Wyoming defense looks to rebound against versatile UH

LARAMIE, Wyo. — Wyoming’s defense doesn’t have much time to lick its wounds.

After yielding nearly 500 yards to Nevada in a 37-34 overtime loss last week, the Cowboys are now preparing for another potent offense, albeit one that goes about things differently. Whereas Nevada piled up 420 passing yards with its Air Raid attack, Hawaii has long used the run-and-shoot offense to rack up passing yards and points in bunches going back to the early 2000s under June Jones.

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The Warriors are on their fourth head coach since, though Hawaii, outside of Norm Chow’s West Coast days, has stuck to a pass-happy offense in which running the ball has largely been an afterthought. But with Todd Graham now running the Warriors’ program, Wyoming is expecting a more physical, balanced offense than what it’s used to seeing from Hawaii when the teams meet Friday at War Memorial Stadium.

“They still run the football effectively,” Wyoming coach Craig Bohl said. “Not only the backs, but the quarterback has got really excellent running ability as well. There are certainly elements of the run-and-shoot with four wide receivers, quick tempo and the ball going different places.”

Graham was hired as Hawaii’s 24th football coach in January once Nick Rolovich left to take the head coaching job at Washington State. The Warriors never ranked better than 60th in the Football Bowl Subdivision in rushing during Rolovich’s four-year tenure and finished 100th or worse each of the last two seasons.

It’s a far cry from how productive the ground game in Graham’s offense has been over the years. Hawaii is the fifth FBS head coaching job for Graham, whose offenses ranked in the top 56 nationally in rushing five of his six seasons at Arizona State, where he coached until 2017.

One season at Pitt in 2011 bridged his time between Arizona State and Tulsa, where Graham had some of college football’s most prolific rushing attacks. Tulsa finished the 2008 season fifth nationally in rushing and owned the nation’s 15th-best rushing attack in 2010.

Five of the 12 teams Graham has coached have finished in the top 45 nationally in rushing, and only two have ever ranked outside the top 60. In Graham’s Hawaii debut, the Warriors still threw for 229 yards but ran the ball a whopping 53 times, averaging 6.1 yards a pop and scoring all four of their touchdowns on the ground.

“We’re just going to do what it takes to win,” Graham said during a news conference this week. “There’s times we’ve gone out and thrown for 600 yards, and there’s times we’ve gone out and rushed for 300 or 400 yards. I don’t really care. It’s whatever they choose to give us, and that’s what Fresno was kind of giving us. And I think they were surprised we could run the ball like that.”

It certainly has the attention of Wyoming’s defense and its first-year coordinator Jay Sawvel, who said the biggest difference between the offenses Nevada and Hawaii run is not only how often the Warriors are willing to go to the ground but also how — and with whom — they run it.

Running back Miles Reed ran for 109 yards against Fresno State, but it was quarterback Chevan Cordeiro who led Hawaii in rushing. Using a combination of designed runs and scrambles on broken pass plays, the fleet-footed sophomore racked up 116 yards and ran for two scores on just 13 carries.

“A couple of them were dropback passes that he just got out and took off on,” Sawvel said. “That taxes you defensively a great deal because you get out of a rush lane or you get out of anything, and now you’ve got a problem.”

Stopping the run wasn’t the issue last week for the Cowboys, who held Nevada to 2.8 yards per carry and haven’t allowed a 100-yard rusher in 15 straight games dating back to 2018. But Hawaii will present a far different challenge.

“Hawaii has got a good run game and good run plays,” Sawvel said. “A lot of counters and things there that we have to deal with that can make run fits difficult.”

Perhaps the biggest change in what Wyoming will see from this version of the Warriors’ run-and-shoot is the tempo at which it operates. Hawaii ran 84 plays against Fresno State, more than any other Mountain West team on the opening weekend.

Pushing the pace isn’t anything new for Graham’s offenses, which have never ranked outside the top 35 nationally in plays per game. Arizona State finished second in that category under Graham in 2015 while Tulsa led the country in snaps per game (80.5) in 2008.

“We know they’re going to try to go fast,” Sawvel said. “The difficult thing with that to some degree is you can only get so much simulation. You’ve got a (scout) team working offensive plays, and they’re not Hawaii’s offense. So they’re not going to run it at the pace that you’re going to see.

“What you have to do is have the mindset right off the bat to start the week that as soon as a play is over, there ain’t no celebrating good or bad. You’ve got to get up, you’ve got to get ready, you’ve got to get the next call, you’ve got to get aligned, and we’ve got to get going. Any time you play that type of offense, your early downs are critical because you’ve got to get to third down in a win percentage for the defense and out of a win percentage for the offense.”

Wyoming’s defense improved in the latter stages against Nevada, holding the Wolf Pack to just 10 yards on 13 plays in the fourth quarter to give the Cowboys a chance to rally from a 22-point deficit late in the third quarter.

But the unit needs a faster start this week as well a cutdown on some of the mental errors that resulted in chunk plays for Nevada. The biggest one came just before halftime when a blown coverage led to a walk-in Wolf Pack touchdown.

“That can’t happen,” Sawvel said. “That’s been addressed.”

Sawvel put some of the blame on himself for what he said ended up being poor play calls against some of the looks Nevada’s offense gave as well as certain coverages that Wyoming never used. He said he’ll also have to reassess some of the Cowboys’ rush techniques up front in order to generate more pressure in passing situations.

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“I think a couple pressures we were running were a little bit too much sideways for the d-line,” Sawvel said. “We want to be a little more vertical. That would help as well.”

Davis Potter writes for the Casper Star Tribune, Wyo

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