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BYU football analysis: How Wyoming's defense matches up with the Cougars

Wyoming linebacker Lucas Wacha warms up before the start of an NCAA college football game against New Mexico in Albuquerque, N.M., Saturday, Nov. 26, 2016.
Wyoming linebacker Lucas Wacha warms up before the start of an NCAA college football game against New Mexico in Albuquerque, N.M., Saturday, Nov. 26, 2016.
Andres Leighton, AP

SAN DIEGO — While Wyoming’s offense looks like it will pose problems for BYU in the Poinsettia Bowl, that is not as much the case for the Cowboys' defense.

Wyoming is allowing opponents to score 34.8 points per game against the Cowboys this year, as well as roll up an average of 464 yards per game, which is 112th nationally.

The Cowboys do have some playmakers on that side of the ball, though, who have helped them run their record to 8-5 this season.

Here’s how the Wyoming defense stacks up against the BYU offense heading into this year’s Poinsettia Bowl at Qualcomm Stadium (Wednesday, 7 p.m. MST, ESPN).

The run game

Wyoming is susceptible to the run, giving up 202.69 rushing yards per game, good for 88th nationally. The Cowboys have also given up 32 rushing touchdowns so far this season and 5.2 yards per carry to their opponents.

Only once all season did Wyoming hold an opponent to under 100 rushing yards, and that was FCS opponent UC Davis. Six times, the Cowboys have allowed an opponent to rush for more than 150 yards, and that includes each of the past four games.

The number of rushing yards the Cowboys have allowed is skewed by a pair of outlying numbers, as Wyoming allowed UNLV to rush for 401 yards and five touchdowns in a 69-66 Cowboys loss in triple overtime and New Mexico to run for 568 yards and seven touchdowns in a 56-35 loss to the Lobos.

The Cowboys are also prone to giving up long rushes, having given up runs of 30-plus yards in nine of their games this season.

BYU comes into the game averaging 199.9 rushing yards per game and 4.7 yards per carry, led by a 5.6-per-carry average from senior running back Jamaal Williams. All signs point to BYU, with backup backs like Squally Canada, if he’s healthy, and KJ Hall to have a strong day on the ground.

This also speaks to the Cougars being able to control the clock with run-churning drives, which would play into BYU’s offensive plan this season.

One Wyoming player to watch in the team’s front seven is Logan Wilson, the young linebacker who was named a Freshman All-American by USA Today. Wilson is fourth on the team in tackles with 88 and has been disruptive against opposing offenses, with 7.5 tackles for loss, three sacks, three interceptions, three fumble recoveries, a forced fumble and three pass breakups.

Wilson, named the Mountain West’s Freshman of the Year, also has scored a pair of touchdowns this season, once on a 27-yard interception return against Eastern Michigan and again on a fumble recovery in the end zone against UNLV.

Key rushing stat: In six of their past seven games, the Cowboys have allowed three or more rushing touchdowns, including five at UNLV and seven at New Mexico. That plays into BYU’s game plan this season, as the Cougars have 26 rushing touchdowns on the year compared to 14 through the air.

Of note: The lone time Wyoming didn’t allow three or more rushing touchdowns in the back half of the season came when the Cowboys knocked off San Diego State 34-33.

The pass game

Like the run game, yards can be had against Wyoming through the air. The Cowboys have allowed opponents to throw for 3,397 yards this season, an average of 261.3 yards per game, which is 106th nationally.

That is close to the 255.9 yards per game BYU has passed for this season, though the Cougars will have Tanner Mangum starting his first game of the season after Taysom Hill was lost for the year with a left-elbow strain injury in the regular-season finale against Utah State.

Wyoming is coming off its two best pass defense efforts of the season, giving up 122 yards to New Mexico and 85 to San Diego State in the Mountain West Championship Game. Their team, though, focused much on the passing game, as the Lobos completed 4 of 5 passes against Wyoming and San Diego State, 6 of 13.

Six times this season, the Cowboys allowed opponents to throw for more than 300 yards, including a three-game stretch against Nevada, Boise State and Utah State, though Wyoming won all three games in higher-scoring contests.

The Cowboys have allowed fewer touchdown passes than rushing touchdowns, giving up 22 on the year. Only three times has Wyoming allowed an opponent to throw for three or more scores, led by four touchdowns from Nebraska in a loss to the Cornhuskers.

Conversely, the Cowboys have scored on five defensive touchdowns this season, including three pick-sixes. Wyoming has forced 14 interceptions on the year.

Wyoming has a spread-out pass rush, with 11 different players recording sacks in 2016. That’s led by 5.5 from Kevin Pressor and three others with three or more.

Free safety Andrew Wingard is the athlete to watch in the secondary, as the team’s lone first-team All-MW performer on that side of the ball. Wingard has 128 tackles on the season, fifth nationally, and has two sacks to go with 7.5 tackles for loss. He averages 9.85 tackles per game.

The unknown will be how Mangum will play for BYU in his first start of the season at quarterback. So far in spot duty this season, Mangum has completed 14 of 18 passes for 145 yards and two touchdowns. He’ll need to avoid the turnover mistakes he had in last year’s Las Vegas Bowl, when the Cougars had five turnovers in the first quarter and fell behind 35-0 to Utah before losing 35-28.

Key passing stat: The Cowboys also have allowed among the nation’s most long passes, having given up 24 passes of 30 or more yards this year, which is tied for 111th nationally. BYU has struggled in burning teams with long passes this year, but now could be the right time, with Mangum at quarterback, to try some long shots.

Key matchup

Mangum vs. the Wyoming secondary. If Mangum can re-capture the leadership and capability he showed guiding the Cougar offense in 2015, BYU will benefit greatly from it. Mangum showed a strong arm as a freshman, and if that translates over to Ty Detmer’s offense on Wednesday, the Cougars could put up numbers akin to ones they did in the old WAC days against teams like Wyoming.

Final thoughts

BYU should to be able to move the ball freely against Wyoming, as most of its opponents have done this season. The question will be if the Cougars, under Mangum, can capitalize on the field position and yards and turn them into points. If so, BYU should be fine offensively and put up enough points to win. The Cougars will need to avoid turnovers, though.