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A title is a longshot now, but Wyoming’s defense is championship-caliber

BOISE, Idaho — I don’t know if we learned this Saturday night as much as it was further reinforced.

In a matchup that featured a Boise State offense that’s top 4 in the Mountain West in points, yards and passing yards against a Wyoming defense that’s top 4 in yards, points and rushing yards allowed, the Cowboys won it handily. Yes, Boise ended up playing a backup quarterback just like Wyoming had to, but the Cowboys have been stout on that side of the ball all season regardless who they go up against.

And Boise grabbed some early momentum by marching 92 yards for a touchdown on its opening possession, but the Cowboys limited the Broncos to just 193 yards the rest of the way in holding Boise to its second-lowest point total of the season. They notched two more sacks and six tackles for loss. And they forced the game’s lone turnover — Javaree Jackson’s forced (and recovered) fumble late in the third quarter that led to the Cowboys’ go-ahead touchdown two plays later.

The group played well enough to walk off the blue turf a winner for the first time in program history and move the Cowboys into a tie with Boise atop the Mountain West’s Mountain Division standings. Instead, Saturday’s loss was a major blow to Wyoming’s Mountain West title hopes. The Cowboys are now two games back of the Broncos in the Mountain Division — and essentially three games back now that Boise has the head-to-head tiebreaker — with just three games left to play.

Wyoming’s running game will have to adjust

Outside of a poor throw into double coverage that easily could’ve been intercepted and ended the game two plays before Cooper Rothe’s missed field goal in overtime, Tyler Vander Waal played well in his first start of the season. In the face of constant pressure (Boise State sacked him three times, hurried him countless of other times and notched eight tackles for loss), Vander Waal completed 65 percent of his passes and even ran for a 3-yard touchdown.

But Boise State’s defense zeroed in on Xazavian Valladay because it knew it didn’t have to worry about Vander Waal’s running ability the way defenses had to with Sean Chambers, who was the MW’s most dynamic running quarterback before he went down with a season-ending knee injury. Valladay had 124 yards for his third straight 100-yard game, but Wyoming also had its lowest rushing total of the season (123).

Wyoming averaged just 2.8 yards per rush, and that dropped to just 1.6 yards in the fourth quarter when the Cowboys were trying to add to their 17-10 lead or drive for a potential go-ahead score like they did at the end of regulation. Wyoming went on fourth-and-1 from Boise’s 39-yard line in the final minute, but just about everybody inside Albertsons Stadium knew Valladay was getting the ball. That included Boise’s defense, which came with a run blitz and stuffed Valladay for a 1-yard loss.

With Chambers out, Wyoming was way too predictable with who was running (Valladay’s 37 carries were a career-high) and where they were running it (between the tackles and almost exclusively through the A gap). The Cowboys will have to incorporate some different elements into their rushing attack going forward or else run the risk of what happened Saturday night occurring more often.

The kicking game comes back to bite Wyoming

Wyoming coach Craig Bohl and senior linebacker Logan Wilson harped afterward on the fact that Cooper Rothe’s missed field goal wasn’t solely to blame for Saturday’s loss. Wilson said he was even going to personally talk to Wyoming’s senior kicker “because he needs to know that game was not lost because of him.” And he’s right.

In games as close as the one Wyoming was involved in Saturday, there are countless plays throughout that go a long way in determining the outcome. But it’s still strange to see Rothe struggle as mightily as he has to find consistency this season.

Rothe started his night with a 39-yarder that gave Wyoming a 10-7 halftime lead, but his miss in overtime was his sixth of the season. This after he missed just one all of last season to lead the nation in field-goal percentage and earn the nod as a Lou Groza Award finalist.

Rothe’s been one of the best at his position the last couple of years, so you have to wonder if the struggles this season have become a mental hurdle that he can’t quite clear. And when you play as many close games as the Cowboys do — their three losses have come by a combined 10 points — you had to wonder if there would come a point where that inconsistency would bite the Cowboys. It came Saturday.

Follow UW athletics beat writer Davis Potter on Twitter @DavisEPotter

This article originally ran on trib.com.

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