style quarterback with a very strong arm.   Last season he made 56% of his passes as he threw for 2,041 yards and 23 touchdowns.  He was not supposed to graduate until December and join the team in Janurary 2012, but all that could be in question right now and no one should be surprised to see him in fall practice.   

Whoever the quarterback is, when he tosses the ball downfield you can look for junior WR Robert Herron, 5' 10" 180 lbs, to be one of the guys there to catch it.  Last season he had limited play and some dropped balls, but this past spring he was a standout in practice.  Of course, senior WR Mazi Ogbonna, 6' 1" 180 lbs, should see plenty of action against Nebraska.  Last season he had limited play in 8 games were he averaged 10.2 yards a catch with one for a TD.  Another player could be junior WR Chris McNeill, 6' 1" 175 lbs.  He played in all 12 games last seaon where he caught 28 passes for 257 yards in limited action---and four of those passes were against Texas.

Reports are that Wyoming is thin at running back.  That maybe so.  But if he is healthy by then, a real workhorse of the Cowboys will be there to take up the slack.  This is most likely going to be junior RB Alvester Alexander, 5' 11" 208 lb.  He was the leading rusher last season and he could very well be the stud of the backfield again this season.  In 2010, he accounted for 792 yards on 189 carries, and had another 134 yards receiving.  He played in all 12 games and once he got his feet on the ground his stats improved dramitacally in the second half of the season.

And don't be surprised that when the QB does hand off the pig, it just might be to redshirt freshman running back Brandon Miller, 6' 0" 180 lbs.  He is a former walk-on who began his college career as a wide receiver.  This spring he trained hard and earned a scholarship so you can bet he will get on the field during the Nebraska game.  In the annual Brown and Gold game this year he showed he can go the distance.  He played for both the offensive and defensive squads due to a lack of depth, and he scored a touchdown for each team in the fourth quarter.

The Cowboys defensive squad has also lost key experienced players.  One huge loss was when starting strong safety Shamiel Gary left the team.  But a positive is that the D-line returns largely intact.  DE's Gabe Knapton, 6' 3" 248 lbs, and Josh Biezuns, 6' 2" 247 lbs, will be pressuring the QB's from the outside while DT's Mike Purcell, 6' 3 279 and Patrick Mertens will be doing their damage on the inside.  Senior linebacker Brian Hendricks, 6' 1" 228 lb, is there to backup the D-line, along with true freshman linebacker Alex Borgs, 6' 2" 215 lbs, and sophomore linebacker Todd Knight, 6' 2" 215 lbs.  Reports noted that all three looked good in the spring game, if that is any indication of ability.  CB Tashaun Gipson, 6' 0" 203 lbs, will probably start against Nebraska, but look for junior cornerback James Caraway, 5' 11" 185 lbs, and senior safety Eric Mitchell, 6' 0" 200 lbs, to play.  Both of those have also been mentioned as standouts in spring reports.

Just like Boise State has done, Wyoming has gone overseas to get a few of its better athletes.  For the second year in a row the Pokes have signed a player from Germany.  This year it was a big safety named Mark Nzeocha, 6' 3" 220 lbs, who is fast, and does 4.48 time in the 40 yard dash.  This guy has done well in spring ball could see some immediate field time, and perhaps even share starting duties with junior college transfer Kory Jones.  The cowboys other German player is Oliver Schober, 6' 0" 240 lbs, who is a kick off specialist and backup linebacker behind Brian Hendricks.

Say what you will, but MWC teams are well aware of the dangers of going into the Cowboy's crib.  With the crowd noise, the 7, 215 feet of elevation, and a fired-up Cowboy team in front the hometown crowd, Wyoming 's home field has long been one of the most feared places to play in college football.  In 2007, the Virginia Cavaliers found that out the hard way when they went down 23-3.

It might be asking a lot of the Cowboys---they are a young team at almost every posititon---to step up and do the impossible.  Be David.  Go out there and slay the giant.  And do it with a freshman quarterback and a small corps of experienced players.   I know the odds.  And I am sure some would suggest the disadvantaged Cowboys follow up their Nebraska training films by watching old film clips from "The Longest Yard" for some additional help on winning.  But the Pokes have a good head football coach in Dave Christensen.  He's the MWC dean of the passing-oriented version of the no-huddle spread offense.  In the 2007 season, Christensen's offense used this scheme to good effect by scoring a school record 558 points.  Perhaps he can use it effectively against the Cornhuskers. 

Don't laugh.  I've been looking at Nebraska sites and they are all blabbering and dreaming of Big10 and BCS championships, with all the usual Big10 bluster and braggadocio.   They talk about their schedule, about the odds of a BCS Championship, about winning the "Legends Division" with their superior talent--- and Wyoming is not even mentioned as a game.  If there was ever a time to catch a team napping....

Its going to be hard on the Cowboys.  Win or lose, it will take a toll on the squad.  And it doesn't help that some seem to have already thrown in the towel and blown off the Husker-Pokes contest as a bodybag game.  Why not raise expectations and go for it instead?  This game is perhaps the best chance the Cowboys will have to record a win at home over a marquee team like the 'huskers---and a win that would raise some BCS eyebrows. 

Hey, I never said it is going to be easy.  But wouldn't you love to see it happen?