After broadcasting Mountain West title aspirations all offseason, the University of Wyoming football team fell well short of its lofty goals in 2021.
The Cowboys finished the regular season 6-6 after starting out 4-0 for the first time this century, closing out their conference schedule with a blowout loss to Hawaii at home last Saturday.
Here’s a look at what went wrong this season, and what’s next for the Pokes.
The Jekyll and Hyde nature of this team from week to week was a trademark staple of an underwhelming 2021 campaign.
UW showed flashes of promise on several occasions, but these steps forward were almost always followed by troubling moments of inconsistency. The first such instance occurred in the final week of the Cowboys’ nonconference slate. Fresh off a 45-12 thrashing of Ball State, Wyoming needed a two-point conversion stop in the final seconds to beat Connecticut – one of the worst teams in college football this season.
Even after this scare, the Pokes were undefeated heading into conference play. But that would quickly change.
UW lost its first four MW games, going 11 quarters without a touchdown at one point, before finally righting the ship against a struggling Colorado State squad. The 31-17 rivalry win over the Rams spurred optimism for a sputtering offense – which compiled 477 total yards, including a whopping 385 on the ground – but the success would be short-lived. The next week, in a 23-13 loss to Boise State, the Cowboys recorded just 176 yards through three quarters before padding their stats on a last-minute touchdown drive with Boise State up 16.
Wyoming responded to this setback with arguably the biggest surprise of the MW season, putting up 604 yards of total offense in a 44-17 road win over Mountain Division champion Utah State. With a Hawaii team that was 2-5 in league play coming to town, the Pokes appeared poised to get to seven wins and clinch a bowl invite. Instead, they were dominated from start to finish in a 38-14 rout, as the top passing defense in the conference gave up 323 yards through the air.
UW had its share of notable victories. Including the season-opener against FCS playoff contender Montana State, four of its wins were over teams that ended the season .500 or better. However, the Cowboys also suffered three MW losses to foes that finished with losing records – including two by double digits to a pair of teams that went a combined 4-12 in league play.
Conservative to a fault
Wyoming opened up its offensive playbook down the stretch, mixing in more multiple-receiver sets and targeting standout sophomore Isaiah Neyor down the field on a somewhat regular basis. Even with these adjustments, though, the Cowboys were still hindered by conservative decision-making – something that had an impact in several losses.
In a 14-3 defeat at the hands of New Mexico, UW had a chance to cut into an 11-point deficit late in the first half. The Pokes had just given up a touchdown, but they had marched 62 yards down the field for their only score of the game on the previous possession. With 29 seconds left in the half and all three timeouts remaining, they elected to take it into the locker room instead of attempting to make it a one-score game. Wyoming wouldn’t score again that afternoon, putting a second-half shutout by the defense to waste.
Against Boise State a few weeks later, the Cowboys found themselves down 13 near midfield with just over seven minutes remaining. Rather than going for it on fourth down from their own 40-yard line, UW punted the ball away with hopes the defense would get a quick stop. The Broncos proceeded to rattle off a 12-play, 62-yard scoring drive that took more than six minutes off the clock and ended any hopes of a comeback.
The regular-season finale featured more of the same, even with the Pokes trailing by at least 17 points for the final 42 minutes, 39 seconds. Just a few examples include: punting on fourth-and-five from the Hawaii 45-yard line while down 24 in the third quarter; running the ball more times than they threw it in the second half; and declining to go for two with a chance to cut the lead to 16 points with 16:11 remaining.
Late to pull the trigger
Following three consecutive losses to begin MW play, the Cowboys made a change at quarterback. Their progress in the passing game down the stretch spurs questions of what could have been if they had pulled the trigger sooner.
Junior Sean Chambers was 13-3 in his career as a starter after nonconference play, but 40.5% passing and six turnovers during a three-game skid forced Wyoming to turn the offense over to sophomore Levi Williams.
Williams went 16 of 36 with two touchdowns and three interceptions in limited action against Fresno State and New Mexico and his first start against San Jose State. He increased his efficiency with more reps as the starter, however. During the final four games, Williams completed 64.4% passes for 651 yards, six touchdowns and two interceptions. He also rushed for 217 yards and a score during this span, while showing strong chemistry with Neyor – who went off for 446 yards and seven touchdowns during Williams’ five starts this season.
The lack of a firm decision on who would be taking snaps resulted in a disastrous two-week stretch early in conference play that put the season on a downward trajectory. Williams and Chambers split time on the field during losses to Fresno State and New Mexico, and the offense was never able to find a rhythm. The Cowboys completed just 23 of 60 passes, with 285 yards and five interceptions in these games, while mustering only three combined points.
Changes on the way?
With the Cowboys expected to find out their fate in terms of a bowl game this weekend or early next week, it’s doubtful there will be many notable changes until then. Given how the coaching carousel and transfer portal have turned college football on its head in recent years, however, it would be ignorant to believe such factors couldn’t impact Wyoming.
UW coach Craig Bohl is already out on the recruiting trail, having paid visits to three-star commits Caden Becker and Caleb Merritt in the days following the Pokes’ loss to Hawaii. This, combined with the financial hit incurred by the pandemic, make it seem unlikely there will be any changes at the helm of the program – although a mass exodus of transfers could alter that outlook. It’s also worth noting that even if they wanted to make a change at the top, the departure of Fresno State’s Kalen DeBoer to Washington would leave Wyoming competing for candidates against a more appealing job within the conference.
The offense had several glaring issues in offensive coordinator Tim Polasek’s first season, being held under 300 total yards in half of its conference games. There were also signs of potential, though, evidenced by the Cowboys averaging 493.7 yards against San Jose State, Colorado State and Utah State.
Given Bohl’s history with Polasek, having coached together for seven years during a wildly successful run at North Dakota State, it seems unlikely he would pull the plug after one season. Clearly, though, something must be done to address UW’s offensive inconsistency. The fact that the Cowboys at least adapted and got out of their comfort zone in terms of the downfield passing game late in the season shows that they are willing to adjust.
In terms of transfers, it is uncertain who will be leaving Laramie this winter – although Wyoming could have several players enter the portal as soon as next week if a bowl game invitation doesn’t come through. With the NCAA implementing a one-time transfer exception earlier this year, such departures are inevitable.
One factor that has boosted Wyoming’s chances of landing a bowl invite is the number of teams that are postseason eligible.
With 82 slots available, there are 83 programs that finished .500 or better. This means that only one out of 21 6-6 teams won’t be extended an invitation – one of which, Ball State, UW beat by 33 points.
The New Mexico Bowl or Frisco Bowl are the most plausible MW-affiliated bowls for the Cowboys, but they could also play in one of several lower-tier bowls with tie-ins to Group of Five schools.
Josh Criswell covers the University of Wyoming for WyoSports. He can be reached at email@example.com or 307-755-3325. Follow him on Twitter at @criswell_sports.