LARAMIE – A week removed from facing the top rushing attack in the country, the University of Wyoming defense is set to receive a polar opposite challenge Saturday.
The Cowboys, who are coming off a 24-14 loss at Air Force, will look to notch their first Mountain West win at home this weekend against Fresno State and the nation’s No. 3 passing offense.
Despite holding Air Force to 156.4 rushing yards below its season average, UW was dealt its first loss of the season last week. This setback was in large part due to the Falcons’ ability to move the ball through air, throwing for 110 yards and a touchdown in the second half after not attempting a pass in the first two quarters.
Regardless of their latest result, however, senior cornerback Azizi Hearn isn’t concerned about the Pokes’ ability to bounce back.
“It’s beyond confidence in my opinion,” Hearn said. “It’s like a reflex almost. We just have to get back to work. We have to forget about Air Force, take what we can learn from it and keep moving.”
With UW boasting the MW’s top passing defense at 171.2 yards allowed per game, it’s easy to see why Hearn is confident.
Something will have to give this weekend, though.
Fresno State senior Jake Haener ranks among the top-five quarterbacks in the country with 2,230 yards and 18 touchdowns through six games. He’s averaging 9.4 yards per attempt and completing 69.5% of his passes, leading MW signal-callers with 50 or more attempts in both categories.
The Cowboys, meanwhile, are giving up just 5.8 yards per attempt and holding opponents to 57.4% passing.
Hearn says the upcoming challenge has the UW secondary even more locked in than usual.
“Everybody’s intensity goes up in practice,” he said. “From what I know, (Haener is) a great quarterback and a potential draft pick. This is an opportunity for all of us to go make a statement.”
UW coach Craig Bohl acknowledges that secondary play will be key to the team’s success Saturday. However, he notes that the defensive line’s ability to create pressure will be equally pivotal – pointing to Hawaii’s 27-24 win over the Bulldogs as evidence.
Haener passed for 388 yards and three touchdowns in that game, but was also intercepted four times and completed only 28 of 50 pass attempts – well below his season average. The Rainbow Warriors also recorded three sacks and a pair of quarterback hurries.
“We need to get pressure on Haener, and we need to get him moving around,” Bohl said. “We’ll bring a backer occasionally and we’ll blitz some, but we have to do it with four men. Those guys up front – not only the inside guys, but the flank guys – have to get some pressure.
“Hawaii was successful. Fresno threw five picks, and a lot of it was they were throwing the ball under duress.”
Senior defensive end Garrett Crall agrees with his coach’s assessment.
“It’s going to be important this week to be able to apply pressure and get their quarterback out of rhythm to start the game,” Crall said. “Don’t let him get settled in. That’s going to be the biggest thing – getting sacks, getting our hands up when he’s throwing or just applying pressure.
“Just because you don’t get a sack doesn’t mean it was a bad play or you didn’t do your job. Making him throw the ball fast and not letting him get through his progression is a big part of it.”
After facing an Air Force passing attack that entered last week averaging less than seven attempts per game, Saturday’s test provides about as stark a contrast as possible. The Bulldogs are averaging 43 pass attempts per game, with over 76% of their offense coming through the air.
Junior cornerback C.J. Coldon is aware the Pokes will have to develop their game plan around the talents of Haener and players like junior receiver Jalen Cropper, who leads the conference with nine touchdown catches.
At the same time, though, he says UW’s overall approach doesn’t differ much than it does for any other game.
“Try to show him different (looks) every snap and just go out there and play ball – nothing more, nothing less,” Coldon said of the defense’s focus for this week. “It’s another opponent to face and another W we want to get.”