Welcome to the inaugural edition of “Know Your Enemy” for Horns Illustrated, Longhorn Nation. Finally, the 2012 season is upon us and it comes not a moment too soon. Our goal is to get you acquainted with Texas’ weekly opponent so you can look like Craig Way 2.0 at your tailgate or watch party. Our first subject (victim?) of the season comes in the form of the Wyoming Cowboys.
Breaking down an opponent in the first game of a season is a lot like figuring out why Lindsay Lohan got arrested. Again. We’re not too certain what the details are but we can use past events to make a pretty educated guess. After all, past is precedent. It’s with that knowledge that we'll focus on what we know as we get you the skinny on what the Wyoming Cowboys are all about. Saddle up, Texas fans. It's time to "Know your Enemy."
Much like the Longhorns in 2011, last season was all about rebuilding and taking a step in the right direction for Wyoming Football. After going 3-9 in 2010, the Cowboys went 8-5 and landed a spot in the New Mexico Bowl.
The Cowboys are looking to build on that momentum and with TCU out of the Mountain West, the door is opened a bit wider for a chance at winning the Mountain West title. With fourteen starters (eight on defense, six on offense) returning to a highly confident team, a win against the highly touted Longhorns would definitively prove Wyoming is a threat to any opponent on their schedule.
Balance to the Force
Wyoming football made its name for its spread offense in the 80s and 90s but second-year offensive coordinator Gregg Brandon was all about depth and offensive balance. Last season, Wyoming's offense ran 485 rushing plays and 430 passing plays. The ball was spread around, with four players rushing for over 300 yards and five receivers netting over 375 passing yards. Big plays, however, are not this team’s specialty.
The time may come when head coach Dave Christensen, formerly an Offensive Coordinator at Missouri, unleashes a more creative offensive attack, but we don't believe Wyoming has quite enough offensive firepower at the moment to flip an entire offensive script in one offseason. It will be interesting to see if Wyoming takes some shots deep early against a Texas defense now known for taking chances in order to keep the D honest. They aren’t likely to win the game with a game plan of between-the-tackles rushing and short passes, but that's how they made such large gains as a team in 2011. Texas ‘ elite defense is too disciplined and quick for that style and is sure to eat a game plan like it up.
The Snake Mentality
"Cut off the head and the body will die" is a phrase Manny Diaz likely will be using this week as his defense prepares for Brett Smith, one of the most consistent young college quarterbacks around. The offense begins and ends with Smith, a concept Texas should be used to after playing against the likes of Kansas State’s Collin Klein last season.
The 6-3, 195 pound Sophomore quarterback out of Salem, Oregon was voted the 2011 Mountain West Freshman of the Year, First Team Freshman All-American by CollegeFootballNews.com, and is the only sophomore in the nation on the 2012 Manning Award Preseason Watch List. Smith ranked 33rd in the nation in total offense (256.3 yards per game) with 21 touchdowns overall and 10 interceptions. TCU great Andy Dalton was the former freshman record holder, so that’s not bad company to be in.
Smith may be young but he is basically a veteran in the college landscape, having started every game last season for the Cowboys. The chess match between Manny Diaz's relentless defense and Smith will be one of the more compelling storylines of the game. Even if Smith is hurried (and we think he will be), don't expect Smith to lose his composure. He’s excellent at protecting the ball, with less than 3% of his passes intercepted as a freshman. Some of that can be credited to a low-risk, low-reward strategy for the youngster, but it is still a positive nonetheless.
Better to Receive?
Wyoming possesses an experienced group of receivers, led by senior Chris McNeill. The 6-1, 180 pound California native caught 42 balls, but missed the final four games of the 2011 season. His numbers were good enough to earn Second Team All- Mountain West Conference honors.
Also, keep an eye on Spencer Bruce, the 6-2 205 pound sophomore transfer from California’s Diablo Community College.
Hold the Line!
The Cowboys' offensive line did an excellent job up front protecting Smith throughout the 2011 season. Wyoming allowed only 12 sacks in 13 games last season to rank 11th in the NCAA in fewest sacks allowed. Senior center Nick Carlson and the offensive line will be put to the test against Alex Okafor and Jackson Jeffcoat. And you know Kenny Vaccaro will be bringing the heat.
In Their Defense
Wyoming rolls out three new defensive coaches this season, which is expected to happen since the previous regime surrendered 432 yards a game, and Chris Tormey is the new deputy leading the way as Defensive Coordinator. Out is the 4-3 snooze-fest and in is a much more aggressive blitz-happy scheme from Tormey, David Ash will be thrown into the fire from the beginning, which could actually be a good thing in preparing him for the Oklahoma’s and West Virginia’s of the world.
Saying Wyoming’s run defense was weak last season is an understatement. The defense surrendered 263 yards a game over the last seven games last season, and finished 115th in the FBS against the run. While the talented rushing trio of Malcolm Brown, Joe Bergeron, and freshman Johnathan Gray have to be drooling over those numbers, the Cowboys’ ineptitude at stopping the run actually presents an opportunity for the Longhorns to open up the playbook and pass the ball. Texas knows they can run the ball at will, so now is the time to shake the cobwebs off in the passing game. Here’s hoping that Ash gets off to a hot start, throws the ball at least fifteen times, and gains confidence. At the very least, we would like to see wide receiver Jaxon Shipley not be the most reliable passer on the team.
Feel the Burn
If the Longhorns decide to test the arm of David Ash, who was often inconsistent as a passer in 2011, they would be wise to avoid the side of the field Blair Burns is covering. The 5-10 sophomore from Plano, Texas earned First Team Freshman All-American honors, snagging four interceptions and recording 48 tackles in 2011 (good enough for 38th in the nation. ) He’s physical and plays bigger than his size. Luckily for Texas, it appears that they have built up some depth at receiver this year, so there will be options outside of whomever Burns lines up across from.
Mirror Image – Part II
If you've had the chance to listen to a Mack Brown press conference in the last year, you've no doubt heard him pound away at how critical it is to win the turnover battle. While this isn't necessarily an indicator of how the 2012 season will go for them, Wyoming ranked ninth nationally in the turnover margin, so there is definitely a comparison to be made between the two teams in terms of what they value. If Wyoming can eliminate turnovers and somehow frustrate the Longhorns with their slow but steady style of football, they have a chance to stay in the game. If not, it might be a wild ride for the Cowboys as a combination of punishing run plays, trickery from the Mad Hatter Bryan Harsin, and Mad Dog Manny Diaz's top-end defense bucks Wyoming off the saddle early.