Friday, September 18, 2009

Cowboys prepare and compare for CU

Richard Anderson photo
Wyoming cornerback Tashaun Gipson, left, and linebacker Weston Johnson upend a Texas receiver last week.

By Richard Anderson

There have obvious differences in the first three Wyoming opponents this season.

Weber State is a very good FCS team, but not even close to the level of Texas, rated second in the country and easily one of the top collegiate football programs in the country.

Then there is Colorado, the Cowboys opponent Saturday (1:30 p.m. in Boulder). A Big 12 program like the Longhorns, but not one that is up there with the Longhorns in quality these days.

Do the Cowboys prepare for the Buffaloes any different than how they prepared for Texas or even for Weber State?

There's not one difference.

“We prepare the same way. There aren’t any chances in how we prepare each and every week,” Wyoming head coach Dave Christensen said.

Simple as that.

Everything looks towards a pretty evenly matched game with the Buffs for the Cowboys. After the 23-17 loss to CSU in the season opener, the Buffs traveled to Toledo and were crushed by the Rockets 54-38.

“They are a young defense and a young team overall,“ Christensen said of CU. “They’ve had some issues; they have given over 500 yards of offense in both games. I didn’t know if it is one area. They have made some mistakes. Like all of us, we haven’t played as well as we would like to and you want to get better each week and see improvement. I’m sure that is what they are looking for this week, which is what we are looking for.”

Colorado has been led offensively by quarterback Cody Hawkins. The son of head coach Dan Hawkins, he has completed 54 of 104 passes (51.9) for 578 yards, five touchdowns and our interceptions.

CU’s ground game has been led by sophomore tailback Darrell Scott, who has rushed for 86 yards on 13 carries.

The Buffs’ leading receiver is junior Scotty McKnight, who has caught 15 balls for 150 yards. He has also caught a pair of touchdown passes. Sophomore wide receiver Jason Espinoza has also gone over 100 yards receiving by catching 10 passes for 118 yards, with one touchdown.

The CU defense has been led by senior linebacker Jeff Smart, who was a 2008 second team All-Big 12 selection by the Associated Press. This season, Smart has made 22 tackles, along with one sack and one interception.

Christensen said it is early in the season, so it is hard to say how good of a team is or how bad a team is. “They got behind in games, which has forced them out of what they like to do, which is run the football, have a physical running game and try to pound it to wear you down some," Christensen said. “They’ve had to throw the ball more than we want to. It’s hard to give a real assessment of what their strengths and weaknesses are. I know they have good personnel and they have signed good recruiting classes each of the last two or three years. They have some athletic players.”

What about the Cowboys?

Christensen said they were far from flawless, but he saw some positives in last week’s 41-10 loss to Texas, particularly on special teams.

“Anytime you can stop a fake field goal, a fake punt, block a punt, score a touchdown, that gives you some positive things, especially against the No. 2 team the country,” he said.

With the block and one interception against Texas, the Cowboys have six interceptions defensively and have turned the ball over just twice.

“The turnover margin, we’re still in the top 10 in the country and we’ve had half as many penalties than our opponents. Those things are all positive,” he said.

Another positive on hanging onto the football is the two Wyoming quarterbacks -- junior Robert Benjamin and freshman Austyn Carta-Samuels -- have not turned the ball over. The two fumbles are by a freshman running back (Alvester Alexander) and a defensive player (Marcell Gipson) on a reverse on an offensive play.

“The first and foremost thing we ask is to protect the football," Christensen said. "A punt is better than an interception or turnover. At least we have a chance to put our defense, which is a strength, back out on the field. They’ve done a nice job of protecting the football. Neither one of our quarterbacks has had a turnover this year. Obviously, we want better production, but it is hard to base it off of playing Weber and the No. 2 team in the country.”

Christensen added that Wyoming’s attention to hanging onto the football and taking it away began the day he was hired.

“We coach it every single day in practice and that is starting to pay off for us,” he said.

Christensen said there is plenty to work on offensively for his team, although it was hard to evaluate the team’s progress against a team like Texas.

“I would not evaluate our offense or our program just based on how we played against the No. 2 team in the country,” Christensen said. “I don’t think our offense was as bad as it seemed and certainly we have a lot of room for improvement. We’re not that far away on a lot of plays and I think we’ll be much improved this week.”

If Texas was a benchmark game for the program, just how much improvement does first-year coach see from his team?

“I think we are further along than I thought we would be at this time,” Christensen said. “I think a lot of that has to do with the mental toughness of our football team. We’re competitive and I am pleased where we are at. I know from a competitive standpoint, we have made some great strides.”

At the same time, he’s not in favor of moral victories, and while most expected the Cowboys to be 1-1 after two games, Christensen did not.

“Honestly, it didn’t go as I expected. If I would have just expected to play well against Texas and lose the game, I probably wouldn’t have shown up,” he said. “I expect to win every time I go out. I told our team last week that if you don’t expect to win this football game, without penalty, you can have the week off. I have not looked any further down the rods than Colorado game. It is a crucial game for our program; it is a crucial game for our season. Each and every game that we play, our focus is on that game and that is the most important game of the season.”

The Cowboys open Mountain West Conference play on Sept. 26 when they host UNLV.

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