LARAMIE -- While the focus leading up to this matchup has mainly surrounded the head coaches, this also happens to be a critical game for both programs.

The visitors, Montana State, hasn't played a game in 623 days after COVID-19 claimed its 2020 season. The Bobcats are also breaking in a brand new coaching staff, led by former Wyoming offensive coordinator, Brent Vigen.

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The Cowboys' enter the opener with more than 90% of their roster intact from a season ago. Quarterback Sean Chambers is healthy. The offensive line has 145 combined starts under its collective belt. Xazavian Valladay, the Mountain West's leading rusher the past two season, is also back.

And that's just on the offensive side of the ball.

Junior linebacker Chad Muma leads a unit that finished No. 16 in the nation in total defense a season ago. He has a few friends joining him, including the entire secondary and defensive front. Wyoming was hit hard by defensive opt outs in 2020. Rome Weber, Solomon Byrd and Claude Cole are once again in the lineup.

So, what will it take for the Cowboys to walk out of War Memorial Stadium Saturday at 1-0? Let's check out some major factors:

 

1. Smother 'em

Sure, Montana State made it all the way to the third round of the FCS playoffs in 2019.

It's 2021.

That team, coached by Jeff Choate, featured a stable of running backs -- five to be exact -- that eclipsed the 300-yard mark. Logan Jones led the team with 914 yards. Travis Jonsen, also the Bobcats' second-leading receiver, also rushed for 527 yards.

Those two are long gone.

So is MSU's leading receiver that season, Kevin Kassis. He snagged 67 balls for 871 yards and six touchdowns.

 

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Matthew McKay will line up under center for the 'Cats Saturday. The last time he attempted a pass was way back in October of 2019. He was a member of the North Carolina State Wolf Pack then. The 6-foot-4, 208-pound junior has thrown just three career touchdown passes and rushed for five more.

What are we getting at here?

This team lost a ton of talent from two years ago. That, coupled with an entirely new coaching staff, could -- and probably will -- lead to plenty of growing pains. Throw the possibility of 29,000-plus in the stands and a veteran group on the Cowboys' defense, and you could have a recipe for disaster for the boys from Bozeman.

Wyoming tallied 17 sacks in just six games last fall. That was without the services of a host of experienced pass rushers who are now back in the fold. Third-down conversions weren't easy to come by for the Cowboys' opponents in 2020 either, converting just 29 times on 80 attempts.

Three-and-outs and constant quarterback pressure could make for a long afternoon for the Bobcats.

You can almost hear the roar of the crowd now, right?

 

2. Ride your horses

If you haven't been a fan of the Cowboys' offensive scheme over the past few seasons, you might want to avert your eyes.

Why?

Because on Saturday Wyoming should run the ball -- a lot.

Does this team need an efficient outing from its sophomore quarterback? You bet. A solid showing in the passing game would do wonders for Chambers' confidence -- and yours -- but it doesn't have to be a deciding factor in this game.

Give the ball to your studs in the backfield and let them do their thing.

Valladay has rushed for 2,211 yards and 13 scores on just 417 career carries. That's an average of 5.3 yards per tote. He's healthy and motivated. So is Trey Smith. The former Louisville graduate transfer amassed 488 yards on the ground and found the end zone five times in just six games last fall.

We haven't seen Titus Swen in a game since mid-way through the 2019 season. You think that guy isn't itching to run the ball?

Let's face it, just because the Cowboys' "re-engineered" their offense in the offseason and have a new play caller in Tim Polasek, they aren't abandoning the power running game.

And they shouldn't.

They have a veteran front five and proven game changers in the running back room. We've seen this rushing attack break some wills over the last handful of years. That should happen again Saturday.

 

3. Turn the tables

Imagine you're a defensive coordinator and you're facing the 2019 version of the Cowboys.

What's your game plan? Stop Valladay. Who else is going to beat you?

If we know Vigen the way we think we do, maybe Wyoming should take a page out of the playbook of its opponents late in the '19 season -- stuff the run, make the quarterback beat you with the passing game.

Remember that Utah State game in Logan in late November?

The Aggies held UW to just 158 yards rushing, 40 below its season average. The home team dared -- more like begged -- Tyler Vander Waal to put the team on his back and win the game through the air. That resulted in 185 yards passing and three interceptions.

A week prior in Boise, the Broncos held Valladay to just 124 yards rushing. Vander Waal completed just 15 throws for 160 yards and no touchdowns.

Both of those games ended in close losses for the visitors.

Much of the same took place last fall.

If the Bobcats are forced to be one dimensional Saturday afternoon, that gives a green light to pass rushers like Garrett Crall, Byrd, Jaylen Pate, Victor Jones and DeVonne Harris. That should also lead to some good things for an experienced Cowboys' secondary that picked off just three passes a year ago.

We know Vigen likes to run the football, but It's one thing to like it and quite another to excel at it. Wyoming's shorthanded defense held opponents to just 125 yards rushing per game last fall. That was good enough for 21st in the nation in that category.

If Jay Sawvel's defense can contain MSU running back Isaiah Ifanse, you have to love the odds of the Cowboys coming away with a takeaway or two and adding a couple of ice bags to McKay's carry on.

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