LINCOLN, Neb. – Almost.
Midway through the fourth quarter, the Wyoming Cowboys looked beat. They had surrendered plenty of rushing yards, stalled at key times and had one particular trick play backfire disastrously.
That was the difference between a monumental upset and Nebraska’s eventual 37-34 victory on Saturday at Memorial Stadium.
“Unfortunately, we turned it over twice in the red zone. And when you throw away those opportunities in a game of this magnitude against a team like Nebraska, it’s going to be difficult to win,” Wyoming coach Dave Christensen said after the game.
Before the comeback -- Brett Smith’s two late fourth quarter touchdown passes made another disappointing loss seem like somewhat of a victory -- the Huskers (1-0 overall) thrashed the Wyoming defensive line in the third quarter.
After No. 18 Nebraska took a slim 17-14 lead into halftime, the Huskers traveled 80 yards on five runs to score a touchdown on their opening drive of the third quarter and extend their lead. Nebraska’s next drive traveled another 67 yards, spanning a gargantuan six minutes, 22 seconds. Again and again, quarterback Taylor Martinez and running backs Ameer Abdullah and Imani Cross wore out the Wyoming defensive line, grinding out yards on an inevitable march to the end zone. Quincy Enunwa finally scored on a three-yard fade pass from Martinez to give the Huskers a 31-14 lead.
Wyoming (0-1) didn't go quietly. Cowboys junior quarterback Brett Smith connected on his second touchdown pass of the day, a 22-yard dump off to Brandon Miller that the senior running back took just across the goal line. The score narrowed Nebraska’s lead to 31-21 with 2:04 left in the third quarter.
But Nebraska had another answer. Martinez found Enunwa again, this time from seven yards out, to cap a 13-play, 82-yard drive and give the Huskers a 37-21 lead with less than 12 minutes to play.
On the ensuing drive, Smith took Wyoming inside the Nebraska 30-yard line. But a wide receiver option pass by Trey Norman was intercepted by Huskers cornerback Ciante Evans, and Nebraska took over with less than 10 minutes to play.
“That’s on me,” Christensen said. “I called a trick play down there, we didn’t execute it enough in practice and he threw a pick on it ... that’s on us. That’s coaching.”
But Wyoming didn’t let the turnover transfer into points, as junior Blair Burns intercepted a Martinez pass on third-and-6 and returned the ball to near midfield.
It took Smith just two plays -- and 24 seconds -- to turn the turnover into points. He hit Jalen Claiborne for 23 yards on the first play, then Claiborne again down the seam for a 29-yard touchdown. Smith was sacked on Wyoming's two-point attempt and the Cowboys trailed 37-27 with 6:02 to play.
Wyoming's ensuing onside kick attempt failed, but the Cowboys held Nebraska on a fourth-and-inches with 2 minutes to play. Three plays later, Smith hit Robert Herron for a 47-yard touchdown to play to pull Wyoming within three points with 1:32 to play. After the onside kick attempt went out of bounds, Wyoming held Nebraska on the next drive and took over with one timeout and 1:07 left on the clock, having to drive 94 yards.
But Wyoming simply ran out of time, with Smith's final pass attempt falling incomplete as the clock hit zeroes.
“It’s just unfortunate that time ran out,” wide receiver Dominic Rufran said. “I feel like if we had a little bit more time we could have made a drive down the field and at least put ourselves in position to win the game.”
Despite the bitter outcome, things didn’t start gloomy. Wyoming scored first, as Smith hit Claiborne for a six-yard touchdown pass and a 7-0 lead at the 8:48 mark of the first quarter.
Down 10-7, Smith also led off the second quarter with a bang for Wyoming, rumbling 47 yards to the Nebraska 29-yard-line on a quarterback keeper. The Cowboys continued to wear down the inexperienced Nebraska defensive line on the ground, and four plays later Shaun Wick carried several Cornhuskers -- as well as the football -- six yards into the end zone to give Wyoming a 14-10 lead.
Nebraska answered midway through the second quarter, putting together a scoring drive that lasted less time than it takes to reheat a slice of pizza. From its own 20-yard line, Abdullah darted around the left end and found daylight, sprinting 62 yards down the sideline before junior safety Darrenn White dragged him out of bounds.
Two plays later, Cross plunged over the goal line from one yard out, giving the Huskers a narrow 17-14 lead. Nebraska went eighty yards in three plays and just 52 seconds.
As it turned out, Nebraska would need every one of those points to hold off Wyoming. As the clock hit zero, the Cowboys needed only a few more plays -- a few more yards -- to earn the team’s first win over a ranked opponent in the Christensen era.