The new front man for Wyoming football was dressed to kill at his weekly press conference on Monday afternoon.
Wearing a brown plaid sport coat with a spiffy tie and crisp white collar, Craig Bohl called his makeover of the Cowboys an “ongoing process.” That’s a nice way of saying Wyoming has looked shabby the last two years in posting a combined record of 9-15.
Bohl is unaccustomed to losing. He guided North Dakota State to FCS titles the past three seasons and left NDSU on a 24-game win streak. Over the past four years the Bison went 4-0 against FBS foes, including a 24-21 win at Kansas State in 2013.
Everything is new now for the Cowboys’ bald-headed skipper. But don’t think for a second he plans on losing in his debut Saturday against an FCS team – even one as highly-touted as fifth-ranked Montana.
“Make no mistake, you don’t get a second chance to make a first impression,” said the coach, whose FBS program faces the upset-minded Griz at 2 p.m. in Laramie, Wyoming.
“...When you’re in a bordering state like this, throw all the numerals out. They’ve got a great football program and we’ve got a storied past. I think it’s going to be an excellent game and we’re excited about playing it.”
Coming off a 10-3 season, Montana has reason to be cautiously optimistic. The Griz have a third-year starter at quarterback in Jordan Johnson. The Cowboys have a perennial backup at the controls in fifth-year senior Colby Kirkegaard, whose only start produced a home loss to Cal Poly in 2012.
Still, the Cowboys have Bohl. He knows a thing or two about stopping good quarterbacks as the former defensive coordinator at perennial powerhouse Nebraska.
“I wouldn’t anticipate them doing anything differently than when they won three national championships,” UM coach Mick Delaney said, referring to Bohl’s FCS career. “That is to be a very, very disciplined, hard-nosed football team that’s going to play from start to finish.
“I think they have the right guy there to bring that program back to some really good things. We’re looking forward to a real, real challenge but our guys are excited about it.”
Both coaches believe it’s imperative to stop the run, which is like saying it’s important to have gas in your car when you back out of the driveway. Wyoming will take an FBS swagger into the game, confident it can bully the lower-level Griz on both sides up front.
“They’ve got a stable of running backs that will pose a great challenge and a wide-open passing attack,” Bohl said of the Grizzlies. “It’s going to be important that we establish the line of scrimmage, do everything we can to make the Griz one-dimensional. That’s going to be a challenge.”
Montana struggled at times to run the football against its own defense in preseason camp. But senior running back and co-captain Jordan Canada has seen signs of life lately.
“I’m not going to lie, the first couple padded practices in camp were a little rough, especially when we have such a dominant D-line,” he said. “It was definitely a learning experience for our line.
“It progressed as camp went on and I’m actually excited to see what they’re going to do come Saturday. We’ve got a lot of potential up front. The runs got there. I mean, a couple scrimmages we had some running.”
Montana will be fighting an uphill battle against a hostile crowd and history. War Memorial Stadium, which has a listed capacity of 29,181, will be close to full. Since the inception of the Mountain West Conference in 1999, the Cowboys are 9-0 in home openers.
When you add the facts Montana is 0-13 all-time against Wyoming and the game is being played at 7,220 feet, it seems like an awful lot for the Griz to overcome.
Yet if Montana can get its ground attack going against a Wyoming defense that ranked ninth in the Mountain West against the run last season, the Griz can take the crowd out of the game and set up their passing game.
“In football anymore you have to have explosives,” Delaney said. “We’ve got to have big plays. Let’s face it, we’re a big-play team.
“We’ve got running backs, especially Jordan (Canada) and Travon (Van), who can create a big play at the drop of a hat. We’ll keep pounding away and establish the run. You break one tackle and they’re off. Then obviously our vertical passing game has always been pretty good.”
Despite all the yardage the Cowboys surrendered on the ground last season, Bohl likes his personnel on the defensive front. It all starts with defensive ends Eddie Yarbrough, who had a team-high 12 tackles for loss in 2013, and senior Sonny Puletasi, who had 10.
“Eddie Yarbrough played really well last year, (senior) Patrick Mertens has developed into a great defensive tackle ...,” Bohl said. “To make our defense go, you’ve got to have a good push.”
Delaney had some good and bad news Tuesday regarding offensive personnel. Preseason all-Big Sky Conference wide receiver Ellis Henderson, unable to scrimmage since last winter because of a bacterial infection, may play “a little” on Saturday. The bad news is junior Chase Naccarato, who had a great camp working as a slot receiver, probably won’t see the field this week because of an ankle injury.
Quick kicks: Wyoming is reportedly paying UM $400,000 to play in Laramie. The Griz were given 2,000 tickets to sell but turned back 1,000, according to the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle newspaper. That means 2,400 tickets were still available as of Tuesday afternoon ... Wyoming went 5-7 using a spread offense last season ... The game can be seen on Direct TV channels 687 (ROOT Sports Northwest) and 683 (ROOT Sports Rocky Mountain) and Dish channels 426 (ROOT Sports Northwest) and 414 ROOT Sports Rocky Mountain). For cable channels check local listings ... The Mountain West Network will simulcast the ROOT production. The live stream will be available for free for viewers outside the ROOT footprint at http://www.themw.com/#!/