TUCSON, Ariz. -- Wyoming’s offense found some life behind its true freshman quarterback, and the Cowboys ended the year with a bang.
Levi Williams threw three touchdown passes in the first half and accounted for four touchdowns, setting the tone for Wyoming’s 38-17 win over Georgia State on Tuesday in the Arizona Bowl. Xazavian Valladay added 295 all-purpose yards and two scores on the way to offensive MVP honors as the Cowboys won their second bowl game in three years convincingly after limping into the bowl season having lost three of their last four games of the regular season.
"This game was really important," said senior safety Alijah Halliburton, who was named the game's defensive MVP after notching a game-high 11 tackles and an interception. "It's the last game, especially the last game for me. After this, I don't even know if I'm going to be playing football. It was really a big game, especially for the seniors."
The Cowboys’ defense forced a turnover leading to a score and held the nation’s 13th-ranked running game to 199 rushing yards. GSU finished with 355 yards, but Wyoming held Tra Barnett, a 1,300-yard rusher who led the Sun Belt in rushing coming in, to just 64 yards on 15 carries.
Meanwhile, Wyoming finished with season-highs in total yards (524) and passing yards (234) and scored more points than it had in any of its previous four games -- a span in which it averaged less than 16 points. It all added up Wyoming’s eighth win, matching the most in a season during Craig Bohl’s six-year tenure as head coach.
"A lot of big plays tonight, and there have been big plays all year long," Bohl said. "We capped off an excellent year."
The matchup pitted two of the nation’s top 30 rushing attacks, but Wyoming, which came in averaging more than 204 rushing yards, had less than 100 on the ground before Valladay broke off a 62-yard run late in the third quarter.
Valladay finished with 204 yards on 26 carries but played just as big a role in the most productive passing game of the season for the Cowboys. Wyoming’s sophomore running back had 91 yards receiving, including a 62-yarder -- the Cowboys’ longest pass play of the season -- to set up his 1-yard touchdown run that gave the Cowboys their first three-touchdown lead at 31-10 with 8 minutes, 12 seconds left in the third quarter.
"I was feeling really good getting back in the swing of things because we had some time off," Valladay said. "Just staying in the training room and doing everything my coaches ask me to do. I was feeling pretty good today."
In his first start of the season after officially getting the nod from Wyoming’s coaching staff earlier in the week, Williams finished 11 of 26 passing for 234 yards and added a 6-yard scoring run late in the third quarter to cap Wyoming’s second-widest margin of victory ever in a bowl game. He became the first Wyoming player to throw for three touchdowns in a half since Josh Allen did it in the Cowboys’ 37-14 Potato Bowl win over Central Michigan in 2017.
His 51-yard scoring toss to Ayden Eberhardt with 32 seconds left in the second quarter sent Wyoming to the break with a 24-10 lead. The Cowboys, who came in with the nation’s No. 6-ranked rushing defense, held GSU to 68 yards rushing after halftime.
All three of Williams' touchdown passes came on third down. Wyoming’s offense, which held the ball for nearly 34 minutes, stayed on the field by going 11 of 17 on third down. The Cowboys, meanwhile, held GSU to just 3 of 13 on the money down.
"He was composed," Bohl said. "He made a lot of big plays. Had a couple of things we wish he could've had back, but for a freshman or any quarterback, I thought he played with great poise and composure. I want to say that (offensive coordinator) Brent Vigen did a great job with him. Some people may think that was a bold step playing a freshman quarterback, but it really wasn't. I think that was the right move."
Said Valladay, "Everybody's going to have their moment. And when your number is called, like coach Bohl said, just be ready."
Even in front of a pro-Wyoming crowd with a majority of the 36,892 fans in attendance decked out in brown and gold, it didn’t look like the Cowboys would cruise given the way things started. GSU needed just six plays to cover 75 yards on its opening drive to take a 7-0 lead on quarterback Dan Ellington’s 4-yard touchdown run.
Ellington, who played on a torn ACL he sustained in early November, rushed for 45 yards on the drive, but the senior had just 25 more rushing yards the rest of the way, limping off the field at one point in the first half before returning. He went 13 of 26 for 156 yards through the air.
"Man, that is a tough son of a gun," Halliburton said.
Wyoming eventually took control after getting on the board with Cooper Rothe’s 53-yard field early in the first quarter -- the longest of the senior’s career. Williams threw 12 passes in the first quarter, including an 18-yard strike to Austin Conway in the end zone to put Wyoming up 10-7 late in the first quarter.
The Cowboys also made GSU pay for its mistakes. Defensive MVP Alijah Halliburton’s interception on the Panthers’ next play from scrimmage set Wyoming’s offense up at GSU’s 11 before Williams found Valladay out of the backfield three plays later for an 8-yard touchdown pass to increase the Cowboys’ lead.
Wyoming then got a break when GSU was flagged for roughing Ryan Galovich on a punt late in the quarter, giving the Cowboys a fresh set of downs near midfield. Williams, who was intercepted by Quavian White at GSU’s 5 to end a scoring threat on Wyoming’s previous possession, threw up another jump ball on third-and-10 while scrambling toward the Panthers’ sideline and found Eberhardt, who broke free from GSU’s defense and turned it into a long catch-and-run score to send the Cowboys well on their way to a satisfying win.
"I think there were a lot of plays that were key plays in the game, but that one certainly changed the complexion of the game," Bohl said.