By Tim Harkins, University of Wyoming
The Wyoming Cowboys once again showed their resilience and comeback ability on Saturday, as they improved to 4-0 on the season and concluded their non-conference schedule undefeated, heading into a bye week.
Unlike last week, when Wyoming built a 31-0 halftime lead at home over Ball State on way to a 45-12 victory, the Cowboys started slow on Saturday at UConn. But as they’ve done twice before this season, against Montana State and Northern Illinois, the Pokes fought back from a 13-3 deficit at halftime to out-score the Huskies 21 to nine in the second half and record a 24-22 road win.
Wyoming’s comeback was keyed by a critical defensive stand by the Pokes early in the fourth quarter. Trailing 13-10, the Cowboys saw the Huskies put together a long drive of 74 yards, moving all the way down to the Wyoming five-yard line.
It was critical that UW hold UConn to a field goal and keep the game a one-possession game. The Wyoming defense would rise to the occasion. On a third and five from the Wyoming five, Cowboy defensive end Solomon Byrd combined with safety Rome Weber to sack Huskie quarterback Tyler Phommachanh for 12 yards, pushing the ball back to the 17-yard line.
UConn place-kicker Joe McFadden entered the game and made a 35-yard field goal — his third on the day — to extend the Huskies’ lead to 16-10. But allowing only a field goal meant the Cowboys were still within one touchdown of taking the lead.
Now it was time for the Wyoming offense to step up. On the Cowboys’ very next offensive possession, the balanced attack that the Pokes have become known for this season would be put on display. Running back Xazavian Valladay would begin the drive with a 12-yard run on first down and would go on to carry the ball five times for 30 yards on the drive.
UW running back Titus Swen added two runs for 15 yards, and Cowboy quarterback Sean Chambers would complete two passes to wide receiver Ayden Eberhardt for 32 yards, including a great catch by Eberhardt for 23 yards on a third down and seven from the UConn 24.
That catch took the ball down to the UConn one-yard line where Valladay would carry the ball in for the go-ahead TD. That 77-yard drive gave Wyoming its first lead of the day at 17-16, but there was still 6:31 remaining in the game.
On UConn’s very next possession, Cowboy free safety Esaias Gandy read Huskie quarterback Phommachanh’s eyes on the first play from scrimmage and intercepted the UConn QB’s pass at the Huskie 36-yard line. Gandy returned the interception seven yards to the UConn 29-yard line, and Wyoming had a chance to extend its lead.
Wyoming’s Swen gained 15 yards up the middle on first down. Valladay then rushed for three yards, followed by a six-yard run by Swen. On a third and one at the UConn five-yard line, Valladay picked up three yards and a first down. Swen finished off the drive with a two-yard TD run. Place-kicker John Hoyland made his third point after touchdown of the game to give Wyoming a 24-16 lead with only 3:34 remaining on the clock.
But the Huskies were not done fighting. Beginning its final possession of the game at its own 36-yard line, UConn drove 64 yards in 15 plays aided by three pass interference penalties called against the Cowboys — the third occurring in the end zone — which placed the ball first and goal at the Wyoming two.
Huskie running back Nate Carter ran the ball into the end zone, and suddenly UConn trailed by only two points (22-24) with four seconds remaining in the game and a two-point conversion attempt coming for UConn. Wyoming head coach Craig Bohl and his coaching staff called back-to-back timeouts to see what formation the Huskies were going to try and utilize on the critical two-point attempt.
In the end, Wyoming safety Weber came up with his second huge fourth quarter play by knocking down the UConn pass attempt, and Wyoming preserved the comeback victory.
Quotes From Wyoming Head Coach Craig Bohl
“It was a great team win. We faced a lot of adversity today,” said head coach Bohl after the game. “I think we made some things harder than what they should have been, however, I do think UConn has good players and they’ve been getting better. Their quarterback made a lot of plays.
“I thought we reestablished momentum in the second half when we got the downhill running game going. That proved to be our ace in the hole. We made some plays when we needed to. I thought we were done with this ‘cardiac’ stuff, but we’re not. All I know is it’s another W and we’re pleased with it.”
Bohl was asked how concerned he was with the number of penalties that were committed by his team in the game.
“It’s hard to win when you get penalized 10 times for 99 yards,” said Bohl. “We need to clean that up. We’ve got to become more disciplined. It’s hard to win on the road and the last time I checked 10 penalties for 99 yards is almost worth a touchdown.”
