LARAMIE – With the game now in his hands, University of Wyoming sophomore quarterback Tyler Vander Waal didn’t waver. And his coaching staff didn’t, either.
Vander Waal entered last Saturday’s 31-3 win over Nevada in the second quarter following a knee injury to redshirt freshman Sean Chambers. Chambers came back in the game to finish off the half, but was in street clothes for the entirety of the second half.
Chambers had his best game of the season in less than two full quarters of work – 6 of 9 passing for 158 yards and a pair of touchdowns, along with a rushing score. For the first time all year, the Pokes had more passing yards than rushing yards in the first half, a total of 315 yards of offense. The first offensive play of the game was a 53-yard touchdown pass to sophomore running back Xazavian Valladay.
With Vander Waal at the helm to start the third, the Pokes (6-2 overall, 3-1 Mountain West) kept their foot on the pedal with a 25-yard touchdown pass to redshirt freshman tight end Jackson Marcotte.
Backup quarterback or not, the Pokes were determined to use the whole field in a variety of ways. A dominant run game without a complimentary passing attack was not going to get it done.
“As a unit, yeah, we’re growing. I think there’s no doubt about it,” offensive coordinator Brent Vigen said. “That’s probably been a maybe three-, four-game transition that, not only was it needed, but the way teams are playing us, it’s getting to be much more advantageous to take some shots.”
Heading into a Nov. 9 matchup at Boise State, UW appears to have found its perfect balance of passing and rushing. And with a brutal stretch of games against Mountain Division opponents looming around the corner, it couldn’t have come at a better time.
“The beginning of the season, we’re trying to find our identity … we establish a run game early, but we still need to establish this pass game, and then we’re trying to establish a pass game, and then we got away from our run game,” said Vander Waal, who started nine games in 2018 in place of an injured Chambers. “I think now the second half (of the season), we know our identity. We’re a run-heavy team; we’re going to run it down your throat until you can stop us. And then once they stop us, then that opens up the pass game.”
The running game has not been an issue for the Pokes this season, despite a mountain of injuries, as the team averages 239.4 yards per game on 5.3 yards per carry. The passing game, however, had been a well-documented concern. Prior to the Nevada game, UW quarterbacks had not thrown for more than 214 yards in any game. One drive into the third quarter last Saturday and the Pokes already had 221 yards through the air.
Raghib Ismail Jr. had a career game, as well, catching four passes for 93 yards and a touchdown, and came within inches of catching another deep ball. UW had eight passing plays of 15 or more yards compared to four such running plays. The Cowboys ended Saturday’s game with 221 yards passing and 258 yards rushing.
A week earlier against New Mexico, the Pokes made strides in terms of passing efficiency; Chambers was 9 of 15 for 86 yards and a touchdown, his first time completing more than 45% of his passes. He completed 67% of his passes against Nevada.
The Pokes won’t be mistaken for an air raid offense anytime soon, but defenses are dictating play calls because they suspect the run. There is no better time to air it out down the field.
“Not that we’re going to be completely balanced by attempts, by any means, but we can be more balanced by yards,” Vigen said. “That’s a big deal.”
Since assuming the role as lead back, the Pokes have also made an effort to get Valladay the ball through the air. Valladay did not have a single reception in his first five games, but has three catches for 99 yards and a touchdown over the last two.
“I like to be more versatile,” Valladay said. “Whether it’s pass protecting, catching, running the ball, I don’t feel comfortable just being a running down back. I want to be an every down back.”
Boise State (6-1, 3-0) allows 205.3 yards per game through the air and 124.4 yards rushing per game defensively, which rank No. 44 and No. 33 in the nation, respectively. In a game that could potentially decide the Mountain Division, a more balanced offense could be crucial in the Pokes scoring an upset.
In all aspects – offense, defense and special teams – last weekend’s win over Nevada was the Pokes’ best performance of the season.
It couldn’t have come at a better time.
“We’re starting to become the football team I’d hope we could become,” sixth-year UW coach Craig Bohl said. “I do think it was probably the most complete game we’ve had this year.”