Colby Kirkegaard would just as soon forget his only start at quarterback for the Wyoming football team.
It was two years ago and he was ill-equipped for the job. His FBS Cowboys struggled mightily and ended up losing at home to an FCS opponent, Cal Poly.
Fast forward to this week. By staying his course even when things didn’t look so good, Kirkegaard has been rewarded handsomely. The redshirt senior has been tapped by first-year coach Craig Bohl to start against Montana on Saturday at 2 p.m. in Laramie, Wyoming.
Kirkegaard is the X Factor in the Cowboys’ opener. If he performs well against the underdog Grizzlies, Wyoming will likely win and may even win handily. If the 6-foot-3 Phoenix native struggles, UM may pull out its first victory over Wyoming in 14 tries.
The fact Kirkegaard is even on the Cowboys’ roster is a tribute to his blind faith. After opting to redshirt in 2013, he thought about transferring to make the most of his final year of eligibility. It made sense because Wyoming’s top two quarterbacks, Brett Smith and Jason Thompson, were expected to return in 2014.
Then Smith opted to leave a year early to pursue a pro career (he’s on the Toronto Argos practice roster) and Thompson transferred to Utah.
“I’ve definitely had my ups and downs here at Wyoming, but it’s great to see it out,” the QB told the Missoulian. “It’s a really good feeling. I knew this is where I wanted to be and this is the direction I wanted to go.
“I haven’t accomplished anything yet, but it’s awesome to be in position for this opportunity.”
Kirkegaard’s numbers were pedestrian in his only Division I start on Sept. 15, 2012. Operating out of a spread formation, he completed 15 of 23 passes for 123 yards with one interception in a 24-22 loss.
It was a far cry from his productive days at Phoenix Community College in 2010 when he threw for 1,695 yards in a pro-style scheme.
In fairness to the senior, the circumstances surrounding his only Cowboy start were tough. He was bumped up to No. 1 when starter Brett Smith suffered an injury. The week leading up to the Cal Poly game marked the first all season that he worked with the No. 1 unit and then-head coach Dave Christensen whittled the playbook down to the basics.
Maybe the only good thing about the debacle, at least from Wyoming’s perspective, is that Montana has little game film on Kirkegaard.
“He hasn’t played very much, but I know Coach feels real comfortable with him,” Montana skipper Mick Delaney said, referring to Wyoming first-year head coach Craig Bohl.
“I know some of the comments that have come out of Laramie are that he’s a guy that will manage the game very well for them. I don’t know that he’s an All-American by any stretch, but their philosophy is he doesn’t have to win the game by himself but he certainly won’t lose it. He’s that type of guy that won’t make a lot of mistakes.”
With a proven playmaker at wide receiver in senior Dominic Rufran and two dynamic running backs in Shaun Wick and D.J. May, Kirkegaard is confident the Cowboys will score points. The goals for Montana’s veteran defensive line are to first stop Wyoming’s power run game, then breach a relatively young offensive line and rattle the Pokes’ untested signal caller.
“We feel very comfortable with our rotation and our depth,” Montana defensive tackle Tonga Takai said. “We believe that (the D-line) is the heart of this defense, especially for this game because they run power football, so everything starts in the trenches.”
Bohl has been pleased with Kirkegaard’s work ethic and progress in his pro-style offense. But you get the feeling the coach is not going to put too much of a load on his quarterback.
“He’s made some errors but those errors have quickly been corrected,” Bohl said. “Colby has done a good job managing our offense.
“It’s quite a departure from the (spread) offense Wyoming had before. The quarterback in this offense sets protections in and out of run plays and manages the clock, so there’s a lot of components that are challenging. Not only that, the guy has to be able to throw the ball.”
The Griz defense may find comfort in knowing the 205-pound Kirkegaard is a pocket passer not likely to break contain. That may mean a big day for Montana defensive ends Zack Wagenmann and Tyrone Holmes.
“We’ve watched an awful lot of tape on the Griz from last year and Zack Wagenmann is an outstanding defensive end,” Bohl said. “He plays with a great motor. Not only he but the other guys up there. They’re going to pose a big challenge for us.”
You get the feeling Kirkegaard’s No. 1 priority is taking care of the football. That’s an area where Montana did a much better job than Wyoming last season. The Cowboys turned the ball over 24 times to the Grizzlies’ 14.
“They won 10 games last year and I think that’s partially attributed to their turnovers,” Kirkegaard said of Montana and its 32 takeaways in 2013. “We have to focus on not turning the ball over. They’ve got that great defensive line so we’ve got to do everything we can to be ready for it.”
Kirkegaard believes Wyoming’s pro-style attack suits his skill set better that last year’s spread, in part because he will set up under center. Plus there’s a lot of carryover from the days he played in the pro-style in junior college.
“Similar reads, similar plays ...,” he said. “But I have had to dust off the cobwebs with my drop steps.”
As a unit, Kirkegaard believes his offense has handled the switch in schemes “really well.” Some of the credit goes to Bohl, who commanded respect from the day he arrived in Laramie with his three FCS championships at North Dakota State.
“He’s a great coach, great guy, and he knows how to win games,” Kirkegaard said. “With his track record, it’s easier to buy in with that type of resume.
“He knows what he wants and the direction he wants to go. He’s a great leader and motivator. It’s been a good change for our program and we’re all really excited to go out and play Saturday. I’m sure a lot of fans out there are eager to see what we’ve got. We’re excited to show them what we have.”