PROVO — The BYU defense will be facing one of its toughest challenges of the season when the Cougars take on Wyoming in the Poinsettia Bowl next week.
The Cowboys enter the bowl season averaging 37.1 points per game, tied for 23rd in the country, and 439.2 yards a contest. Those numbers are among the best from a BYU opponent this year, with only Toledo proving to be a more explosive offense overall.
Does that mean the Cougars could be headed toward another shootout, like BYU's 55-53 win over the Rockets?
We'll find out next Wednesday at Qualcomm Stadium (7 p.m. MST, ESPN). Here's how the Wyoming offensive attack stacks up against the BYU defense.
The run game
When it comes to the Wyoming rushing attack, the conversation starts with all-Mountain West first-team back Brian Hill, who also earned third-team All-America honors from College Sports Madness. For the second consecutive season, Hill rushed for more than 1,600 yards, as he has 1,761 yards and 21 touchdowns on the ground this season. By himself, Hill averages 9.7 points per game, 13th nationally by an individual.
Unlike one other high-powered MW running back the Cougars faced this season, Boise State's Jeremy McNichols, Hill doesn't catch many passes out of the backfield. He has seven receptions for 48 yards. That's a good thing for BYU because the Cougars struggled to contain McNichols, allowing him 249 total yards — 140 rushing and 109 receiving — and two touchdowns in a 28-27 loss to the Broncos in late October.
Complementing Hill in the Wyoming rushing attack are senior running back Shaun Wick and sophomore quarterback Josh Allen. Wick has rushed for nearly 2,500 yards and 21 touchdowns in his career, even with his lowest rushing totals — 299 yards and one touchdown — coming this season. He provides experience behind Hill, should the Cowboys need it.
Allen, meanwhile, is the team's second-leading rusher with 485 yards and seven touchdowns on the ground. If he provides the same type of rushing effort like another Cougar opponent did this year — Mississippi State QB Nick Fitzgerald, who ran for 41 yards and two touchdowns vs. BYU — it could make this a high-scoring game. Allen averages 37.3 rushing yards per game.
A big key for the Cowboys' rushing attack is senior Chase Roullier, who started every game at center for them in 2016. He anchors a stout Wyoming line and earned USA Today second-team All-America honors.
BYU enters the game No. 8 nationally in rush defense, giving up 108.4 yards per game on the ground, and has held its past four opponents under 100 yards rushing. Wyoming is 37th nationally in rushing offense, running for 208.5 yards per game.
If those two numbers meet somewhere in the middle, it’s a good sign for BYU. Wyoming was held to 151 or fewer rushing yards four times all year, and each time the Cowboys lost. That included their 69-66, triple-overtime loss to UNLV.
Only once did the Cowboys rush for 200 or more yards — 201 and five touchdowns against New Mexico — and lose.
In three of the four games that the Cowboys faced a team that finished in the top 35 in rush defense, Wyoming exceeded the rush total its opponents gave up on average this year.
BYU is stingy against long runs. The Cougars gave up only one run of 30-plus yards all season, best in the country. That came back in Week 1 when Arizona took a late 16-15 lead on BYU with a 49-yard Nick Wilson touchdown run.
Wyoming sits just outside the top 25 in most long-run categories, ranking 27th in 10-plus yard runs (83) and 35th in 20-plus yard runs (24) this season. Don’t expect a big run to break open this game for Wyoming.
The Cougars faced five teams this season that averaged 200 or more rushing yards per game, and each time the Cougars held them under their average. That included holding Arizona, West Virginia and Mississippi State more than 70 yards under their rushing yard average.
BYU is also one of the nation's best against giving up touchdowns, having allowed 30 all year on just 13 on the ground, tied for 16th nationally. Conversely, Wyoming has scored 30 rushing touchdowns on the year.
Key rushing stat: Three of the four times Hill was held under 100 rushing yards, the Cowboys lost. Their lone win with Hill under 100 yards (at 92) came in a victory over Air Force, which finished the regular season 15th nationally in rushing defense, giving up 118.0 yards per game.
Hold Hill under 100 and keep Wyoming to 150 or fewer rushing yards, and the Cougars’ chances for victory are good.
The pass game
Allen is the third-best statistical quarterback the Cougars face this year, behind Toledo's Logan Woodside and West Virginia's Skyler Howard. Allen has thrown for 2,996 yards, 26 touchdowns and 13 interceptions while completing 56.3 percent of his passes. Wyoming, as a team, averages 15.54 yards per completion, seventh-best in the country.
While his numbers aren't as prolific as Woodside's or Howard's, Allen will challenge BYU's young cornerbacks.
He'll have help. Senior Tanner Gentry is having a breakout season, which includes first-team All-MW honors, and he leads the Cowboys with 65 receptions for 1,213 yards and 12 touchdowns. He ranks in the top 15 nationally in both receiving yards and touchdown catches, and Gentry has more receiving yards than BYU's top three receivers combined.
Gentry is the most prolific receiver the Cougars have faced this season. He's caught 21 passes of 20-plus yards and 12 of 30-plus yards, both tied for 11th in the nation.
In addition, Wyoming employs one of the better catching tight ends in the country. Senior Jacob Hollister has caught 30 passes for 500 yards and seven touchdowns while averaging 16.7 yards per catch this season, helping him earn first-team All-MW honors.
The Cougars' defense comes into the game ranked No. 100 in passing yards (255.9 yards per game), 121st in opponent completion percentage (64.1), 99th in yards per attempt (7.8) and 73rd in opponent QB rating (132.18). With its weapons, Wyoming will be able to challenge BYU's secondary.
The Cougars can make up that passing disadvantage in the turnover department, though. BYU is second nationally in turnovers gained with 29, including 19 interceptions and 10 fumble recoveries, while Wyoming is 97th with 22 turnovers lost, with 13 interceptions and nine fumbles lost.
Key passing stat: Wyoming may be able to get an advantage in long passing plays. The Cowboys average four passes of 20-plus yards per game — tied for 17th nationally — and have completed 23 passes of 30-plus yards on the year, led by Gentry. While the Cougars' rushing defense has been much less susceptible to chunk plays, the pass defense is middle of the pack in the country against longer passes. They've given up 37 passes of 20-plus yards, or three per game, and have given up seven passes of 50-plus yards and four of 70-plus, both stats that rank in the bottom 30 of the FBS ranks. If the Cowboys complete some long passes against the Cougars, it could spell trouble.
Hill vs. the BYU defensive tackles. BYU has seen a variety of players fill in the middle of the line this season, with expected star Travis Tuiloma sidelined most of the year by injury, and yet the Cougars have been able to contain almost every back they've faced, especially up the middle. BYU will receive its stiffest test of the year from the combination of Hill and Roullier, meaning guys like Tomasi Laulile, Logan Taele, Kesni Tausinga, Handsome Tanielu and Tevita Mo'Unga will need to meet the challenge in the middle of the line. For Wyoming to get its offense jump-started, it starts with Hill, who's only been held under 80 yards rushing once all season.
This will be one of the toughest challenges for the Cougars' defense this season. BYU's defensive front has shown throughout the year it can shut down powerful running attacks, and its secondary has strong safeties that have combined with young corners who are improving. This, however, is the best combination of individual rushers, passers and receivers the Cougars will face in a single game, and that could prove difficult to stop all the weapons.