The head coach was also asked why he thought the Cowboys got off to such a slow start on Saturday.
“I think UConn came out really sharp, and then we did some uncharacteristic things,” said Bohl. “We pick off a pass but we get called for a personal foul. We stop them on third down and we get called for another penalty. We had three stops that were negated by penalty and that had a big impact. I also think it took us awhile to get in a groove with what we wanted to do offensively. We do count on Treyton (Welch, injured tight end) a lot. He dressed but I don’t think he would have been functional tonight. We’ve been starting faster the previous two games, but tonight was not the case.”
When asked about whether he thinks the upcoming bye week is coming at a good time — at the conclusion of non-conference play and prior to starting Mountain West Conference play in two weeks — Bohl said, “Having an off week after three really competitive games couldn’t come at a better time. We’re okay, but we have some guys playing with stingers and are banged up. It will help us get our legs back. We’re excited about entering conference play. We’re also extremely excited about being 4-0.”
In terms of what he told his team on the sideline before the final two-point conversion attempt by UConn, Bohl responded, “We were burning timeouts to see what set they were in. It was a chess game, and I thought Jay (Sawvel, UW Defensive Coordinator) really dialed up a good defense and it was great to see Rome (Weber) make that play.”
Finally, when asked about the play of Cowboy quarterback Chambers, Bohl said, “He made a lot of plays. I think he’s been a little more on point in previous games for 60 minutes, but he’s an unbelievable competitor and he is definitely the leader of our football team.”
Wyoming concluded the game with 352 yards of total offense (203 rushing and 149 passing) compared to 281 for UConn (110 rushing and 171 passing). Cowboy running backs Valladay and Swen combined for 185 for the 203 rushing yards for Wyoming.
Valladay recorded his 12th career 100-yard rushing game and second of the season, running for 101 yards on 22 carries and one TD Saturday. Swen racked up 84 rushing yards o 15 carries and also scored one touchdown. Swen led the Pokes in all-purpose yardage with 168, including 84 rushing yards, seven receiving and 77 on kickoff returns. Valladay accounted for 134 all-purpose yards — 101 rushing and 33 receiving.
The Cowboy passing game saw Chambers complete 58 percent of his passes (15 of 26 passes) on the day for 149 yards, one TD and two interceptions. Eberhardt caught three of those passes for 40 yards. Valladay, fullback/tight end Parker Christensen and wide receiver Joshua Cobbs also each had three receptions. Wide receiver Isaiah Neyor had two catches for 24 yards and the one receiving touchdown for the Cowboys.
Nickel back Keyon Blankenbaker led Wyoming in tackles, with seven, including six solo tackles. Defensive end Byrd had six tackles, 1.5 sacks and two quarterback hurries. Cornerback C.J. Coldon recorded five tackles, 1.0 tackle for a loss and one pass breakup, and defensive end Garrett Crall also had five tackles and four QB hurries. Safety Weber was credited with four tackles, 0.5 sacks and the huge pass breakup on UConn’s two-point conversion to preserve Wyoming’s two-point victory (24-22).
Cowboy place-kicker Hoyland was 1 of 2 in field goals, making one from 24 and missing from 43. He also was perfect in PATs (3 for 3). His 43-yard miss was only the second of his career. Hoyland ended Saturday’s game having made 17 of 19 (89.5 percent) career field-goal attempts.
For UConn, quarterback Phommachanh completed 19 of 40 passes (47.5 percent) for 171 yards, one TD and one interception. Running back Nate Carter was the Huskies’ leading rusher, with 65 yards on 10 carries and one rushing touchdown. Wide receiver Aaron Turner caught a team high six passes for 49 yards. UConn had two defenders each credited with nine tackles. Those two leading tacklers were cornerback Jeremy Lucien, who also had one of the Huskies’ interceptions, and linebacker Hunter Webb.
UConn place-kicker Joe McFadden made 3 of 3 field goals from 28, 29 and 35 yards, and was 1 for 1 in PATs.
For the first time this season, Wyoming lost the turnover battle. The Cowboys were intercepted twice, while forcing one turnover by UConn on an interception.
The game began with a 43-yard kickoff return by Brian Brewton of UConn, giving the ball to the Huskies at their 44-yard line. UConn proceeded to move down the field to the Wyoming 11-yard line when the Pokes’ defense stopped the Huskies for no gain on a third down and one. That defensive stand was led by nose tackle Cole Godbout and linebacker Easton Gibbs. UConn lined up for a 28-yard field goal and the kick was good by place-kicker McFadden to give the Huskies a 3-0 lead
UConn’s field goal on its opening drive was the first time this season that a Wyoming opponent scored on its opening drive of the game. It was also the first time since the season opener versus Montana State that the Cowboys hadn’t scored first in a game.
