Steve Sarkisian and the Texas Longhorns are riding high after a huge win against Nick Saban and the Alabama Crimson Tide, a win that skyrocketed them to No. 4 in the national AP poll. This week, Sarkisian and the Longhorns need to consolidate that momentum against a surging 2-0 Wyoming Cowboys team at 7 p.m. Saturday at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium on Longhorn Network.
“We’ve got a really tough opponent that challenges you in a lot of ways,” Sarkisian said on Monday. “Coach Bohl is a tremendous coach, he’s got a really veteran team. A lot of fourth, fifth, and sixth-year seniors on their team — a hard-nosed team that makes things challenging for you because they execute really well on both sides of the ball, as well as on special teams.”
The Cowboys return a total of 17 starters this year — 10 on defense, five on offense, and both kickers. This is a team that is riding high after starting 2-0, including a signature season-opening 35-33 double-overtime win against the Texas Tech Red Raiders. With so much returning continuity on defense, and a run-heavy offense for the Cowboys, Sarkisian and the Longhorns need to stay focused and avoid what could be a trap game.
The Cowboys defense is easily the strongest aspect of their football team this year, primarily their defensive front. With 10 returning starters that held Texas Tech to only a field goal in the final three quarters of their Week One matchup, the Wyoming defense is what seems to carry the team through tough matchups. However, the overall points per game stats are still somewhat skewed as they allowed 17 points to Portland State in the final three quarters of last week’s game.
The Pokes run a fairly standard 4-3 defense that highlights their defensive line and pass rushers. With a relatively weak secondary, the Cowboys will have to rely on their linebacker core and defensive line if they have any chance of limiting this high powered Longhorns offense.
When asked about the Texas defense in this week’s press conference, Wyoming head coach Craig Bohl laughed and said, “Yeah, we’ve been scratching our heads with that.”
“This is the best Texas football team I’ve seen,” Bohl said. “I think they’re as good as what’s been advertised — I think coach Sarkisian’s done a great job meshing in with the fabric of the University of Texas.”
High praise from a head coach that doesn’t seem too confident in his upcoming matchup against the fourth-ranked team in the country.
Arguably their best defensive player is their returning captain, junior linebacker Easton Gibbs. The 6’2, 235-pound linebacker controls the middle of the field for the Cowboys and is the leader of the defense. Last year, Gibbs recorded 121 tackles, nine tackles for loss, three sacks, and one forced fumble. Returning for a second year as captain of the defense, Gibbs acts as one of the Poke’s primary pass rushers. So far in 2023, Gibbs has totaled 10 tackles in his first two games and remains a steady force for this Cowboys defense.
The defensive line is the focal point of this defense, led by the talented trio of junior defensive tackle Jordan Bertagnole, junior defensive end Devonte Harris, and fifth-year senior nose tackle Cole Godbout. Godbout led the Cowboys defense last week against the Vikings with six total tackles, 1.5 sacks, and 2.5 tackles for loss. The fifth-year tackle will likely be the best option for the Cowboys if they have any hopes of disrupting the Longhorns offensive line.
“We’ve got to be able to take the quarterback out of his comfort zone, to try and put some pressure on him,” Bohl said. “We’ve got to get (Quinn) Ewers off his spot and make him go to some place he doesn’t want to go. Daunting task, though.”
Daunting task indeed, especially considering the Texas offensive line led by Kelvin Banks and Christian Jones didn’t allow a single sack against Saban’s defense last week.
Overall, the secondary seems to be the weak spot for this Wyoming team after allowing 388 yards and three touchdowns to Texas Tech’s Tyler Shough and 254 yards and a touchdown against Portland State’s Dante Chachere. The Cowboys were able to chalk up an interception against both teams by jumping passes against the two quarterbacks.
Their starting safety Wyatt Ekeler is not very quick and only 5’11. Texas Tech was able to attack Ekler in the red zone, throwing a high 50-50 ball to Jayden York for their second touchdown of the game. Sarkisian should be able to take advantage of the Wyoming secondary in the same way with tall pass catcher like 6’4 wide receiver AD Mitchell or 6’4 tight end JT Sanders.
With these high passing totals it seems that the offensive game plan for the past two matchups was to attack Wyoming defensive coordinator Jay Sawvel’s unit through the air. With all of the talent that Sarkisian has on this Longhorns offense, and the reignited deep ball accuracy from Quinn Ewers, look for Texas to do the same.
This Wyoming offense is extremely run-heavy and they do not try to hide it. The Cowboys have only attempted 50 passes in their first two weeks compared to 83 rushing attempts. Offensive coordinator Tim Polasek runs an attack littered with zone reads, play action, and RPOs.
The offense is led by a sixth-year graduate transfer from Utah State in quarterback Andrew Peasley, who is only three yards shy of being the team’s leading rusher with 111 total rushing yards through his first two games. The dual-threat quarterback totaled 68 yards on the ground against Texas Tech on 15 carries, and 43 yards on six carries against Portland State. In Week Two, Peasley only threw the ball 16 times for 11 receptions and 201 yards. However, three of their four touchdowns in that game were through the air.
