The other week we talked about Boise State’s descent from being a perennial contender that was threatening to crash the national championship party each season to being just another group of five champion on the outside looking in.
A big part of that transition resulted from joining a stronger G5 conference in the Mountain West which regularly features strong football programs with the resources to compete with Boise State. At the turn of the decade they were often thwarted by similarly resourced programs in the Pistol-based Nevada Wolfpack and the Gary Patterson TCU Horned Frogs. In 2016 they were taken down by Craig Bohl’s emerging Wyoming program, led by future NFL draft pick quarterback Josh Allen.
The Wyoming Cowboys have a very different approach to building a G5 program that can dominate at their own level and even challenge P5 programs then what Boise established long ago. Their approach is proving to be quite the challenge to the Boise method and resulted in a 30-28 upset win in Laramie in 2016.
The Boise approach to underdog dynasty
College football is still mostly dominated by the run game. While the NFL is now a passing league, the transition at the college level towards embracing the drop back passing game as the main engine of offense is currently ongoing and largely incomplete.
Building a drop back passing game is very difficult under the parameters of the college game since it requires tremendous chemistry and timing between the QB and his receivers, the QB and his pass protectors, and the offensive line themselves. It’s much easier to install nasty blitz packages at the college level than it is to learn how to pick them up consistently and get the ball out. Mike Leach’s Air Raid offense had various design tweaks to allow his teams to excel with a pass-first approach but it came at too high a cost to the run game.
Boise State likes to utilize the drop back passing game and have a few tricks for doing so but their main approach on offense is based on the running game and setting up their line to protect and their receivers to get open with play-action. They prefer to build out a running game with multiple tight end sets, angle blocking, and shorter scrappy OL of the sort they can regularly find and bring to Idaho.
Their defense employs a similar strategy, loading up on speedy and scrappy players and then utilizing a flexible 4-3/3-4 defense to shift numbers around and create advantages for them in attacking opponents that are shaped through rigorous game planning.
Here’s a look at the team they took into Laramie a year ago intending to keep the Cowboys at bay and win the MWC Mountain division, starting with the offense.
It’s a pretty standard Boise offense, featuring some walk-ons from the state of Idaho as well as some three-star players recruited nationally from normal hot spots like Texas, Florida, or more commonly for Boise from California. Their current left tackle Archie Lewis is shorter than usual and they normally have one NFL-sized guy who takes that spot, but he’s a great athlete that was bulked up with a greyshirt and then redshirt season.
As I detailed before, they loved to use their tight ends to help get double teams and attack the edges in the run game, to help in pass protection, and occasionally to go out and occupy defensive backs while Cedrick Wilson or Thomas Sperbeck worked to get open.
They were fairly undersized up front and had to use disruptive technician David Moa in the nose rather than at tackle where he’ll get to slide in 2017. The rest of their team is normally sized and a solid collection of athletes to boot. They’re really indistinguishable from your typical P5 defense save for the lack of any blue-chippers.
This looks more or less like you’d expect a roster from a football factory in Idaho with a national brand to look. They have the customary local walk on, mostly dudes from California around him, and then some guys from normal talent hotbeds like South Florida, Houston, and DFW. This is a popular approach nationally, but Boise is still on the cutting edge and more clever about it than most.
Wyoming’s “neanderball” approach
Craig Bohl’s approach to building contending programs is very different and actually rather unique in its directness. For starters, Wyoming’s approach on offense is defined by their power run game, which is classic, A-gap power.
That’s about as direct a challenge as you can give in the run game and it’s the defining quality of Bohl’s program. Many teams run this “gap” scheme as a man blocking play, meaning that the blockers are aiming for specific defenders. Wyoming runs it as a true gap scheme, they send their blockers to clear specific pathways. They don’t chase you if you choose to go somewhere and they don’t deviate from the plan if you manage to create a pileup inside. Their pulling guard looks to get downhill through the A-gap path that should be cleared by the down block from the play side guard and the running back is looking to get downhill through that same gap and to punish anyone that gets in the way.
This is why it took him three years to get the Cowboys at a level where they could actually go out on the field and play in this fashion.
Here’s the offensive depth chart they took into that game against Boise:
Whereas the Boise State defenders averaged 2.2 stars in the 247 composite rankings, the Wyoming offense that came downhill on them for over 200 rushing yards averaged 1.8 stars across their depth chart and lacked a single three-star rated recruit.
The Wyoming offense was also interestingly rather young with underclassmen at four OL positions and at QB.
We are arriving at an age of football where speed and skill has become so heavily valued that there may be some valuable football traits such as physical power and toughness that are starting to become undervalued by rankings. Boise recruits speed and skill on defense, Wyoming pushed them out of the way.
Now here’s a look at the Cowboy defense:
The Boise State offensive players averaged 2.6 stars from their 247 composite rankings while the Cowboy defenders averaged 1.7 stars.
The Broncos put up 487 yards of offense at 7.7 yards per play so they were hardly getting stuffed by Wyoming but they were done in by Wyoming holding the ball for 35:40, the Cowboys gaining two turnovers, and a 2-8 conversion rate on third down. The Cowboys sacked Rypien three times and were able to get pressure on him when Boise needed to make plays in the passing game.
Like the Wyoming offense, Craig Bohl’s defense is fairly young and returns some key players next season such as star safety Andrew Wingard.
How the ultimate underdog got out-dogged
At the end of the day, Wyoming’s rugged approach simply overpowered the Broncos in key moments of the game.
The game-tying play came as a result of an off-schedule Josh Allen superman throw of the sort that you can’t really stop with talent or game planning:
It helped that his top two receivers Tanner Gentry (making the catch here) and Jake Maulhardt were 6’2” and 6’6” respectively and able to present big targets that Boise couldn’t completely cover up.
The following Boise drive after this touchdown started with a big nine yard run and then got bogged down as the Broncos tried to execute in short-yardage. First they tried to use a standard run, motioning in their tight ends into a 23 personnel package with the goal of setting up McNichols to dart through the weak side opening but the Cowboys were all over it and even called a blitz to get their strong safety charging through the expected gap:
On third and two the Broncos gave up on overpowering the Cowboys and tried to out guile them with a play-action bootleg play:
The Cowboys are blitzing them, again, and are swarming the intended receivers and pressuring Brett Rypien into a hopeless scramble.
After yet another time consuming Wyoming drive, the Cowboys were forced to punt the ball back to Boise State with 1:40 to try and get into FG range and escape Laramie with a victory. Instead, they quickly went out with a whimper after an incomplete pass and then a strip that led to a safety when Wyoming’s four-man pass rush got home:
Now this was a home game victory for Wyoming and the Broncos are bringing a very strong team back in 2017 that’ll be out for vengeance against the Cowboys while playing on their blue turf in Boise. But this wasn’t a game where Wyoming pulled a rabbit out of their hat thanks to a once in a generation talent in Josh Allen. They put pressure on the Boise passing game and ran the ball on the Bronco defensive front, establishing an edge in the trenches on both sides of the ball. Allen’s talent simply put a young team over the top a year or two ahead of schedule.
It’ll be interesting to watch which approach (if either) can make one of these two programs king of the mountain division next season. If Bohl’s Cowboys take it again it may be worth examining if we’ve reached an era where you can gain a competitive advantage from recruiting and developing teams that can go out and just push people out of the places you want to go.