Wyoming VS. Ball State: Turning Point, unsung hero and what’s next for UW football
LARAMIE -- It's easy to say that the turning point in this one was a 50-yard interception for a touchdown by Keyon Blankenbaker with 5:46 left in the first quarter.
Maybe it was.
Wyoming was leading just 3-0 at the time. The junior's first-career interception sparked a run of 28 more unanswered points in the first half.
What really served as the game-changer though happened nearly 1,000 miles to the east last Saturday in DeKalb, Illinois.
The Cowboys' proud defense was gashed in the second half of what should've been a blowout victory over Northern Illinois. It was embarrassing -- as ugly as the score might indicate: 50-43.
Even Blankenbaker slipped up Saturday during his postgame press conference and called it a "loss."
It sure felt that way, didn't it?
It's still hard to comprehend the Pokes had a commanding 42-16 lead late in the third quarter of that one.
Northern Illinois tallied 477 yards of total offense, including 244 on the ground. Freshman running back Harrison Waylee rolled up 182 of those all by himself. Wyoming defenses -- especially during the previous seven seasons under Craig Bohl -- rarely get taken to the woodshed like that. In fact, the last time the Cowboys allowed a team to score 40 or more points came way back in 2018.
That was a 40-13 setback on the road at Mizzou.
Imagine what this week of practice was like for the guys on the defensive side of the ball?
Well, I asked.
"That's kind of what we looked at on Monday," UW linebacker Chad Muma said of the uncharacteristic mistakes that nearly cost his team a historic collapse last week. "We went through all the plays that we kind of had trouble on ... Tuesday was a grinder with full pads. Thursday was a grinder and we were 'thudding' during practice. Usually we don't 'thud' throughout our practices during game weeks.
"So, I think that's kind of what helped us out a little bit."
Drew Plitt is a sixth-year starter and has thrown for nearly 7,000 yards and 52 touchdowns during his Ball State career. Saturday, the super senior completed just eight passes for 82 yards. The Loveland, Ohio product tossed a pick-six right into the awaiting arms of Blankenbaker in the first quarter.
With just 42 ticks remaining in the second quarter, Plitt was hit by Muma and finished off by Victor Jones. The ball popped free and rolled nearly 20 yards toward the Cardinals' goal line before it was pounced on by UW defensive end Jaylen Pate.
Five plays and 31 yards later, Sean Chambers broke the plane to extend the lead to 31-0.
Plitt was benched and didn't take a single snap in the second half.
Maybe there's something to this "thudding" stuff?
"We didn't want to have another week like that," Blankenbaker said, referring to NIU's 33-point outburst in the second half last Saturday. "You got to just try to keep our foot on the pedal and keep stopping them each down.
"It definitely made us work a little bit harder this week against Ball State."
Wyoming's defense held the visitors to just 260 yards of total offense. The Cardinals did eclipse the 100-yard rushing mark as a team, but it took 41 attempts to get there. That's an average of just 2.9 yards per carry.
The Cowboys finished with a season-high six sacks. Ravontae Holt was responsible for 2.5 of those. Easton Gibbs, Solomon Byrd and Jones all landed one. Cole Godbout finished with half-a-sack in the win.
This Cardinals' team reached plenty of milestones in 2020.
They won the MAC title for the first time since 1996. They finished in the Top-25 rankings for the first time ever. They claimed the first bowl victory in program history.
Saturday, their star quarterback sat and watched from the sideline as the Cowboys salted away a lopsided victory to drop Ball State to 1-2 on the season.
"More than anything else, you have guys with high character that set a high bar for themselves," Bohl said postgame. "So, inside -- internally -- they were disappointed with how they finished the game off last week. They knew that they could play well, but they took their foot off the gas. So that was a point of emphasis and our guys responded well."
Wyoming 45, Ball State 12
Two catches for 27 yards doesn't seem like much, but if Treyton Welch can't go after taking a big hit to the legs in third quarter, Wyoming's coaching staff has to feel great about tight end Colin O'Brien getting on the stat sheet Saturday.
O'Brien, a sophomore from Mission Viejo, Calif., didn't catch a pass in 2020. In fact, the transfer from Saddleback College, didn't play much.
We all knew he could block, now he's showing he can be a threat in the Cowboys' passing game.
They might need him.
"He has really improved during the course of this fall and he's much more comfortable not only being a pass catcher, but a blocker," Bohl said. "So, it's encouraging to see him come out and really excel."
"That momentum shift was crazy. It's probably the craziest momentum shift I've ever been a part of. But, you know, we won that game. We finished strong and that's obviously something we're good at -- finishing the game. But it wasn't fairies and butterflies -- as coach Bohl would say -- after a win. We really had a lot to improve on after Northern Illinois. I think we hashed some things out
— Wyoming sophomore offensive tackle Frank Crum when asked if the Huskies' big comeback and the Cowboys' inability to pick up a 4th and 1 in DeKalb fueled the fire today.
Wyoming (3-0) will hit the road for its longest road trip of the season next Saturday at UConn. The Huskies fell to 0-4 today with a 52-21 loss at West Point. In the first half, Army found the end zone six times. The Huskies managed to pick up just five first downs in that time frame. The Cowboys will close out their non-conference slate before their lone bye week of the season. Air Force awaits them after the break.
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