Running game struggles with key absences in Arizona Bowl

Dec. 31—TUCSON, Ariz. — The University of Wyoming's run-first offense struggled mightily against Ohio during a 30-27 overtime loss in Friday's Arizona Bowl in Tucson.

The Cowboys gained just 105 yards on the ground against the Bobcats after going into bowl season with an average of nearly 200 yards per game on the ground. UW was down four running backs in Arizona, including former starter Titus Swen, who was kicked off the team before declaring for the NFL draft.

UW coach Craig Bohl was also without backups D.Q. James and Dawaiian McNeely, who were both ruled out for the Arizona Bowl because of injuries. Joey Braasch was originally expected to start against Ohio, but hit the transfer portal earlier this month.

Redshirt freshman Jordon Vaughn took the bulk of the carries in the Arizona Bowl, rushing for 67 yards on 16 attempts and scoring two touchdowns. Vaughn's pair of touchdowns were the first of his career, but the entire offense's efficiency created problems for the Cowboys down the stretch.

UW averaged just 3.2 yards per carry on 33 attempts, including just nine yards on 11 rushes for quarterback Andrew Peasley. The lack of explosive plays allowed the Bobcats to key in on the running game and force UW punter Clayton Stewart into seven punts.

Vaughn was the lone bright spot of the running game, but even his efficiency wasn't where the offense needed it to be. He averaged 4.2 yards per carry against Ohio, nearly an entire yard shorter than UW's team average throughout the season.

"It'll be interesting to watch the tape," Bohl said. "Certainly, I think (Vaughn) is a big, strong guy who can move the pile. Very rarely did you see him get knocked back. He had one really nice read for the touchdown. I think he missed a couple other ones. There's a whole gamut of things that go into it beyond running."

Bohl's initial analysis of the struggling running game was a combination of the running backs and the offensive line. UW's passing game didn't fare much better, finishing with 186 yards after throwing for 86 yards in the first quarter.

As a team, the Cowboys were held to 16 yards in the third quarter. As a result, Ohio was able to take the lead and eventually beat UW in the first overtime period.

For a team as reliant on the run as UW, 105 yards on the ground isn't going to win many bowl games. The loss to Ohio was the Cowboys' first game playing without Swen, and his absence was felt drastically.

The running game should be fine once next year rolls around. Former Northern Illinois running back Harrison Waylee will join the Cowboys via the transfer portal after rushing for 899 yards and five touchdowns this fall.

The future doesn't make the bowl loss sting any less, though, especially when the Cowboys were beaten at their own game. Ohio collected 201 rushing yards on 38 attempts, including 138 and a touchdown by MAC freshman of the year Sieh Bangura.

It's tough to game plan for a bowl game with a fifth-string running back as the starter, but the lack of efficiency killed any chance of the Cowboys stretching their bowl game winning streak to four.

Targeting call

Running back wasn't the only position the Cowboys were stretched thin at going into the Arizona Bowl.

Cameron Stone, the team's No. 1 cornerback all season, entered the transfer portal earlier this month. UW's secondary also had a string of injuries, forcing Kolbey Taylor to step into a starting role in Tucson.

Taylor's bowl game appearance didn't last long. The redshirt freshman was ejected after a controversial targeting call against an Ohio wide receiver in the first quarter.

"As coaches, we have pushed to have that rule adjusted to have a targeting 1 and a targeting 2," Bohl said. "The rationale is, we feel like as coaches, we have taken the play that is the big head-hunting play out of the game. We've coached that out of the game.

"So, now there's some parameters that we have within targeting. When you have a young man who loses basically a whole game on a play that is viewed as targeting that is nowhere connected to a malicious hit, this is why, as coaches, we say that there needs to be some balance. ... It is too punitive, we feel like, on an instant like that."

Bohl asked referees about the call, and he clearly didn't like the answer he was given.

"I asked them what they saw, and I know the trigger points, and they gave me the call that it was a hit to the side of the defenseless player. But the guy stood up. That was their decision."

The targeting call was after an incomplete pass on third down. Without the call, Ohio would have likely punted. Instead, the Bobcats received a fresh set of downs and scored on the very next play on a 34-yard pass to go up 8-7 midway through the first quarter.

"That had an impact on us," Bohl said. "I just think it's too punitive on a play like that. I think everybody would recognize, OK, go ahead and flag that, but is that something to throw a guy out of the game for? This is where I think we need to have some reasonable discussion."

Hoyland sets record

Kicker John Hoyland has been arguably the most consistent and reliable Cowboy all season. He left his mark on the program in Tucson, hitting his 21st and 22nd field goals of the season to set a new UW school record.

Cory Wedel and J.D. Wallum set the school record of 20 in 1996 and 2001, respectively, UW associate athletics director for media relations Tim Harkins said.

Hoyland finished the season 22-of-25 (88%) including a season-long of 55 yards. He averaged 1.7 field goals per game and was 28-of-28 (100%) on extra points. Hoyland scored 94 of the Cowboys' 276 total points on the season.

"It's something that I don't take for granted," Bohl told WyoSports last month. "I think sometimes other people do, and you just think it's an automatic deal. He's had some challenging kicks, but he's been very, very accurate. Those points have all added up."

Alex Taylor covers the University of Wyoming for WyoSports. He can be reached at ataylor@wyosports.net or 269-364-3560. Follow him on Twitter at @alex_m_taylor22.