Wyoming began its second possession of the game with great field position at the UConn 45-yard line, following a 19-yard punt out of bounds by the Huskies. UW moved the ball down to the UConn 26-yard line before the drive stalled. Cowboy place-kicker John Hoyland came in to attempt a 43-yard field goal, but Hoyland hit the right upright for his first miss of the season and only the second missed field goal of his career.
The UConn Huskies took over at their own 26. After gaining one first down through the air, UConn faced a second and six at its own 48-yard line. Cowboy cornerback Coldon appeared to make an outstanding play tackling a Huskie receiver for a five-yard loss, but Coldon was called for a personal foul when he took the receiver to the ground. That 15-yard penalty moved the ball to the Wyoming 42-yard line. Two plays later, UConn quarterback Phommachanh completed a 42-yard touchdown pass to tight end Jay Rose. After the PAT, the Huskies held a 10-0 lead.
That 10-0 deficit represented the largest the Cowboys had faced all season.
The Pokes, who had been outstanding thus far this season in not turning the ball over, suffered only their second interception of the season when Chambers was intercepted by cornerback Myles Bell, who returned it to the Wyoming 41.
It appeared that the Wyoming defense would make up for that Cowboy turnover with a takeaway of its own when free safety Gandy intercepted UConn at the Wyoming 13-yard line and returned it to the 25.
But Gandy’s interception was negated by a roughing the passer penalty against the Cowboys. After the penalty, the Huskies had the ball at the Wyoming 18-yard line as the first quarter ended. Wyoming’s defense stiffened and forced UConn into a 29-yard field goal, which was made by McFadden, extending the Huskies’ lead to 13-0.
The Cowboy offense would respond on its following drive. The first key play would be made by Chambers on a third and 10 from UW’s 21-yard line as he would roll to his left and power ahead to gain 10 yards and get the first down. Two plays later, Valladay broke loose for a 27-yard scamper down to the UConn 42.
The Cowboys would drive down to the Huskie two-yard line, but a false start by the Cowboys moved the ball back to the five. After a failed pass attempt on third and goal, Hoyland would come in to successfully convert a 24-yard field-goal attempt to put the Cowboys on the scoreboard for the first time. The scoring drive covered 72 yards in 16 plays and took 8:06 off the clock. That is how the first half would end, with UConn leading 13-3.
Wyoming received the second-half kickoff and Cowboy running back Swen would give the Pokes good field position by returning the kick 26 yards out to the Wyoming 31-yard line. Valladay gained 11 yards on second down. Two plays later, Chambers connected with wide receiver Eberhardt for eight yards.
A couple plays following that, Chambers found fullback/tight end Christensen for 12 yards to the UConn 43 for a first down. The Huskies were called for a personal foul for hitting Christensen out of bounds, which added 15 yards to the play and placed the ball at the UConn 28.
Runs of four yards by Valladay, five yards by Swen and one yard by Valladay moved the ball to the 18. It was then that Chambers would drop back and find wide receiver Neyor on an 18-yard touchdown pass, concluding a nine-play, 69-yard drive. Hoyland added the extra point, and Wyoming pulled to within three points at 13-10.
Late in the third quarter on a second and five from the Wyoming 42-yard line, Chambers threw deep down the middle looking for wide receiver Alex Brown, but UConn cornerback Jeremy Lucien picked off the pass at the Huskies’ nine-yard line. It would be the second turnover of the day by the Pokes.
UConn began the drive at their own nine-yard line with 2:31 remaining in the third quarter, but the quarter would end with Wyoming’s TD being the only scoring of the third quarter. UConn maintained a 13-10 lead heading into the fourth quarter.
It was then that the wild fourth quarter would begin for both teams. Wyoming would score two touchdowns in the final period, while UConn added a field goal and TD before the Cowboys came away with their fourth win of the season against no defeats, with a hard-fought, 24-22 road victory.
Next Up for the Cowboys
Wyoming will be able to enjoy its one bye week of the season this coming week before opening Mountain West Conference play on Saturday, Oct. 9 on the road at Air Force. The Wyoming-Air Force game is scheduled to kick off at 5 p.m., Mountain Time and will be televised by CBS Sports Network.