For a team that wins nine times out of every 10, there is a strangely guarded and subdued mood in this high plains prairie town/football factory. Maybe the football stadium at the University of Wyoming will be sold out for the first time ever today when the 9-1 Wyoming Cowboys take on the 7-1 Brigham Young Cougars. But a lot of them may be holding their hands over their eyes.
"It's been a weird season," says Wyoming sports information director Kevin McKinney. "We've won nine games and people around here just aren't jacked up, or very confident, either. I guess they don't think the team has beaten people badly enough, especially teams that were lightly regarded coming in. Maybe it's complacency, I don't know."McKinney says football coach Paul Roach could still run for Governor and "probably win." But two years ago, there would have been no question.
Roach took over the Wyoming program four seasons ago when Dennis Erickson left for Washington State. In the seasons since, Wyoming has gone 10-3, 11-2, 5-6 and, now, 9-1. In the WAC the Cowboys have gone 8-0, 8-0, 5-3, and, now, 5-1. That's an overall record of 35-12 and a league record of 26-4 going into today's game, if you're keeping score.
But while this season's Cowboys have beaten all but one of their opponents, they haven't carried any of them off on stretchers. And as the season has worn on, the town's mood has turned wary. Attendance in six home games to date has averaged barely over 19,000 fans in 33,500-seat Memorial Stadium. That's down more than 4,000 a game from two years ago, when the Pokes started with a 24-14 win over BYU and, after that, routinely crushed the opposition the rest of the year.
Students, too, have been staying away. They've averaged around 2,500 per game this year, compared to 3,500 the past three years.
Today's game will be an exception to the above attendance figures. BYU and its No. 8national ranking has had no trouble drawing a crowd. There wasn't a motel room vacant Friday night.
Still, there were no pregame pep rallies Friday night, or block parties. Just a Lars Brooks concert at the Cowboy Bar, where the bartender observed, rather gloomily, "I hope Wyoming doesn't get blown out, or it's going to be dead around here tomorrow (Saturday) night."
Encouraging signs are few. The First Interstate Bank Time & Temp. sign does say, "Beat BYU, Support The Cowboys," and at the Cowboy Gas on 3rd Street the marquee says "Go Wyo, Beat The Cougars."
And at TD's Tavern across the street from campus the message is even more direct: "Go Pokes, Kill The Cougars."
But, mostly, the atmosphere is one of impending dread, as if Clint Eastwood is going to come drifting over the far plain any minute now, dragging his mule and looking for trouble.
In other words: How is a team that only beat Arkansas State by seven points and Weber State by nine going to stop a high-rolling BYU team that is averaging 43 points and 550 yards per game?
Or, how is a team that lost last week to Colorado State 17-8 going to beat a team that beat Colorado State 52-9?
The article advancing the game in Friday's Branding Iron, Wyoming's campus newspaper, read: "The Pokes take on the 8th-ranked Cougars in a game for all the WAC marbles. The Cougars, though, seem to hold all the cards . . ."
In the Casper Star-Tribune, the article advancing the game dealt primarily with speculation that Wyoming is a cinch to be invited to the Copper Bowl in Tucson - insinuating an impending loss to BYU and elimination from WAC title and Holiday Bowl contention.
In the Laramie Boomerang, the game didn't even rate first page status in Friday's newspaper. It was up-staged by "New Assistant City Manager on the job," and relegated to page 12, where, again, most of the story talked about Copper Bowl possibilities.
Still, Wyoming is ranked 25th in the country, and it does have a history of playing BYU close, especially here in Laramie. ESPN is interested enough to bring in its portable lighting system so the game can reach the far corners of the nation. Today at 2 p.m., all eyes will be on Laramie; except here, where a lot of them will be closed.