LARAMIE — The first two games with Jake Dickert at the controls of Wyoming’s defense have been hit and miss.
On one hand, the Cowboys have looked just as stingy against the run under their first-year defensive coordinator as they did under Scottie Hazelton the past two seasons. Despite losing five defensive linemen off last year’s two-deep, Wyoming is allowing just 82 yards a game on the ground, which ranks 23rd nationally.
The problem for Wyoming is there aren’t many teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision that have had a harder time trying to slow down offenses through the air. After yielding 394 more passing yards to Texas State last week, the Cowboys are allowing 408.5 per game. Only Nevada and New Mexico are giving up more nationally on a per-game basis.
“You look at the stats, and it’s not where we want to be by any means,” said Dickert, who was promoted from safeties coach in the offseason once Hazelton left to take the same position at Kansas State.
Time, situation and approach have played into some of that. Wyoming led Missouri and Texas State by two scores in the fourth quarter, forcing both teams to throw the ball more to try to catch up. Missouri’s Kelly Bryant attempted 15 passes and threw for 148 yards in the fourth quarter of the Cowboys’ 37-31 win two weeks ago while Gresch Jensen tried to get the Bobcats closer last week with 19 passes in the final 15 minutes of Wyoming’s 23-14 victory.
Wyoming’s defensive game plan early this season has largely been to keep everything in front in order to limit the big plays over the top. So far, the Cowboys have only halfway executed it.
Cornerbacks Tyler Hall, C.J. Coldon and Azizi Hearn have more than held their own in man coverage when the Cowboys have sent pressure from the back seven. But regardless of the type of coverage Wyoming is in, preventing yards after the catch has been an issue.
Case in point: Jensen hit Jah’Marae Sheread with a short pass over the middle early in the second quarter. Middle linebacker Logan Wilson slipped and took out teammate Keyon Blankenbaker before Sheread planted his foot and cut past safety Alijah Halliburton, going nearly 50 yards untouched for a touchdown. A week earlier, Bryant connected with Jonathan Nance along the sideline midway through the fourth quarter, and Nance put a move on Halliburton before racing the remaining 35 yards for a score.
“From our point of view as coaches, it’s just small breakdowns that I think we can get corrected, and then the last part is tackling in space when we need to,” Dickert said. “I think that’s hurt us over the last two weeks. Just getting bleeding yardage.”
Wyoming has already given up 11 pass plays of 20 yards or more and is allowing nearly 12.8 yards per reception — third-most in the Mountain West — despite rarely getting beat on the outside. Coldon agreed with his coordinator’s assessment as to the primary culprit.
“Tackling I would have to say,” Coldon said. “Finishing plays.”
Tackling on the back end was a concern coming into the season given what the Cowboys lost at safety in Andrew Wingard and Marcus Epps, two of the top 11 tacklers in program history. It was more so at Epps’ free safety spot than strong safety, where Halliburton started six games last season and finished as the Cowboys’ fourth-leading tackler.
Halliburton finished with a career-high 17 tackles against Missouri as the Cowboys’ safeties combined for 29 stops in the opener. Rome Weber, the starting free safety, left the Texas State game early in the first half with a concussion, but Braden Smith filled in with five tackles and his first career interception. Wyoming coach Craig Bohl said he anticipates Weber being available for Saturday’s game against Idaho.
Dickert said he’s largely been pleased with how the safeties have performed through two games, but there are still some coverage techniques that need to be shored up.
“I’m really pleased with how we’ve limited big plays on the edges,” Dickert said. “Now we’ve just got to make sure within what we’re doing on the inside that we’re limiting some of those big plays.”
Of course, a consistent pass rush can help alleviate some of the pressure on the back end, but Wyoming’s hasn’t always been that way early in the season. The Cowboys rarely got pressure on Bryant (two sacks on 48 pass attempts) but ramped it up with five sacks and six hurries of Jensen. Four of those sacks came during the Cowboys’ second-half shutout.
It’s helped Wyoming notch three interceptions to this point, but there’s still plenty of work to do on the back end if the Cowboys are going to get back to where they were. Wyoming hasn’t finished worse than 32nd nationally against the pass the last two seasons.
“There were some zones we were in (against Texas State) where we need to be more disciplined with our eyes,” Bohl said. “There were a couple plays that occurred that some of it was the pass rush wasn’t there and that begins to skew and put some more pressure on the back end. We’ve got to be more disciplined there.”
Running back Xazavian Valladay (ankle) returned to practice Wednesday, but Bohl said Valladay could be a game-time decision come Saturday. Safety Rome Weber is still going through concussion protocol, though Bohl said Weber should be cleared to practice Thursday and is “on par” to play Saturday.
Defensive tackle Javaree Jackson sustained a minor leg injury during Tuesday’s practice but returned and practiced Wednesday with his lower right leg taped. Bohl said Jackson is “fine.”
Bohl said the Cowboys will still be without cornerback Antonio Hull (personal matter) for Saturday’s game.