The Cowboys knew that it would be a learning experience for the offense this season, taking caution not to overload redshirt freshman quarterback Tyler Vander Waal.
But with the defense they returned, there was every reason to feel that the Cowboys would be able to enjoy success and allow for a maturing of an offense in which the marquee running back is senior Nico Evans, who in three previous season was primarily a blocking back and had carried only 36 times for 108 yards in the 37 games in which he has played.
Evans has opened eyes. He missed the bulk of the second half of the Washington State game, and all of the games at Missouri and against Wofford because of bruised ribs, but in 2 ½ games of playing time he has rushed for 420 yards.
The defense, however, has left heads shaking.
Dominated with veterans, including pre-season All MW conference selections tackle Youhanna Ghaifan, end Carl Granderson and free safety Andrew Wingard, included four seniors, five juniors, and one redshirt freshman and sophomore, the defense has been a puzzle.
It was underscored in Saturday’s loss to Boise State.
“We couldn't get off the field on third down and then there was a lot of things that we did ourselves that helped them convert on third down and that killed us,” said Wilson. “We need to make sure that we can clean those things up and we still got a lot of season left. We're trying to stay positive right now. We can't let these guys beat us twice.”
The Broncos faced a third-down situation 20 times. They converted on 11 of them and picked up a first down on a 12th when middle linebacker Logan Wilson, one of the team captains, was called for a personal foul, taunting receiver Shakir Khalil, who was held to a four-yard gain on a 3-and-11 on the first drive of the game.
It was one of three times Boise was able to gain a first down on third down during that drive, including Brett Rypien’s 13-yard touchdown pass to Alex Mattison, which capped the drive.
“I mean I screwed up on a taunting penalty and I take full responsibility for that,” said Wilson. “I won't let that happen again. I'll learn from that. There’re other things throughout the game that we can learn from and that's what we're going to do.
The offense had its challenges, too. The Cowboys had a combined 295 yards total offense – 81 rushing and 214 passing. And 147 of those yards came on two plays – the 75-yard touchdown run off tackle by Evans on the first play of the second half, and the 72-yard, Vander Wall to Price touchdown pass with 5:47 remaining in the game.
Vander Waal did complete 15 of 25 passes, for that one touchdown. He avoided interceptions, but he was sacked five times for a total of 53 yards.
n A 13-yard loss on 2nd-and-9 from the Boise 44, compounded by an intentional grounding penalty.
n A 9-yard loss on 2nd-and-1- from Wyoming’s own 38 in the final minute of the first half.
n A 6-yard loss on the final play of the first half that pushed the Cowboys from the Boise 49 to their own 45.
n A 9-yard loss on 3rd-and-4 from the Wyoming 44, which pushed the ball back to the Wyoming 30.
n And an 11-yard loss on 1st-and-10 with roughly nine minutes to play.
Oh, and Rypien completed 28-of-42 passes for 342 yards, although he was sacked twice,
“I mean, you're looking at whether we've got to generate some more pass rush,” said Cowboys coach Craig Bohl. “That certainly needs to come about. And certainly, we got hit with a couple deep balls tonight and you know, we had a really difficult time getting off the field on third down.”
It is not a scenario that the Cowboys envisioned coming into a season with such a proven defense – one that led the nation in turnover margin a year ago.
It is, however, has the season has unraveled, and it has become an area of concern.