Wyoming Football 2011: With the Season Over, What's Next for the Pokes?
While the rest of the world enjoys another three weeks of the college football bowl season, the Wyoming Cowboy faithful felt a painful sting, as the end of our Poke's unbelievable year came to an end yesterday with a lopsided defeat to the Temple Owls in the Gildan New Mexico Bowl. Credit should be given to the Owls for coming out strong and playing a hell of a game.
Unfortunately for the fans of the Pokes, we haven't seen this much success from the football team since 1996, when Wyoming went 10-2 and finished the season ranked No. 22 in the country.
While some of us will dwell on the disappointing way that the season ended (which is totally understandable), the rest of us will reflect on what a magical year it was for our Pokes, and look ahead to what they might be able to accomplish next year. So what does next year bring for the Wyoming Cowboys?
Can the Wyoming Offense Continue Their Success?
The bright spot of the Wyoming Cowboys this year was their offense, led by MWC freshman of the year Brett Smith. Coming into the season, no one knew who would come in and be the starting QB, and with all QBs being freshmen (with the exception of one sophomore), the QB position looked to be the biggest weakness.
Luckily for the Pokes, Brett Smith played like a seasoned veteran. He was a duel threat QB that could rip it downfield or rush for that first down if the play broke down. One could only assume that his potential can only get better with experience.
The running game was also fairly successful this year. In fact Wyoming ranked No. 33 in the country in rush offense. This is pretty good considering that Ghaali Muhammad only played two-thirds of the year due to injury, and that the Pokes had to convert WR Brandon Miller to RB because they lacked depth at RB.
Starter Alvester Alexander played pretty decently running for almost 700 yds and six TDs. With Muhammad and Alexander returning for their senior season, this RB by committee could be giving defenses problems next year.
WR position was a real problem for the Poke's offense early in the season. There were flashes of brilliance coming from Chris McNeil and Robert Herron early in the season. But when McNeil went down with an injury, young WRs like Josh Doctson and Mazi Ogbonna stepped up to make plays late in the year. With the exception of McNeil, the WR corps is still very young and look to improve.
It could be said that the offensive line was the weakness of the Wyoming offense. Even though they had senior leadership in John Hutchins and Clayton Kirven, they had a difficult time keeping the opposition from harassing Smith. Fortunately for the Pokes, Smith knew what to do when plays would break down
Overall, with such young leadership, it's safe to assume that this offense will only get better. And with Kellen Moore graduating this year, it's safe to say that Wyoming will have the most talented QB in the MWC. Expect big things from the 2012 Wyoming Cowboy Offense.
Will We See an Improvement in the Defense?
It can be said that the defense was Wyoming's biggest problem this year. They ranked No. 115 in the nation against the run and had the 98th worst defense overall. They did, however, rank No. 39 in the nation against the pass, and this could be contributed to the great play of Wyoming's secondary.
The secondary was led by senior and second team MWC CB Tashaun Gipson, second team MWC SS Luke Ruff and talented youngster Blair Burns.
This secondary kept opposing teams to less than 200 yards passing while racking up 13 interceptions. This is amazing if you think about how well the QBs play in the MWC. Ruff and Burns will be back, so watch out for the Pokes to continue to dominate the air
As for the LBs, Brian Hendricks played like a beast racking up almost 100 tackles, a sack and several forced fumbles. However, the rest of the linebacking crew had trouble stopping the run and keeping teams from gaining first downs on 3rd-and-short situations.
Unfortunately for the Pokes, Hendricks is a senior and will be gone next year and it will be up to potential stars Korey Jones, Devyn Harris and Mark Nzeocha to step up. Time will tell if these guys have what it takes to bring the UW defense back to what it has been like in the past.
Like the LBs, the defensive line has had its struggles, too. Stud LBs Gabe Knapton and Josh Beizuns switched positions to DE to try and anchor a struggling D-Line. Although they played well (they combined for over 130 tackles and 11.5 sacks), the rest of line had trouble stopping the run and causing mayhem behind the line of scrimmage.
We do lose both Knapton and Beizuns to graduation, so it's up to players like Mike Purcell and Kurt Taufa'asau to step up and produce.
Overall, the secondary should be in fine shape heading into next year. As for the LBs and D-Line, we could only hope they improve even after losing so much talent. I suppose we'll just have to wait and see.
Can Our Special Teams Remain Special?
Special teams never really made much of an impact this year. When it came to kick and punt returning, Chris McNeil managed to take one punt to the house but other than that returning the ball was just average.
Kicker Daniel Sullivan showed promise in his freshman year but we really didn't see him kick much. In fact he only tried for 10 field goals all year and was able to make seven of them. He wasn't much better kicking PATs as he went 29 for 33. He is just freshman so there's always optimism about this young kicker.
As for our punter Austin McCoy, he ranked right down the middle among all punters in NCAA. Only 22 of his 72 landed inside the opposition's 20-yard line and he averaged 40 yards/punt. Wish we could have seen better production from a senior. Don't know who his replacement will be, there is no other punter on the roster. That worries me
Overall, we definitely need more production from our special teams. Sullivan shows promise but he's not there yet. In order to win the MWC next year, we need to be efficient in all aspects of the game.
In Coach Dave We Trust
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What more can I say about Coach Christensen, other than he has resurrected faith in the Wyoming Football program. Sure last season was a disappointment, but to bring a team back from the dead like he did this year shows talent.
Although we lost to a very good Temple football team in our latest bowl, he still guided the team to two bowls in just three years. That's pretty damn good when you realize that Wyoming has only been in four bowl games in the last two decades.
He shows faith in his players and has them playing "Cowboy Tough." I expect great things from him in the future
Offensive coordinator Gregg Brandon taught Christensen how to run the spread-option he runs today, and Brandon is still able to run it to this day. We haven't seen this kind of offensive production since the days of Casey Bramlet and his deep passing air attack back in the early 2000s. Brandon is moving ball well and I can only assume that will continue with all the young talent he has around him.
Defensive coordinator Marty English has been a main stay in Laramie. He will be entering his 10th year at Wyoming and I hope he sticks around for several more. In the past, Wyoming's strength has been their defense. Not sure what has changed for English this year, but I have faith he'll turn this thing around in 2012.
Overall, I think this coaching staff has what it takes to take this team to new heights. Like I said earlier, this is the best Wyo team we've seen since the mid 90s and I see big things happening. Athletic Director Tom Burman agrees, as he has given Dave Christensen a five-year extension. Let's hope he'll coach this team all five of those years. GO POKES everyone and see you in 2012!