LARAMIE – It’s still too early to say Wyoming’s defense is measuring up to the star-studded 2017 unit.
But the Cowboys – led by Butkus Award candidate Chad Muma – are off to a fast start from a play-making standpoint.
Entering Saturday’s game against UConn at Rentschler Field in East Hartford, Connecticut (1:30 p.m., CBS Sports Network), UW is tied for fifth in the FBS with a plus-five turnover margin.
Muma has returned two interceptions for touchdowns and recovered a fumble to lead the way. Nickel back Keyon Blankenbaker also has a pick-six for the Pokes, who have five interceptions and two fumble recoveries through three games.
“Obviously, any time you score on defense that’s a special thing,” UW head coach Craig Bohl said after Blankenbaker returned an interception for a 50-yard touchdown and Muma added a 45-yard pick-six during the 45-12 win over Ball State. “To do it twice, I thought that was great. We’ve really done a good job taking the football away this year.”
The last time the Cowboys returned two interceptions for touchdowns in a game was in 2016 at Eastern Michigan. UW still lost the game 27-24 during a season in which Josh Allen and the offense carried the team to the Mountain West championship game.
In 2017, the defense propelled the program to another eight-win season. The Cowboys led the FBS in turnover margin at plus-24 with 38 forced turnovers (18 fumbles, 20 interceptions).
Andrew Wingard led the team with five interceptions and a fumble recovery. Marcus Epps had four interceptions and a fumble recovery, and Rico Gafford also had four interceptions.
Carl Granderson finished with 9.5 sacks and 16.0 tackles for loss. Logan Wilson led the Pokes with 119 tackles, an interception and a fumble recovery.
Gafford, Granderson and Wilson all scored defensive touchdowns.
All of the above are currently in the NFL.
UW’s 2021 defense already has three defensive touchdowns and is averaging 2.33 forced turnovers a game, which compares favorably to the 2017 unit’s FBS-best 2.92 per game.
“That’s part of our hard work translating,” cornerback Azizi Hearn said. “It’s something we work at in practice. Whenever we’re doing team periods and they’re running the ball, everybody is trying to strip the ball, everybody is fitting the hit and making sure we have good leverage and are in good position to tackle.”
UW’s defensive line had 6.0 sacks against Ball State. The consistent pressure contributed to the interception returns for touchdowns and led to a lost fumble just before the half that set up a 1-yard touchdown run by Sean Chambers to make the score 31-0 at the intermission.
“I was definitely impressed with our coverage skills and fitting up the run. I think our defensive line played tremendous,” Muma said. “I mean, they were all over it with the quarterback pressure. That allowed us in the pass game to get a couple picks. That’s what really shut them down is our defensive line’s performance was amazing. It made it easy for the linebackers to just run through holes and for the defensive play as a whole.”
Muma finished with 12 tackles against the reigning Mid-American Conference champions and is third nationally in tackles per game (11.0). The star middle linebacker also returned an interception for a touchdown in the win at Northern Illinois and leads the nation in that category.
UW’s cornerbacks would like to get in on the pick-six party.
“C.J. (Coldon) came up to me and told me that. We were talking about that,” Hearn said of Muma leading the team in interceptions. “It’s interesting, man. I love it. Of course we’re all competitors, we want to win games, but we even compete with each other, too. …
“Everybody wants to get one after seeing that, but we’ve all just got to do our jobs. If it comes to us, it comes to us. We can’t go out of our way, just do what we’re coached to do.”
UW’s defense will have opportunities to make more splash plays against UConn, which is minus-five (123rd) in turnover margin.
During last week’s 52-21 loss at Army, quarterback Tyler Phommachanh was 11-for-26 passing for 109 yards with no touchdowns and an interception. The freshman’s 38-yard touchdown run in the third quarter was UConn’s first score against an FBS opponent this season.
The Huskies have used three different starting quarterbacks who have combined for five interceptions and three touchdown passes. The team’s leading rusher, Kevin Mensah, has 122 yards and no touchdowns for the season. UConn doesn’t have a wide receiver with 100 yards for the season.
The Cowboys, who are 29 ½-point favorites, say there is no chance they are looking ahead to their bye week or the start of Mountain West play Oct. 9 at Air Force.
“We have to trust and believe in our coaching and we have to finish what we started,” Hearn said. “It’s simple, it’s really a life value. You finish what you start.”