Following a close call in last week’s season opener, University of Wyoming coach Craig Bohl didn’t beat around the bush regarding areas of improvement for the Cowboys.

First and foremost: establishing the traditional tailback running game, a presumed strength that failed to meet expectations during a come-from-behind 19-16 win over Montana State.

UW gets a chance to make these necessary steps forward today at Northern Illinois, with kickoff set for 11:30 a.m.

“There are certainly some areas to improve on,” Bohl said. “The biggest area where I was disappointed was our traditional tailback run game. That was not where it needed to be.

“I think we have a stable of some excellent running backs, so we have to clean some things up there – particularly with the offensive line and some perimeter blocking, whether it be our tight ends or wide receivers.”

The Pokes’ struggles in the running game were most apparent in the first half, with tailbacks accounting for just 29 yards on 11 carries.

This production picked up down the stretch, as senior running back Xazavian Valladay compiled 54 of his 77 yards in the final two quarters. Still, only one run of more than 10 yards came from outside the quarterback position.

For an offensive line that makes a case as the deepest in the Mountain West, boasting a combined 150 career starts, there’s a point to prove following a performance that fell well short of their personal standards.

“They were definitely a good football team, but we didn’t perform as well as we wanted to on Saturday up front,” senior center Keegan Cryder said. “We have a very high bar set for us, and we definitely don’t want to lower that at all.

“It was frustrating, but after looking at the film, we saw where we made our mistakes and are looking forward to correcting those this week and getting back on the horse.”

Bohl witnessed this desire to improve in action through the first two days of practice this week. The most apparent takeaway was an increase in physicality, an area that might not have been totally absent last Saturday, but certainly one that had some inconsistencies.

Montana State – which, to its credit, features one of the top defensive fronts in the Football Championship Subdivision – rarely looked overmatched by the Cowboys’ power running game. As the Cowboys prepare to go up against a Northern Illinois defense that allowed only 21 points in last week’s upset of Georgia Tech, Bohl hopes what he’s seen on the practice field translates to the game.

“They’re coming off the ball and being physical, which is going to be imperative,” Bohl said Wednesday. “Northern Illinois has a really good defensive front with some good linebackers, so we’ll need to be matched up, get man-on-man and get some movement.”

Just like on the offensive line, the Cowboys are blessed with depth at the running back position.

Seventh-year senior Trey Smith is one of the most seasoned players in college football, while Titus Swen is a constant home-run threat that doubles as a return man for the Pokes. If recent history is any indicator, though, UW’s prowess on the ground needs to start with Valladay.

Valladay – a Chicago-area native who starred at Brother Rice High, located a little more than an hour from NIU’s campus – was recognized earlier this year as one of the top running backs in the country when he was named to the Doak Walker Award watch list. He’s led the MW in rushing yards per game each of the past two seasons, while ranking among the top 20 nationally in the category both years.

Various factors played into last week’s results, with an undeniable one being the presence of former UW offensive coordinator Brent Vigen on the sidelines for Montana State. Vigen – who led the Wyoming offense for seven years before taking his first career head coaching job in February – had unparalleled insight into some of the Pokes’ key contributors, particularly Valladay and starting quarterback Sean Chambers.

The Cowboys aren’t using this familiarity as an excuse. However, Valladay did note they learned valuable lessons from the experience.

“Realizing that we need to be able to control what we have to control, instead of worrying about having too many things being thrown at us,” Valladay said of his greatest takeaway from last week. “With Coach Vigen being the Montana State head coach, there were a lot of things they were going to be familiar with.

“We just have to be familiar and comfortable with the different things that are being thrown at us. Just being able to execute (against) things we haven’t seen on the field is something we have to get comfortable with.”

While the Cowboys’ running game wasn’t at the level they had hoped in the season opener, they did find optimism in the balance the offense displayed.

With the ground game not as consistent as expected, UW found considerable success in the passing attack.

Chambers overcame an interception on the Pokes’ first possession of the game, completing 62.5% of his passes after that, while finishing the day with 247 total yards and hitting Treyton Welch for the game-winning touchdown in the final minute. Eight different players recorded a catch for the Cowboys, with super senior Ayden Eberhardt leading the way with four receptions for 71 yards and three first-down conversions.

UW coaches and players talked throughout fall camp about the team’s emphasis on stretching the field through the air, and they did accomplished that in their first test of the year.

“It shows the balanced offense that we were always talking about during this offseason,” Valladay said. “We wanted to show a little more passing game and be balanced ... and I think we showed a little versatility throwing the ball. We’re going to get the run game back up, but we’re definitely comfortable passing the ball now.”

As comforting as their growth in the passing game was, however, the Cowboys are well aware they’ll need to make strides on the ground in order to avoid a letdown this weekend in DeKalb, Illinois.

“We have a big, big task at hand,” Bohl said. “I’ve always said the most improvement comes between the first and second game. (That’s) kind of our mantra, and we’re going to need to improve if we have a chance to win this game.”

Josh Criswell covers the University of Wyoming for WyoSports. He can be reached at jcriswell@wyosports.net or 307-755-3325. Follow him on Twitter at @criswell_sports.

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