There figures to be a number of high-round NFL Draft picks when Wyoming visits Iowa this week in Iowa City, led by Wyoming QB Josh Allen and Iowa LB Josey Jewell. Andrew McGuire
The Wyoming football team still bears the scars of its last two trips into Big Ten Conference stadiums.
There was a 56-14 beatdown at Michigan State in 2014, in coach Craig Bohl’s first season with the Cowboys.
Last fall, Wyoming went to Nebraska and hung tough for three quarters before coming unglued in the final 15 minutes and falling 52-17.
Now, the Cowboys are gearing up for a season-opening test at Iowa on Saturday, and Bohl said Monday that he feels his fourth team is better prepared to handle the big stage.
“The trust factor’s important. I’ve been in the living room of almost everybody on this football team,” Bohl said. “We’re bigger and stronger and faster. This is going to be a great challenge for us, to go on the road, to play a quality, nationally recognized program at their own place.”
Wyoming went 8-6 last season, with four of the losses coming by three points each. The Cowboys also lost their final three games and have carried that disappointment with them through the offseason. Here's what else should Iowa fans know about their Week 1 opponent:
Wyoming quarterback Josh Allen learning to deal with life in spotlight as top NFL draft prospect. Kelly Lyell
A star under center
Start with the quarterback, junior Josh Allen, a lightly regarded recruit out of California that has progressed so far in Laramie that he’s being mentioned as a top-three pick in the NFL Draft next spring.
Allen passed for 3,203 yards and 28 touchdowns last season. He ran for another 523 yards and seven scores.
The 6-foot-5, 233-pounder looks like a future pro star, and he received the media attention to accompany it, including a spread in Sports Illustrated.
“I take it with a grain of salt. I don’t read anything about me,” Allen told reporters Monday. “I’m completely focused on winning games for this team.”
To do that Saturday, Allen knows he’ll have to contend with 70,000 screaming Hawkeye fans revved up for an 11 a.m. kickoff. He can either draw on or completely disregard his experience at Nebraska last year, when Allen suffered through a miserable afternoon — 16 of 32 passing for 189 yards and five interceptions.
“It’s a hostile crowd that we’re going to be heading into, and we’ll be prepared for that,” Allen said confidently. “What we’re mainly looking forward to is to get those guys to quiet down so we can run our offense effectively.”
Allen threw 15 interceptions a year ago and knows that number must come down. That’s his primary concern entering this season.
“Last year, I threw too many interceptions largely because I was making too many stupid decisions,” Allen said.
His final pass of last season — in a 24-21 bowl game loss to BYU — still rankles Allen. It was intercepted.
“It’s been eating at our stomachs ever since, and we’re ready to get on the field and show this world what we can do,” he said.
So, yeah, Saturday’s game seems very important to Allen. He’s the one guy capable of beating Iowa on his own.
Unfortunately for Allen, he’s surrounded by a lot of untested players this season. His leading receivers and tailback have graduated. There isn’t much experience at tight end, either. Wyoming is even starting a true freshman — Logan Harris — at center.
“We’re further along than we’ve been since I’ve been our head coach,” Bohl said of his offensive line.
Still, he’s aware of the challenge that the Hawkeye front seven will present.
“I used to coach linebackers. I’ve watched that defense extensively, and they’re where they’re supposed to be. They play with great passion and great pad level,” Bohl said of Iowa, which starts seniors Josey Jewell, Bo Bower and Ben Niemann at linebacker. “We’re going to need to be somewhat unpredictable, but we’ve got to stay out of third-and-long situations.”
That means Milo Hall, a sophomore tailback who appeared in only three games for Wyoming last season, is going to be called on to provide some balance to the offense. He may have the toughest assignment of the day.
A porous defense
Wyoming returns a very experienced defense. The problem is, that unit allowed 6,344 yards last season. That’s 453 per game, 6.6 yards per play. That’s not going to cut it against a Big Ten opponent, even one breaking in a new quarterback, as Iowa is with Nathan Stanley.
“Pocket presence is going to be important,” Bohl said of Stanley. “Any time you have a young quarterback, it’s going to be our job to take him out of his comfort zone.”
Bohl believes his defense will be much improved this year, with stronger, hungrier players. He also has a new defensive coordinator in Scottie Hazelton, who spent the past three seasons as the assistant linebackers coach for the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars.
Bohl is anticipating that Iowa will continue to rely on its traditionally strong running game, with Akrum Wadley and James Butler operating behind a veteran offensive line.
“They’re not going to try to out-trick you,” Bohl said. “They’re going to out-execute you —and be more physical.”
Knowing what’s coming and being able to stop it are two different things, though. It remains to be seen whether the Cowboys can match up with the Hawkeyes at the line of scrimmage.
Stung by the Huskers
The Nebraska loss last year, which came in Week 2, was personal for Bohl, a former Cornhusker assistant. It was for his top receiver — sophomore C.J. Johnson, a Nebraska native who wasn’t offered a scholarship by his home-state school — too.
Both are eager to prove that Wyoming can play a full 60 minutes against a Big Ten team. And that means cutting down on turnovers and other sloppy play.
“Execution really comes in to play,” Bohl said. “Our guys are not gun-shy. There’s a great look in their eye. I know they’re going to embrace this challenge and opportunity.”
There are two Iowans on the Wyoming roster, and both figure to see the field Saturday.
Rico Gafford is a senior cornerback and also returns kickoffs. Gafford was a football and track star at West Des Moines Dowling Catholic before heading to Iowa Western Community College.
Cole Turner, a junior, is listed as the backup at right guard. He played at Cedar Rapids Xavier.