A pair of defensive scores on a fumble return for a touchdown and a 48-yard interception return for a TD and two long scoring drives by the offense highlighted the first major scrimmage of fall camp for the Wyoming Cowboys on Saturday.
After the Cowboy defense forced three consecutive punts by the offense to start the scrimmage, the offense scored its first touchdown on its fourth possession of the day. The No. 2 offense led by sophomore quarterback Nick Smith drove 57 yards in five plays capped off by a 12-yard pass from Smith to senior fullback Jordan Ellis for the touchdown. True freshman place-kicker Cooper Rothe followed up the TD by making his first of four consecutive point-after-touchdowns on the day. The big play on the drive came from sophomore running back Nico Evans, who broke a 40-yard run on a second and 19 to set up the TD pass from Smith to Ellis.
On the first play of the next possession, senior linebacker D.J. May picked up a fumble and ran it in 12 yards for the first of two touchdowns scored by the defense on Saturday.
Junior quarterback Josh Allen drove the No. 1 offense 36 yards on eight plays on its next possession, before the defense forced an incomplete pass on a fourth down and two from the defense’s 37-yard line.
Just three plays later, junior-college transfer cornerback Rico Gafford would intercept a pass from Smith and return it 48 yards for the defense’s second touchdown.
After the scrimmage, Wyoming head coach Craig Bohl met with media and one of the first questions he was asked was about the performance of the Cowboy defense.
“I think we’re more athletic on defense,” said Bohl. “We scored twice on defense. D.J. May picked up a fumble and took it into the end zone and Rico Gafford had a really nice pick. While you get concerned because they are turnovers offensively, what it does show us is that we have more speed on defense, which we were really lacking last year. I was encouraged about that.
“Rico was a 100-meter champion in Iowa in high school. He can really run, and it is good to have him out there. I think we are starting to upgrade our speed across the board now.
“Other things defensively, I think Carl Granderson has some really exceptional ability to rush the passer. Another young guy who made a nice pick was Alijah Halliburton.”
Halliburton’s interception came against freshman quarterback Nick Szpor.
The longest offensive drive for the Cowboys was a six-play, 99-yard drive that featured a 59-yard run by redshirt freshman wide receiver Austin Conway on a fly sweep that put the ball at the defense’s 19-yard line. On the play following Conway’s explosive run, Allen connected with sophomore wide receiver James Price for a 19-yard touchdown pass.
The final offensive touchdown of the day would come on a one-yard run by redshirt freshman running back Milo Hall on a goal-line series. On the final series of the scrimmage that featured many freshmen on offense and defense, true freshman quarterback Chandler Garrett would lead the Pokes on a six-play, 27-yard drive that would result in Rothe making a 32-yard field goal on his only field-goal attempt of the day to end the scrimmage. Garrett had rushes of nine and six yards on the drive and completed a nine-yard pass to fellow true freshman wide receiver Parker Dumas.
Saturday’s scrimmage consisted of 60 plays from scrimmage -- 30 rushing plays and 30 pass plays -- plus another 10+ plays on special teams for a little over 70 total plays.
After his comments on the strong performance of the Cowboy defense, Bohl also commented on the positives he saw from the offense in his team’s first scrimmage.
“Offensively, I think we’re going to have the ability to stay on the field better on third down,” said Bohl. “I thought Josh (Allen) made some nice throws today, and along with that I like his ability to move. He runs under 4.7, which for a guy who is 6’5” is good. He is still a little bit green. There was one throw in the red zone that should have been picked that wasn’t, and so hopefully he will learn from that.
“We had Brian Hill limited in his action today. He did have a couple touches. We wanted to at least get him in there for some live contact and get him somewhat game ready, but we also wanted to take a look at some of our younger backs.”
On special teams, the Cowboys incorporated all phases of the kicking game in Saturday’s scrimmage, including kick off coverage, kick returns, punting, punt returns, PATs and field goals.
“The kicking game is improved,” said Bohl. “Cooper (Rothe) hit a 32-yard field goal at the end, and most of his kickoffs were deep into the end zone. I was well pleased with his kickoffs. He may have miss hit one, but the other ones were well hit.
“Last year, Ethan Wood, our punter, handled the kickoff duties, but it is tough to double up on two really different skill sets. For Ethan to be able to focus specifically on punting this year, I think it is going to allow him to be a better punter
“We were pleased with Cooper’s kicking performance in all facets today. He hit all of his extra points, made a nice field-goal, had good trajectory on the ball and the ball is coming off the ground fast.
“And I do think we found a good football player in Austin Conway, who did some exceptional things today. He had a long run, and had a really nice punt return. He may well end up being our punt returner.”
Bohl did joke with media when mentioning Conway’s performance that he wanted to give credit to his good friend and former Cowboy head basketball coach Larry Shyatt for originally bringing Conway to campus on a basketball scholarship.
