Week three opponent Wyoming committed to becoming “Cowboy tough”

USATSI_7514639_168380293_lowresIn week three of the 2014 football season the Ducks host Wyoming of the Mountain West Conference, a team undergoing an intriguing and dramatic transformation.

After going 5-7 last season with a spread offense, athletic director Tom Burman fired coach Dave Christensen, who resurfaced as offensive coordinator at Utah. Kyle Whittingham demoted ex-Beaver, ex-Miami, ex-Wyoming head coach Dennis Erickson to nab Christensen, who established himself as a spread guru while running the Cowboys. West Salem product Brett Smith ran and threw for 10,390 yards and 97 career touchdowns in three seasons at the Laramie school with Christensen as his head coach.

Bohl bound: Running back Shaun Wick rumbles for a first down in a game last year at San Jose State. The Cowboys fell in a shootout, 51-44. New head coach Craig Bohl will take the air out of the ball with a ball control, run-oriented offense and an emphasis on defensive toughness (Bob Stanton-USA TODAY Sports photo).

The team made the New Mexico Bowl in 2011, but their overall record was 27-35.

On December 13th, with the temperature outside at 5 above zero and a windchill factor of -16, Burman gathered media members and boosters into a suite at War Memorial Stadium to announce the hiring of Craig Bohl, the 55-year-old coach who guided North Dakota State to three straight FCS championships. Over the last three years, Bohl and the Bison rampaged to a 43-2 record, with wins over Minnesota, 37-24, in 2011, Colorado State, 22-7, in 2012 and defending Big 12 champion Kansas State, 24-21, to start the 2013 season.

Bohl is a former Nebraska Cornhusker defensive back who played in the 1979 Orange Bowl and the 1980 Cotton Bowl. As a defensive coordinator at Rice, Duke and Nebraska he built stingy, hard-hitting defenses. At NDS his championship teams featured a run-first ball control pro style offense and a disciplined 4-3 defense.

An old-school Midwest guy to the core, Bohl told the crowd at the press conference he wanted his players to be “Cowboy tough.”

He and staff set out immediately to instill the toughness. While still wrapping up their third title at North Dakota they revamped  the strength and conditioning program. The new routine was a blitz of football hell: running, intense, fast-paced sets of rapid fire weight lifting, explosive leaps onto plyoboxes, medicine ball tosses, 25 at a time in quick succession. Inside the Cowboys indoor practice facility players were heaving. Wide receiver Dominic Rufran told Lindsay Schnell of si.com, “I’m pretty sure that on our first day of workouts, at least half the team threw up. It was definitely a shock to us. They say this is going to be one of the hardest springs of football that we’ve ever had.” All this at an altitude of 7,215 feet, where oxygen is harder to come by.

Rufran, named to the Biletnikof Watch List this summer, is the leading returning receiver on the team and one of its established stars. Last year he grabbed 75 passes for 960 yards and eight touchdowns.

The rebuilding effort received a blow in January when Smith declared for the NFL draft. In fall camp Bohn and his staff will conduct a wide-open quarterback competition among four candidates, while the offense is likely to be built around junior running back Shaun Wick, 5-10, 212, who had 979 yards and 9 TDs a year ago.

Bohn’s first defense will feature a couple of hard-hitting linebackers, Jordan Stanton and Mark Nezocha, who combined for 235 tackles last season. Defensive end Eddie Yarbrough  earned first team All-Mountain West Honors a year ago. Last season he ranged for 89 tackles, tops among MWC defensive linemen, with 6.5 sacks and 12 tackles for loss.

In their first season of Cowboy toughness the Wyoming gridders face two Top Ten teams in the first month, traveling to Autzen Stadium September 13th and then to East Lansing to face Michigan State two weeks later. It’s a demanding beginning to a new era, and they’re giving up a lot in talent and depth.

The players have growing confidence, though, about their identity and purpose. After one grueling session this summer freshman running back Nico Evans tweeted out, “I can bet money no one’s workin as hard as us.”

In 2017 the Ducks are scheduled for a trip to War Memorial Stadium, the highest in Division One, more than third of a mile higher than the Denver Bronco’s old home, Mile High Stadium. Great coaches infuse their teams with an attitude and a philosophy and a way of competing. By then, it could be a much different game.

Dale Newton

About Dale Newton

The Ducks Stops Here is a site for opinions, commentary and analysis on Duck football. I've written it since 2010. Reader contributions are welcome and can be submitted at duckstopshere@yahoo.com