PULLMAN – Wyoming’s defensive line could hardly sneak a glance at Gardner Minshew on Saturday afternoon, let alone forge a path into the backfield and bring the Washington State quarterback to his knees.
WSU’s offensive line didn’t allow a sack in the season-opening win over the Cowboys and in doing so, accomplished something the Cougars have done just seven times in 77 games under seventh-year coach Mike Leach. During the 2012 and 2015 seasons, WSU allowed at least one sack in each of its 12 games. The Cougars had two games in 2013 in which they didn’t concede a sack, one in 2014, two in 2016 and one in 2017, which coincidentally came in an otherwise putrid Holiday Bowl loss to Michigan State.
So WSU could technically stretch its sackless streak to three games if the offensive front can keep Minshew clean Saturday against a San Jose State team that’s far less prone to reach the quarterback, having recorded only 13 sacks in 2017. By comparison, that’s 21 fewer than WSU’s previous Mountain West opponent.
Wyoming tied for the conference lead in that category last season. One week before the Cowboys hosted the Cougars, they planted New Mexico State QB Matt Romero into the turf four times in a 29-7 rout of the Aggies in Las Cruces.
Which only further underscores the job done by WSU’s offensive front Saturday in Laramie.
“I thought we had some communication issues at times,” Leach said postgame, “but generally for a first game and some new faces, I thought they did a good job.”
Communication issues are inevitable for a group breaking in three new starters, but as far as issues are concerned, those are the only significant ones that ever seemed to materialize for the Cougars at Wyoming.
Coaches will always make tweaks and corrections, and surely they’ll notice a few blunders from Saturday’s game while poring over film, but at least this week they won’t be rewinding any part of the game tape that ends with a defensive lineman slamming Minshew to the turf.
Senior left tackle Andre Dillard, one of two returning starters, credited the offensive line success to the group’s diligent work in the film room.
“(We) studied a lot, we put a lot of emphasis on the mental part of the game and just really pushing each other to be better – to fill the shoes that have been left for us,” Dillard said after Tuesday’s practice in Pullman. “… I thought we did a solid job together. All the studying we did throughout the week paid off for us.”
The top offensive lineman every week earns the team’s “Bone Award.” This week’s recipient was left guard Liam Ryan, a first-time starter who’s emerged a major vocal leader for the unit since B.J. Salmonson and Cole Madison graduated.
“He’s actually stepping up as a leader figure really heavily,” Dillard said. “He gets the guys going and he’s just always pushing guys around him, and he focuses in really well on what he has to do.”
Continued Dillard: “He’s actually always been a vocal guy since he got here. It’s in his DNA, basically. I think he’s a natural leader. I’m not surprised he was a Bone winner.”
Dillard credited the Cougars’ right guard, Josh Watson, another first-year starter for “Just (doing) his job, most importantly. Just doing what he has to do each play, just focusing in like all of us.”
And at right tackle, the Cougars are trusting redshirt freshman Abraham Lucas to fill the role once held by Cole Madison, a fifth-round 2018 NFL Draft pick by the Green Bay Packers.
Dillard gave him a glowing review as well.
“That kid is just some kind of robot or demigod or something,” he said. “He’s just the most naturally talented, athletic kid I’ve seen since I’ve been here. It almost looks effortless when I see him play, but he’s done a really good job; redshirt freshman starter, we’re all impressed with him.”
The “Bone Award” went home with just one Cougar this week; maybe it would’ve been more appropriate to let each of the five linemen spend one day with the prize.
“It was pretty encouraging because we had a couple of young guys out there and I thought they all played pretty well,” Leach said Tuesday during a Pac-12 teleconference call. “… We’ve seen some of that in practice. We thought they played good in practice. You always wonder if it’ll translate to the field, and how long it’ll take for it to. And also, O-line is a unit where they really need to play together, more than any other position. They need to be pretty choreographed together, and I thought they were.”
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