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Retooled, reloaded Washington State Cougars brace for season opener against Wyoming

UPDATED: Sat., Sept. 1, 2018, 12:20 a.m.

LARAMIE – In all likelihood, a football game played between Wyoming and Washington State in 2017 would’ve been more appealing from a promotional standpoint, would’ve come with a different level of fanfare and, no doubt, would’ve brought a larger crowd of NFL scouts to the press box at War Memorial Stadium.

Nothing against the incumbents, but for now “Luke Falk vs. Josh Allen” still looks better on a billboard than “Gardner Minshew vs. Tyler Vander Waal.”

So Saturday’s game between the Cowboys (1-0) and Cougars (0-0) could be decidedly more defensive than it may have been 365 days ago, presuming each of the quarterbacks still have some kinks to iron out and some growing pains to work through.

Wyoming’s FBS-topping altitude of 7,220 feet may be another obstacle – really for either team, considering the Cowboys’ Vander Waal is also making his first start in Laramie – and the violent headwinds that rip through War Memorial Stadium certainly don’t make things any easier for an offense that’s prone to air it out 55 times per game.

On the flip side, maybe this is the ideal setting for Tracy Claeys to roll out the retooled WSU defense.

“There’s no doubt I’m excited to get going,” said Claeys’ the first-year defensive coordinator who replaces Alex Grinch after taking a year-long hiatus from the game. “Being that I sat out the year, I’m looking forward to getting started.”

Six-hundred twelve. That’s how many days have elapsed since Claeys last appeared on the sideline of a college football game. Painful as it is, Cougar fans remember his last cameo well. Claeys, then the head coach at Minnesota, orchestrated a 17-12 win over the Cougars in the 2016 Holiday Bowl, handcuffing the Air Raid offense, allowing just one touchdown and 39 yards on the ground.

That attention to detail in defending the run could be crucial for the Cougars in Laramie. Vander Waal’s arm wasn’t called on much in Wyoming’ season opener, primarily because three Cowboy tailbacks were able to run wild against New Mexico State, accumulating more than 300 yards on 53 carries, for three touchdowns.

Nico Evans may not have been a focal point of WSU’s film study before the NMSU game, but he certainly grabbed the Cougars’ attention after rushing for 190 yards on 23 carries – an average of 7.9 yards per carry – and two touchdowns, all career-highs for someone who’d only recorded 36 rushing attempts his first three seasons in Laramie.

“You’ve got a senior there that all the sudden, he decided he wanted to be the man,” Claeys said. “It’s amazing on all football teams, it seems like there’s one or two seniors that maybe haven’t played a lot then all the sudden they decide they want to get something done. You watch and the teams that are successful every year, their seniors step up and make plays and obviously from the first game, he did.”

The Cougars are depending on one of those seniors, too.

Minshew, the East Carolina graduate transfer in line to replace Falk, inherits an offense that replaces six starters – his position included – and faces a Wyoming defensive unit that returns all but three from last season.

“They’re very good, a lot of experience on that unit,” Minshew said. “Very disciplined, very well-coached. They’re definitely a good opponent and I’m excited to play them.”

Wyoming’s defense is spearheaded by preseason Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year Andrew Wingard, a physical senior safety who entered the season with 367 career tackles, putting him 100 shy of the program record.

“He’s played some football, he’s made a lot of tackles,” outside receivers coach Steve Spurrier Jr. said. “You know where he is, you need to find him but he’s a good solid player. He really is.”

Aiolupotea-Pei’s status in doubt

The Cougars’ embattled defensive line may have run into some more adversity.

Misiona Aiolupotea-Pei, a junior college transfer who became WSU’s backup nose tackle after Pono Lolohea’s defection, is unlikely to play in the season opener.

On his weekly radio show Thursday, Leach indicated Aiolupotea-Pei was having trouble with paperwork and said “we look forward to when he’s back.”

“Well, they’re still trying to get his paperwork done,” Leach said. “He looked good in camp, but they’re still trying to get his paperwork done with the NCAA, which some of it I don’t understand, the overseas stuff and trying to match everything up, so he’s in the middle of that.”

Aiolupotea-Pei last attended Riverside City College in California. The former rugby player is originally from Gold Coast, Australia, and went to high school in Wellington, New Zealand.


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