Peasley is quick and was able to outrun the fast Texas Tech linebackers on several occasions. However, it seemed that most of his runs were not designed, but instead either due to coverage downfield or broken protections up front. Peasley seems eager to leave the pocket and use his legs as the offensive line broke down, so expect him to be running for his life away from the talented Longhorn pass rush led by Byron Murphy and T’Vondre Sweat.
The offensive line is young and not very big. They are starting two redshirt sophomores on the right side in guard Jack Walsh (6’3, 314) and tackle Caden Barnett (6’5, 310). They are also starting redshirt freshmen Wes King (6’1, 301) at left guard. The only veterans on this offensive line are their sixth-year senior left tackle Frank Crum (6’7, 315) and redshirt junior Nofoafia Tulafono (6’2, 320) at center.
With an average weight of 312 pounds, this Longhorn defensive front which totaled five sacks against the largest offensive line in college football last week should have no problems getting to the quarterback. For reference, the average weight of the Texas offensive line is 324 pounds.
The Wyoming offense is centered around the rushing attack, where the team totaled 33 more rushing attempts than passing attempts in their first two games. Their running back core has no clear bell-cow back, especially with their exciting new transfer from Northern Illinois Harrison Waylee still questionable for Week Three.
Throughout the first two weeks, the backfield was a steady rotation of redshirt sophomore running backs D.Q James and Sam Scott, and junior Jamari Farrell, a transfer from Saddleback College. Scott is the short-yardage back with the bigger frame at 6’2, 240 pounds, while James is the smaller back at 5’7, 170 pounds. Both backs can catch passes out of the backfield with five combined receptions against the Red Raiders, but none against the Vikings.
The three backs totaled 221 yards in the last two games, 100 against Texas Tech and 121 against Portland State. However, if Waylee is cleared for this matchup against the Longhorns, look for him to shoulder most of the carries as coach Bohl is certainly excited about him.
“We anticipate that he’ll be full speed and we’ll determine where he’s going to sit on the depth chart by how practice is going, by how he’s moving,” Bohl said. “But I would anticipate him playing a pretty significant role in this game.”
At Northern Illinois, Wylee had a total of 1,929 rushing yards and eight 100-yard rushing games. The dynamic back would add a much-needed dimension to this Wyoming offense that relies so heavily on their run game
With only 16 passing attempts and 39 rushing attempts in Week Two, the Cowboys seem to focus their entire offense around Scott, James, and their quarterback Peasley to move the ball with their legs. However, that isn’t to say they don’t have some weapons on the outside as well.
The most veteran squad on this entire offense is easily the wide receiving corps with two graduates and two transfer seniors. Wyoming doesn’t use them much, but when they do it is on big shots downfield. Ayir Asante, senior transfer from Holy Cross, is their deep threat option mostly lined up at the Z position. Asante brought in two receptions for two touchdowns, including a 64-yard bomb against Portland State.
Their second-leading receiver is actually redshirt sophomore tight end John Michael Gyllenborg, who led the team in receptions against Texas Tech with five catches for 37 yard and a touchdown. In total, the entire offense only has 19 receptions on the year, but look for Wyoming to try and air it out if and when this Texas defensive front is able to halt their rushing attack.
The special teams unit returned both kickers this year and their place kicker has a boot. Arguably the most impressive play at their position for the Cowboys against Red Raiders was the 56-yard field goal to open the second quarter by junior John Hoyland. Wide receivers Caleb Cooley and Wyatt Wieland are the team’s punt and kick returners respectively. So far Wieland has yet to return a kickoff this season and Cooley only has one return for three yards, so nothing too explosive from the return unit as of now.
Overall, the two major threats that this Wyoming team pose are their rushing attack and their defensive line. The goal for Texas on defense will be to contain the dual-threat quarterback Peasley and limit the rushing attack from running backs Scott, James, and possibly Waylee. This talented defensive front for the Longhorns should have no issues dominating the line of scrimmage and living in the Wyoming backfield. After the impressive performance that this Texas team showed against Bama with five sacks in Week Two, the defense should have no issues against this much younger and smaller offensive line.
On offense the key to victory also lies in the trenches. Bohl already said their game plan on defense will be to get Ewers off his spot and make him uncomfortable. This offensive line had no issues protecting the quarterback last week, and will look to do the same against the Cowboys — give Ewers time to set up in the pocket, and take advantage of the Wyoming secondary with another week to put the deep-ball doubts to bed.
The most impressive characteristic of this Wyoming team is their ability to stay focused despite being down by multiple scores. Despite Texas Tech being able to rack up a quick 17-0 start against them in Week One, the offense and defense were able to come back and steal the game, a testament to their veteran leadership. Texas should have no issues scoring against this team, however, they need to keep their foot on the gas throughout all four quarters to keep the Cowboys out of the game.
Texas is favored by 28.5 points, according to DraftKings.
Odds/lines subject to change. T&Cs apply. See draftkings.com/sportsbook for details.