Allen would end the day 10 of 17 passing (58.8 percent) for 105 yards and two touchdowns. His other touchdown pass would come during a red zone period when he completed a five-yard TD strike to true freshman wide receiver John Okwoli. Smith completed 5 of 10 passes (50.0 percent) for 46 yards, one TD and one interception.
Evans led all rushers with 63 yards on eight carries. Conway was second with his one carry for 59 yards, and Hall had 29 yards on seven carries, including his one-yard TD run. Hill and redshirt senior Shaun Wick both saw limited action, carrying the ball just two and three times, respectively.
Four Cowboys tied for the team lead in receptions, including: sophomore Price (2 receptions for 33 yards and 1 TD), senior Justin Martin (2 catches for 26 yards), sophomore Joseph Parker (2 receptions for 10 yards) and sophomore tight end Josh Harshman (2 catches for 9 yards).
Gafford and Granderson were two of the five Cowboys with four tackles to lead the defense. They were joined by sophomore strong safety Marcus Epps, junior free safety Jalen Ortiz and senior middle linebacker Lucas Wacha.
Bohl was also asked if he and his staff had begun to formulate their depth chart, to which the head coach responded, “We will be able to formalize that after another week. Some things are starting to come into focus, but we won’t announce our first depth chart for awhile. We are starting to see from the practice repetitions what our players are capable of.
“I would say for the first scrimmage I thought there were some things we were a little sloppy on. We had a jump on a false start and a hold, and those things have to be cleaned up before our first game. Other than that though, I thought our guys played pretty clean today.”
One area that the head coach has mentioned during fall camp as being an area his team needs to improve upon is forcing turnovers. After the scrimmage, he was asked what he thought were the keys to his defense forcing three turnovers (two interceptions and one fumble) on Saturday.
“That is usually an indication of players playing with more confidence, so they’re more aggressive and then also an indication of more athleticism,” said Bohl. “We’re not a finished product yet, but we’re certainly making progress. I thought our tackling was better. There was one run where I saw some missed tackles, but that (tackling) is improved. Some of that comes from athleticism, fundamentally being sound and being in the right positions, and then hustling and pursuing to the football. When you have more guys around the football it is easier to tackle someone.”
On the other side of the turnover issue, he was specifically asked how he thought sophomore quarterback Allen was performing in terms of protecting the football.
“Josh (Allen) has a great deal of confidence, which is good,” said Bohl. “I think he’s going to have to recognize that at the level of competition we will be playing at, there will be a lot of players ball-hawking the ball. He needs to continue to listen to Coach (Brent) Vigen. I don’t see as much of the gunslinger in him (Allen). We are reeling that back. The thing is though, you don’t want a quarterback to be timid. That guy has got to have confidence and we’re pleased with that about Josh.”
Overall Bohl was upbeat about his team’s performance on Saturday.
“We’re encouraged at this point of fall camp,” said Bohl. “We have more pieces in place. You’re going to see fewer true freshmen having to play this year -- still a lot of sophomores out there though. But we are encouraged. I really like the attitude of the guys. They’re more focused. We haven’t had any distractions. That is another sign of more maturity and more guys getting bought in. We’re two weeks out (from our first game). I know to our players that might seem like an eternity. I can tell you as a coach, it is right around the corner.”
A few key Cowboys sat out Saturday’s scrimmage with muscle pulls. Those Cowboys sitting out Saturday’s practice included: senior wide receivers Tanner Gentry and Jake Maulhardt and sophomore free safety Andrew Wingard.
Following Saturday morning’s scrimmage, the Pokes were scheduled to return to the practice field Saturday afternoon for a lighter practice.
Fans interested in purchasing tickets to 2016 Wyoming Cowboy Football games may: go online at www.GoWyo.com/tickets, email firstname.lastname@example.org, call the UW Athletics Ticket Office at (307) 766-7220; or stop by the ticket office on the west side of UW’s Arena-Auditorium.
2016 University of Wyoming Football Fall Practice Schedule
(Times of Practices are Tentative)
Saturday, Aug. 20 10:30 a.m. (Closed Scrimmage, Practice #15)
4:45 p.m. (Practice #16)
Monday, Aug. 22 9:00 a.m. (Practice #17)
Tuesday, Aug. 23 9:30 a.m. (Practice #18)
3:50 p.m. (Practice #19)
Wednesday, Aug. 24 10:00 a.m. (Practice #20)
Thursday, Aug. 25 9:20 a.m. (Practice #21)
4:00 p.m. (Practice #22)
Friday, Aug. 26 9:30 a.m. (Practice #23)
Saturday, Aug. 27 10:30 a.m. (Closed Scrimmage, Practice #24)
Monday, Aug. 29 First Weekly Press Conference at Noon in Rochelle Athletics Center WAR Room
(see complete stats from Saturday’s scrimmage attached)