After an extended wait, Wyoming starts unique season with a unique trip to Nevada | National

LARAMIE — The realization set in for Chad Muma early this week.

“I think the moment kind of hit me (Monday) morning when we had our lifting groups and everyone was screaming, ‘It’s game week,’” Wyoming’s middle linebacker said. “That just hit me because it just seems like it’s been such a long time since we’ve had a game week. It’s in our foreseeable future coming up now.”

After an offseason different than anything the Cowboys have experienced, including the Mountain West postponing the fall football season amid the coronavirus pandemic only to reverse course on that decision last month, UW is finally on the brink of competition. Barring a COVID-19 outbreak requiring a last-minute cancellation, the Cowboys will play a game for the first time since its Arizona Bowl win 10 months ago when they travel to Nevada on Saturday (5 p.m., CBS Sports Network) to begin their conference-only season.

It’s a rare sense of normalcy for UW even if Saturday’s game will be far from it. Out of an abundance of caution, Nevada is not allowing any fans inside Mackay Stadium, which will make for a much different atmosphere than both teams are used to. At full capacity, the Wolf Pack’s stadium holds 30,000 people.

“It’s kind of like having a scrimmage that’s closed,” UW coach Craig Bohl said. “You have no one there, and certainly you can hear your opponents. I do think there’s going to be some interesting nuances because now the quarterback’s cadence is going to be heard by everybody and you’re going to hear opposing coaches yell across the field.”

It could also be advantageous for UW. Having to deal with the crowd noise inside another team’s venue normally comes with the territory of playing on the road, but with that out of the equation this week, communication on both sides of the ball should come easier for UW.

“I think it will be an advantage toward us just because we’ll be able to hear more of the offense and communicate on defense better,” Muma said.

But the Cowboys have far more to worry about than the decibel level inside the Wolf Pack’s stadium.

With the help of one of the Mountain West’s top passing attacks, the Wolf Pack won three of their final four games last season to earn their second straight bowl bid under fourth-year coach Jay Norvell. Quarterback Carson Strong is back for his second season at the controls of Nevada’s Air Raid offense after throwing for 11 touchdowns and seven interceptions in 10 games as a freshman last season. His 233.5 passing yards per game are the second-most among the conference’s returning signal callers.

Strong has one of the Mountain West’s top receiving duos at his disposal in Elijah Cooks and Romeo Doubs, who combined for 12 touchdown receptions a season ago. Throw in receiver-turned-tight end Cole Turner, a matchup problem with his 6-foot-6, 240-pound frame, and Nevada’s passing attack could present plenty of challenges for UW’s retooled defense.

The Cowboys held Nevada out of the end zone in last year’s 31-3 win in Laramie, but UW lost six starters off a defense that finished in the top 15 nationally in points and rushing yards allowed. Then five more defensive players, including projected starting defensive end and sack leader Solomon Byrd, opted out of this season because of medical concerns related to the pandemic. 

Senior end Garrett Crall, UW’s most experienced defensive lineman, also won’t play this week because of a foot injury, leaving the Cowboys without their two most established pass-rushers on a defense that also finished with the second-most sacks (31) in the Mountain West last season.

Strong had a quietly efficient game against UW last season, completing 65 percent of his throws (26 of 40) for 247 yards, though the Cowboys did bait him into an interception. Junior running back Toa Taua adds another element to the Wolf Pack’s offense, but UW’s primary chore under first-year defensive coordinator Jay Sawvel this week is trying to disrupt the timing of Nevada’s passing attack with its revamped front seven.

“We want to strive to do everything we can to take a quarterback out of his comfort zone,” Bohl said. “That means changing up coverages, that means putting people in different rush lanes, that means getting legal hits on him and getting some hurries.

“We’re going to be needing to put some pressure on that quarterback.”

Offensively, the Cowboys will see a different defensive scheme from Nevada under first-year coordinator Brian Ward, who’s ditching the 3-3-5 base defense the Wolf Pack ran previously for a four-man front. The Cowboys have some familiarity with Ward, who spent the 2010 season on staff with Bohl and some of UW’s current assistants when they were still at North Dakota State.

“We’re familiar with Brian and familiar with the general package he likes to run,” offensive coordinator Brent Vigen said. “But still, how is that going to look in the first game?”

The Cowboys have a healthy Sean Chambers back at quarterback to try to combat whatever Nevada throws at them. It will be Chambers’ first game action in nearly a full calendar year after the redshirt sophomore sustained a season-ending knee injury against the Wolf Pack last October.

UW has a plan for both Chambers and redshirt freshman Levi Williams to take snaps, and Xazavian Valladay, the Mountain West’s leading rusher a season ago, will once again be the Cowboys’ featured back. But UW will need its experienced offensive line to help keep the pocket clean and open up running lanes against the Wolf Pack’s defensive front, which features a disruptive force in the middle in junior defensive tackle Dom Peterson. No returning player in the Mountain West had more tackles for loss (15) or sacks (9) last season.

“They’re a really good defensive line,” senior guard Logan Harris said. “They’re pretty quick, and they move a lot. As we’ve seen from last year, a lot of teams aren’t going to play us straight up. That’s a risk they’re going to be willing to take.”

UW was picked in the Mountain West’s preseason media poll to finish second in the Mountain Division. Ditto for Nevada in the West Division. The Mountain West has done away with divisions for this season with its unbalanced schedule, but the high-profile start to a sideways season is here.

“It’s certainly a unique year in 2020. All kinds of challenges,” Bohl said. “The great news is the Cowboys are ready to play football, and I know Nevada is also.”

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