Wyoming football opens 2017 season with challenge in Big Ten foe Iowa
IOWA CITY, IOWA — Saturday will mark the second time in two years the Wyoming Cowboys have played in a Big Ten stadium. Take a look back at that 2016 game, and, if you’ve got a good amount of brown and gold in your closet, it might cause you to wince. By a score of 52-17, the Pokes lost to Nebraska in Memorial Stadium last September.
But that game was a much closer affair than it now appears. Wyoming trailed by just one touchdown going into the fourth quarter and then fell into a turnover-induced quagmire.
It would be easy to look back and see a lesson learned from that game, a stepping stone as the Cowboys prepare for another Big Ten opponent.
But the 2017 Cowboys aren’t concerned with moral victories.
Wyoming begins the season Saturday at Iowa’s Kinnick Stadium (10 a.m. MT, Big Ten Network), and the only gauge of success, they say, is the scoreboard.
“If anything, the biggest thing we’re trying to do this year is not be satisfied with hanging with any team,” junior safety Marcus Epps said. “We feel like we can beat every team that’s on the schedule and that’s what we want to do. And any time you come out with a loss, it’s a failure. We’re going there to win.”
Wyoming players say the Nebraska game was evidence that Group of Five athletes weren’t all that different from Power Five athletes.
“Honestly, I thought there wasn’t as big of a gap as I expected,” sophomore linebacker Logan Wilson said, “because everyone hypes it up as a Big Ten team versus a Mountain West team. But the Mountain West is on the rise.”
But the gap sure looked big in the final score.
“I’m just going to be honest with you, the Cowboys beat the Cowboys,” sophomore receiver Austin Conway said of that game. “We didn’t lose to Nebraska. We lost to the Cowboys. And that’s how it is. I don’t think there’s a team that can beat us if we’re at our best, and if we lose, it’s because we shot ourselves in the foot.”
Iowa, like Wyoming, is coming off an eight-win season, going 8-5 overall and finishing second in the Big Ten’s West Division. The Hawkeyes are just two years removed from a 12-win season and a Rose Bowl appearance.
No team in the Football Bowl Subdivision currently has more constancy at the head coaching spot than Iowa. Kirk Ferentz is the only FBS head coach hired to his position in the 20th century.
“I think it’s really impressive,” said Craig Bohl, Wyoming’s fourth-year head coach. “One, he made a commitment to stay at Iowa during that time, and that typically does not happen. And I think that also is an indication of his value system, certainly his skill set.
“He’s one of the deans of college coaches. How they’ve operated, they’ve been a clean program, high academic standards, and their football teams are always well prepared.”
Of course, having consistency at the top doesn’t always result in a trickle-down effect. Iowa has a new offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach and plenty of turnover at skill positions. Three of the Hawkeyes’ four leading receivers are gone, and new quarterback Nate Stanley was only officially named the starter at the start of game week.
That announcement, however, was expected by Wyoming, and didn’t complicate preparations too much.
“We kind of had an idea after they went through the spring,” Wilson said. “We really didn’t adjust anything, because it’s not like we didn’t know. Their quarterbacks have a similar style of play, anyway.”
Stanley, a sophomore, threw just nine passes last season, but his size and arm strength lend some comparisons to Wyoming’s quarterback, Josh Allen.
“You’ve got a guy that’s 6-5, he’s got a really strong arm ... and has really good ability,” Bohl said. “And the only difference between Josh and him on the outset is Josh played all those games last year, and this guy’s going to be fairly new.”
Maybe not the only difference. Allen is being touted as a potential top selection in the 2018 NFL Draft. Ferentz said this game reminds him of when Iowa played Miami (Ohio) and future Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger from 2001-03.
“To me, the word ‘hype’ kind of connotes exaggerated praise,” Ferentz said of Allen’s newfound recognition. “In this case it’s all valid. It’s very, very genuine. ... We’re only playing maybe the best quarterback in the country. Otherwise, it’s a great matchup for us.”
Iowa will be without starting cornerback Manny Rugamba, who is suspended, and Wyoming is without targets James Price (collarbone) at receiver and Austin Fort (PCL) at tight end.
In the offensive backfield, however, Iowa has the clear edge in experience. The Hawkeyes return 1,000-yard rusher Akrum Wadley, who also is the team’s leading returning receiver. Iowa added another 1,000-yarder in the offseason in James Butler, whom Wyoming fans will remember as Nevada’s leading rusher. He joins Iowa as a graduate transfer.
“He’s a very good running back, downhill running back, he’s hard to tackle,” Wilson said. “We’ve really go to make sure we wrap and squeeze on him. His running style is a little bit different from their starting running back, because their starting running back is a little bit more of a bounce-cutter.”
The Cowboys start Milo Hall on Saturday, a sophomore who has yet to take a collegiate carry. And the Hawkeyes’ defense, led in the middle by preseason all-American linebacker Josey Jewell, returns plenty of experience in the front seven.
Wyoming’s defense also has returners — eight starters, to be exact — but the Cowboys struggled mightily on defense in 2016, especially down the stretch, and Wyoming brought in defensive coordinator Scottie Hazelton as a new hire.
“They’re a run-first team,” Hazelton said of Iowa’s offense. “Their offensive line is back, and they’re very big and physical, and it’ll be a good test to our guys up front.”
The Cowboys have won just three of 18 road games under Bohl and haven’t beaten a Power Five team since 2008, losing 10 straight.
And opening at Iowa is a different challenge than playing at Nebraska was a year ago for Wyoming. The Cowboys played that game in Week Two, and many consider the improvement from a team’s first to second games to be critical.
“I think you can look at that a couple ways,” offensive coordinator Brent Vigen said. “I heard actually (Alabama) coach (Nick) Saban talk about the way they schedule. ... He said he felt like (he prefers) the way his team prepares in the summer, the spring, with an opponent looming that is a (challenge). In their case, they play Florida State. We’re playing a Power Five team in Iowa.
“I think your urgency maybe changes. I think there’s positives and negatives. I hope that our (week) one-to-two improvement is there, and it would be easier maybe to play the Sisters of the Poor, but that’s not the reality that we live in. I think our guys have attacked the offseason and now fall camp with it in mind that we’ve got to bring our A-game Game One.”