LARAMIE – A common theme throughout fall camp for the University of Wyoming football team was the Cowboys’ intentions to become less predictable and more explosive on the offensive side of the ball.
This desire came to fruition in DeKalb, Illinois, last Saturday, as UW erupted for its highest-scoring first half in nearly two years before holding off NIU to win 50-43.
The Pokes left the game with ample areas of concern, having watched a 26-point lead slip away over the final two quarters. However, in large part due to their dominant start, the Cowboys still returned to Laramie with an unbeaten record intact.
Wyoming racked up 226 total yards – 107 through the air and 119 on the ground – by the break, with its 28 first-half points marking the Pokes’ most since their Sept. 29, 2019, rout of UNLV. This production came of little surprise to senior guard Logan Harris, who says spectators can expect to see more of the same moving forward.
“We’ve had practices in the past where we’re clicking, and it’s something else,” Harris said. “I think it’s definitely a quick glimpse of what we can be as an offense, and we’re going to be showing that a lot more.”
One area of emphasis for UW offensive coordinator Tim Polasek during his first year on the job has been creating opportunities for explosive plays of 20 or more yards.
This occurred on five occasions last week, including three times in the first two possessions of the game. In addition to these large gains, the Cowboys had four other pickups of 10 or more yards in the first half alone, with their 14 first downs in the first two quarters falling just three shy of their full-game total from the week before.
“We certainly looked explosive,” UW coach Craig Bohl said. “I thought we were unpredictable. Maybe the opponents think we’re predictable, but I thought there was a great blend of run-pass, play-action and run. Guys were making big plays, and it was exciting to see.
“I also think Northern Illinois has some good defensive players. They have good team speed, and they’re big up front, so it wasn’t like a defense that didn’t have playmakers, so it was encouraging.”
In previous years, opponents might have been able to key on the Cowboys’ tailback run game – headlined by Xazavian Valladay, the Mountain West’s leading rusher each of the past two seasons. So far in 2021, though, that hasn’t been the case.
Wyoming has recorded rushing attempts on 62% of its plays from scrimmage this season, but this number undersells the versatility the Pokes have displayed in their play calling. Through two games, 28.2% of their carries have come on wide receiver hand-offs, designed quarterback runs and scrambles by Sean Chambers.
“Being balanced is key,” said Chambers, who has completed 57.1% of his passes while averaging 233.5 total yards and two touchdowns per game. “That’s what Coach wants us to be, right there in the middle, throwing the ball and running the ball. Whenever we’re able to do both well, one opens up the other.”
The passing game, in particular, has seen a boost in efficiency as a result of this balance. The Cowboys’ 8.2 yards per pass attempt is up 1.3 yards from 2019, something senior receiver Ayden Eberhardt attributes to the game plan produced by Polasek and passing-game coordinator/receivers coach Mike Grant.
“He’s a mastermind,” Eberhardt said of Polasek. “He’s always watching film to help us players. Him and Coach Grant are always collaborating together and talking about what they see and what we can do throughout the game. What we’ve been doing has been great, and I hope we can keep that up.
“The run opens up the pass, and the pass opens up the run, so it’s been awesome to have both open. That keeps the defense on their toes to where they can’t blitz all the time, and obviously, if they do, Sean can check us into whatever he wants. We all trust Sean and what he can do.”
There was no greater bright spot in the passing game last week than sophomore receiver Isaiah Neyor.
Neyor showcased his big-play ability last season, averaging 31 yards per catch, but only touched the ball nine times during the shortened six-game season. After battling his way back from an ankle injury suffered early in fall camp, the Fort Worth, Texas product enjoyed his coming out party on Saturday – hauling in four catches for 87 yards and two touchdowns, while also rushing for 13 yards and a score.
“We’ve all been anticipating it,” Eberhardt said. “He’s been working hard in the offseason, and we’ve seen it throughout camps and practices. For me, it was awesome to see. I was able to see where he came in at, and to see him blossom there was awesome.”
As promising as the Cowboys’ offensive performance was last week, there’s still plenty of improvement left if they plan to contend for the program’s first Mountain West championship.
Chambers acknowledges such, but also gains optimism knowing they can get better, even after an explosive showing like last week.
“It felt really good,” the junior quarterback said. “We know we’re nowhere near where we want to be, which is encouraging for us.”