LARAMIE – Craig Bohl is sick of hitting.
After slowly building a consistent winner and then suffering the painful downfall of the 2020 season, the Wyoming head coach said it was time for the Cowboys to win the Mountain West Conference championship.
“Many years ago we set out to win a conference championship,” Bohl said in the spring. “A few times we kind of knocked on the door. We have to break down that door this year.
Bohl is entering his eighth season on the High Plains with a 38-44 overall record (0.463 winning percentage) at UW, including a 25-29 mark in MWC.
The Josh Allen-led Cowboys won the Mountain Division in 2016, but lost to San Diego State in the conference title game at War Memorial Stadium.
Bohl guided UW to three eight-game winning seasons and three bowl games over a four-year span (2016-19).
Then the COVID-19 pandemic slammed the door on what was supposed to be a groundbreaking campaign last year.
The Cowboys finished 2-4 in the truncated season, which was marred by late starts, cancellations, strikeouts and injuries from key players, including quarterbacks Sean Chambers and Levi Williams.
“A lot of these guys want to come back for another year. But when they come back, it won’t be business as usual, ”Bohl said at his end-of-season press conference in December. “The bar of responsibility is rising. We will expect more. “
‘Those who stay will be champions’
UW sacked 21 starters from last season’s final depth draw.
Chambers, who was injured at the end of the season in the third snap of the opener in Nevada, is looking to improve his form of 2019 when he rushed for 567 yards and 10 touchdowns and had 915 yards and seven touchdowns in eight starts.
Williams, who suffered a shoulder injury last season, is also in good health and capable of leading the offense. The 6-foot-5 red-shirted freshman improved his fundamentals in the offseason and pushed Chambers through fall camp.
“Everyone knew they were underperforming. We all knew we could give more, we could do better, “Chambers said of 2020.” It left us with a bitter taste in our mouths, and we wanted to come back and prove everyone wrong who doubts. us and prove that everyone was right. believe in us. Everyone wanted to come back and do something special here.
The quarterfinals will be protected by an offensive line that Bohl describes as the strength of the team. Eight different players from the unit combined for 145 career starts.
Planned starters Alonzo Velazquez (left tackle), Eric Abojei (left guard), Keegan Cryder (center), Logan Harris (right guard) and Frank Crum (right tackle) will open holes for running backs Xazavian Valladay, Trey Smith, Titus Swen and DQ James.
Despite a one-dimensional offense last season, which resulted in opposing defenses piling up bodies on the scrimmage line, UW was 14th nationally for the rush, averaging 219.5 yards per game.
“We’re definitely going to try and show what we can do this year,” said Cryder, an all-MWC preseason selection. “We definitely have a chip on our shoulder.”
First-year offensive coordinator Tim Polasek also has competent players to work with as the Cowboys look to fix a passing game that ranked 113th and produced just one touchdown last season.
Super senior Ayden Eberhardt leads a promising young group that includes 6-3 in third-year freshman Isaiah Neyor and 6-2 in real freshman Jaylen Sargent.
Tight ends Parker Christensen (6-2, 229) and Treyton Welch (6-3, 233) will also be used in Polasek’s game plans.
And when the Cowboys have to settle for field goals, John Hoyland will trot the field with impressive credentials. In 2020, Colorado’s import was 13-for-14 on placement attempts and 16-for-16 on PATs to earn all-American freshman honors.
“I wanted to finish what I started,” Eberhardt said of the decision to return for a sixth season. “I came in as an extra, and Wyoming was pretty much the only Division I school that looked at me. CSU on the road, I remember saying two words to (former Rams coach Mike) Bobo and that was about it. I owe everything to Wyoming, to Coach Bohl and all the coaches who have come here and given me opportunities. The fans, the state, I owe them everything too.
“It was an easy decision. Those who stay will be champions. That’s what we’re trying to make happen.
“This game does not reward potential”
Defensive coordinator Jay Sawvel, who didn’t have spring training to settle in before his first season at Laramie, said he has 100% MWC players at all levels of the 2021 unit.
“It’s a good place to start,” Sawvel said.
The UW defense, despite missing key players due to strikeouts and injuries, ranked 16th in the FBS for total yards allowed (328 per game) and 24th for points allowed (21 per game).
The end of the 2020 season starters – Garrett Crall (defensive end), Cole Godbout (nose tackle), Jordan Bertagnole (defensive tackle) and Jaylen Pate (defensive end) – are back. The same goes for defensive end DeVonne Harris, who was atop the depth chart after the spring.
The defensive line also welcomes back three of the team’s most talented players namely Solomon Byrd (retired), Victor Jones (suspended) and Ravontae Holt (injured).
“It was something I absolutely didn’t want to miss,” Crall said of using his extra year of NCAA eligibility due to the pandemic. “In my opinion, we have as much chance as ever to win a championship, so I wanted to come back and be a part of it and be a leader for these guys and do whatever I can. It ended up being an easy decision. I’m happy to be here.
Chad Muma, who was third nationally in tackles per game (11.83) last season, leads a linebacker squad that includes veterans Chuck Hicks and Easton Gibbs.
UW has one of the best cornerback tandems in the MWC with Azizi Hearn and CJ Coldon who accumulated valuable experience last season. Keyon Blankenbaker and Keonte Glinton are nickels hawkers. Security points are also in good shape with the return of Braden Smith, Esaias Gandy and Rome Weber.
“It’s definitely exciting, but this game doesn’t reward potential. We have to go out there and run, ”Hearn said. “At the end of the day, there have been so many teams that have so many great players that have never won anything, never won a championship. The only thing is that everyone knew his name. I don’t want that to be the case here.
“We work like we don’t have some of the best players in the conference. It comes down to our state of mind.
“It makes me smile”
The last UW conference championship dates back to 1988 when Paul Roach’s Pokes won their second straight Western Athletic Conference title.
In 1993, Joe Tiller’s team finished three with BYU and Fresno State for the WAC crown.
In 1996, the Cowboys appeared in the first 16-team WAC Championship game, but lost a late lead and fell to BYU in overtime.
The man who intends to finally kick down the door of MWC, which UW joined as an original member in 1999, understands how to patiently build a championship program.
In Bohl’s seventh year in North Dakota state in 2009, the Bison finished 3-8 overall and seventh in the Missouri Valley. In 2010, the NDSU reached the FCS qualifiers for the first time before winning three national championships and posting a 43-2 record over Bohl’s last three seasons (2011-13) at Fargo.
The Cowboys posted four consecutive unbeaten seasons and looked set for a title after the 2019 campaign, which began with a win over Missouri when Chambers was in good health and ended in a dominant New Years Eve performance with Williams throwing three touchdowns in the Arizona Bowl.
This year, almost everyone on the list has returned to deal with unfinished business.
According to ESPN data, the Cowboys’ 95% return production ranks second in the FBS behind Toledo (97%).
“It puts a smile on my face, a huge smile on my face,” Chambers said of the statistic. “The experience in this game is invaluable and it’s good that we have the second most people coming back to the country. I think it’s just awesome.
“It’s a huge credit to our coaching staff and our players who wanted to stay here and win a championship for this state. “
Follow UW beat writer Ryan Thorburn on Twitter @By_RyanThorburn