Each game has been different, but the end result has been the same.
The University of Wyoming’s offense has been bad on third down, which has been a factor in its 0-3 start.
When asked why, the answer is simple.
“We just have to execute better,” junior backup quarterback Colby Kirkegaard said.
UW has converted on just 8 of 37 third downs, which equates to 21.6 percent. That’s actually better than the what the NCAA statistics show.
The NCAA had UW last out of 120 Football Bowl Subdivision teams at 17.1 percent (6 of 35). However, in the Cowboys’ 37-17 season-opening loss at No. 12 Texas on Sept. 1, two first downs from Texas penalties were not credited to them.
Still, that bumped UW ahead of only Duke (21.4 percent) in the national rankings.
The average length of UW’s third downs is 6.4 yards. A little on the long side, but more manageable than third-and-8 or longer. It has attempted nearly the same amount of run plays (16) and pass plays (19) on third down.
Obviously, the shorter the distance on third down, the better the odds are normally of making it. But that’s not the case for UW.
It has had 16 third downs of five yards or less and made only three.
Take that down to third-and-3 or less and UW is 4 of 12, including 3 of 8 in its 34-31 home loss to Toledo on Sept. 8.
The team also is a combined 3 of 16 on third down inside opponents’ territory.
Take that a step farther into the red zone (at or inside the opponents’ 20-yard line) and UW is 2 for 7 on third down. Against Toledo, UW was 1 of 3 on third down in the red zone. It had the ball at the Toledo 2- and 3-yard lines in goal-to-go situations in the second and third quarters, but settled for field goals.
“There’s no one thing why we’re not executing,” coach Dave Christensen said. “There’s a guy that misses a protection, a guy runs a wrong route, a blitz doesn’t get picked up, a missed throw. It’s an accumulation of things.”
Now throw in the run game.
UW averages 130 rushing yards per game. Offensive coordinator Gregg Brandon wants that closer to 200. A big part of the Cowboys’ offense is the run game of the quarterback, particularly sophomore starter Brett Smith, who led the team last season with 710 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Smith was on pace to be among the leaders again this season, and still is, since he’s currently third on the team with 80 yards. But on a run play in the fourth quarter against Toledo, Smith suffered a head injury that briefly knocked him out. He was taken out of the stadium on a stretcher and to the Laramie hospital in an ambulance.
Smith didn’t play in last week’s 24-22 loss to Cal Poly. UW ran for 137 yards in that game, which Brandon said was “average.”
“We didn’t block them as well as I thought we would,” Brandon said. “I anticipated at least 200 yards on the ground.”
Brandon said the quarterback run game is “critical” to UW’s offense. Kirkegaard started and played the entire game against Cal Poly. He’s not as much of a run threat as Smith, and with only one other backup quarterback on scholarship (true freshman Jason Thompson), Brandon wasn’t going to call a lot of designed runs for him.
Smith is doubtful for Saturday’s game at Idaho, although he was back at practice this week for the first time since the hit. Even when he returns, can UW rely that heavily on him running the ball?
Brandon wants his running backs to pick up more of that slack. But UW enters the Idaho game with junior Brandon Miller, the team’s leading rusher with 109 yards, doubtful with an injury. The next two running backs on the depth chart are true freshmen in Shaun Wick (100 yards, three touchdowns) and D.J. May (76 yards).
“Those backs needed to step up, and we needed to block better,” Brandon said. “Give Cal Poly some of the credit, but they didn’t do anything schematically we didn’t prepare for. We just need to block better, and we need to run the ball better – without the quarterback.”
While UW’s third-down numbers don’t hide its struggles, each game has taken on a different dynamic in terms of problems.
Against Texas, which is ranked in the top 30 nationally in rushing and scoring defense, UW didn’t have a three-and-out offensive possession. But two of its three successful third-down conversions came on Texas penalties, and the other came on an 82-yard touchdown pass from Smith to junior receiver Robert Herron (teams are awarded a first down if they score on third down).
UW’s average distance on third down at Texas was 8.4 yards, its longest in a game this season. It’s shortest was against Toledo at 3.6 yards. But the Cowboys were 3 of 9 when the distance was five yards or less, 1 of 3 in the red zone and 2 of 7 in Toledo territory.
In the Cal Poly game, the average third down was 7.1 yards. UW was 0 of 3 when it was five yards or less and 1 of 5 in Cal Poly territory. It had a season-high six three-and-outs, including four in the second half.
To UW’s credit, it hasn’t been in a lot of third-down situations compared with the other 119 FBS teams. Twelve teams have fewer third-down attempts than the Cowboys, and only two have made fewer third-down conversions – Baylor (five) and TCU (six).
Perhaps UW’s third-down woes will improve at Idaho. The Vandals, who also are 0-3, allow their opponents to convert on third down 45 percent of the time.
But it comes down to one thing – execution.
“We know when it’s third down we need to lock in and get a first down,” senior offensive tackle Josh Leonard said. “Coaches make good calls. It’s on us as players to get it done.”
Smith seeing red
For a second straight day, Wyoming sophomore quarterback Brett Smith practiced with the Cowboys on Wednesday, but wore a red jersey that all players who are injured and considered doubtful wear.
Smith went first in UW’s walkthrough before practice began with freshman Jason Thompson and senior Colby Kirgegaard also taking snaps.
Also wearing red on Wednesday were wide receiver Robert Herron and defensive end Miraldo Michel.
By the numbers
Some notable statistics on the University of Wyoming’s offensive struggles on third down this season.
Overall percentage: 21.6 percent (8 of 37)
Average yards on third down: 6.4
Three-and-out possessions: 7
Third downs of five yards or less: 16
Third-down conversions in the red zone: 2 of 7
Turnovers on third down: 3
Touchdowns on third down: 3
Run plays on third down: 16
Pass plays on third down: 19
Cowboys Game Day
Game: Wyoming (0-3) at Idaho (0-3)
When: 3 p.m. Saturday
Where: Kibbie Dome, Moscow, Idaho
Radio: KOWB (1290 AM) Laramie; KFBC (1240 AM) Cheyenne;