The season is on the line for the Wyoming Cowboys. With six losses on the year there is no room for error with four games remaining. The Cowboys will have to win out the rest of the season in hopes of going to back to back bowl games for the first time since 1997and 1998 when they reached the Holiday Bowl twice. The good news is that Wyoming beat the four remaining teams on their schedule last year.
The bad news is San Diego State is much improved over last year and probably have their best team since joining the Mountain West. Under second year coach Brady Hoke the Aztecs have balanced out their potent offense and turned around their defense with coordinator Rocky Long. There is a budding rivalry between these two schools that are so different. Last year Wyoming pulled of a stunning come from behind victory by scoring 24 straight points in the fourth quarter to win 30-27. Then the Cowboy basketball team beat the Aztecs in Laramie in a huge upset over one of the leagues top teams.
Home advantage for Wyoming will be a huge deal when facing the sea level based Aztecs. Playing at 7220 feet will be a noticeable difference for the Californians. The weather is going to be pleasant with a high in the upper 50's or low 60's on Saturday. A freak snow storm would have been a nice benefit for Wyoming. The Pokes have taken the last two meetings between these two teams.
The shiny new weapon for the Aztecs is freshman RB Ronnie Hillman. He is kind of big deal and has garnered plenty of praise this year. He pretty much has the MWC Freshman of the Year title wrapped up, been mentioned as a future Heisman Contender and early NFL prospect. Hillman has 849 yards rushing on the year and scored 11 touchdowns. Three times this season he has rushed for over 150 yards including 228 against Missouri.
Last year San Diego State was known for their passing attack under Ryan Lindley. He has plenty of threats at wideout with DeMarco Sampson and Vincent Brown. Brown was having an incredible year last season being getting injured and then Sampson stepped up big. Now they are both weapons with 30+ catches a piece and over 577 yards receiving. In seven games this year the Aztec offense is averaging over 33 points and nearly 450 yards.
The defense for SDSU is no slouch either allowing just 17 points a game. The 3-3-5 defense has improved greatly in the second year under Long. This is not going be an easy game for Wyoming who comes into the game with the third worst scoring offense in the nation and dead last in run defense.
On paper the Cowboys don't look very threatening but have played very close with their close mid level opponents. Wyoming had shots of knocking off both Air Force and BYU but were unsuccessful on their final drives. BYU beat SDSU on thanks to questionable calls and the Aztecs knocked off Air Force. So when the Cowboys aren't facing top 10 teams they fare much better.
While struggling in run defense this year the Pokes have improved greatly lately in one category: turnover margin. Over their last two games the Pokes are +5 in the turnover department including three picks against Utah two weeks ago. Last week LB Keith Harris returned an interception for a touchdown and Mike Purcell forced a fumble that Wyoming recovered. On the year the Cowboys are still -1 but are finally playing like last years team that was +8 in turnover margin.
The Wyoming offense broke out a six game slump in the second half last week. In the first half the Pokes actually had -18 yards and ended up with 173 with most of those coming in the fourth quarter. Austyn Carta-Samuels looked like the smart and dangerous QB we all remember from last year. Robert Herron is starting become more familiar with the offense and broke off a 47 yard run. Wide receivers David Leonard and Zach Bolger are both healthy and have had some big catches this year.
The Pokes get ready to put off everything on the line because their season really does ride on this game. If the Pokes can pull off the victory then things will get easier with road trips to one win UNLV and New Mexico. The Pokes finish the year by hosting Colorado State for the Border War.
Who would win in real life?
An Aztec versus a Cowboy? Sounds like one of those shows on the History Channel. Sure the Aztec is a fearsome warrior but the Cowboy has technology on his side ala Smith and Wesson.
VERDICT: A much closer game then it looks on paper. Cowboys will play tough against San Diego State and win. The Pokes have two streaks of a win followed by three loses so they are due. Also a Cowboy would be able to handle an Aztec at long range but it could ugly in hand to hand combat.