LARAMIE — Wyoming on Saturday watched the same movie it has so many times this season.
>On the road against a quality opponent, the Cowboys — thanks in large part to one of the Mountain West’s top defenses — had a chance. Trailing Air Force just 13-6 in the final minutes, Wyoming still had thoughts of picking up win No. 8 while simultaneously cooling off one of the nation’s hottest teams in its own stadium.
>But the Cowboys, who relied heavily on true freshman quarterback Levi Williams in the second half given the offense’s ineffectiveness with an injury-plagued Tyler Vander Waal, again couldn’t generate enough offense. If not for Donald Hammond III’s 75-yard touchdown pass to Ben Waters with 2 minutes, 4 seconds left that sealed the Falcons’ 20-6 victory — their seventh straight win and 10th of the season — it would’ve been an identical ending for the Cowboys, who suffered each of their first four losses by a single possession.
“We played hard. We could probably execute a little bit better than what we did,” Wyoming coach Craig Bohl said. “It was a great effort, but we certainly can play better.”
Wyoming dropped three of its final four games after a 6-2 start — the opposite of how the Cowboys finished last season when they won their final four games. This year, though, they will get another one.
Wyoming needed those four wins just to become bowl eligible last season and were bypassed once there were more bowl-eligible teams than available bowl slots. With North Carolina’s win over N.C. State on Saturday night, there are 79 bowl-eligible teams for those 78 spots, but as Wyoming found out last year, the omissions will come from Group of Five teams that finished 6-6. With seven wins, the Cowboys are above the cut line.
The only question is where they will be sent for their bowl game. The Mountain West has filled its bowl allotment with seven eligible teams, but with other conferences likely not being able to do the same, it’s possible Wyoming ends up somewhere other than the Potato, Hawaii, Arizona, New Mexico or Armed Forces bowls (the Las Vegas Bowl gets the first choice of MW teams and normally takes the league champion if it isn’t a New Year’s Six participant).
In their latest projections released Sunday morning, CBS Sports’ Jerry Palm had Wyoming in the New Mexico Bowl against UAB while the Sporting News’ Bill Bender predicted the Cowboys as a replacement in the First Responder Bowl against Central Michigan. Bowl matchups will be officially announced on Dec. 8.
“We’re 7-5, and we’re going to a bowl game,” defensive end Garrett Crall said. “That’s I guess an improvement from last year, but it’s not what we necessarily set out to do. We’re not happy with just being 7-5 and in a bowl game. We expect more here.”
Wyoming finished the regular season in the top 4 in the MW in yards and points allowed and was also second in sacks and third in turnover margin. The Cowboys had the league’s No. 2-ranked rushing attack but finished last in passing yards (128 per game) for the second straight season, which hurt Wyoming as the more formidable defenses it faced in November began crowding the line of scrimmage more and more after quarterback Sean Chambers went down with a season-ending knee injury.
Wyoming’s four league losses — three of them to teams that finished above the Cowboys in the Mountain Division standings — came by a combined 26 points. Wyoming averaged 16.5 points in those games and didn’t score more than 22 in any of them.
The Cowboys averaged just 3.4 yards a carry over the final four games — down more than a full yard from their season average of 4.7 — and were held to a season-low 114 rushing yards against a top-25 Air Force defense. Yet Wyoming made three trips inside the Falcons’ 30-yard line and reached the red zone twice but came away with just six points, inducing flashbacks to Wyoming’s 26-21 loss at Utah State when the Cowboys reached USU territory on each of their first three possessions with nothing to show for it.
Williams began rotating with Vander Waal in the first quarter before taking over almost exclusively early in the second half after Vander Waal threw an interception in Air Force territory. Williams went 6-for-11 through the air and accounted for 163 of Wyoming’s 225 yards, possibly creating a competition to start the bowl game.
“Yeah, it’s hard sometimes (to establish a rhythm while rotating), but you’ve just got to keep steady the entire game,” said Williams, who’s rushed for 128 yards in his first two collegiate games. “Everybody’s looking at you. You are the guy no matter what. They’re going to look at you, and you’ve just got to keep them up the entire game.”
The Cowboys will have one more chance to get rid of the taste of what’s been a largely sour ending to their season.
“We’re going to attack when bowl prep starts,” Crall said. “We’re going to try to win that bowl game, and that’s just how it’s going to be.”