LARAMIE — The Cowboys had the fear of the underdog.
At the start of game week, Wyoming head football coach Craig Bohl said he could not overemphasize to his team how big of a challenge it faced in the Wofford Terriers, who play in the Football Championship Subdivision. Wofford came into the game ranked top-10 nationally in the FCS, the level at which Bohl won three national championships, and the Terriers, twice-defending national quarterfinalists, had gained 672 yards of offense the week before.
None of that, however, would have made Wyoming feel much better about losing to an FCS team for the first time since 2015 — or about losing for the third time in three weeks, losing a third consecutive game at War Memorial Stadium or losing to a team whose name a good chunk of the 20,293 fans in attendance probably didn’t know until it appeared on the schedule.
“It would’ve been hard,” safety Andrew Wingard said. “But I don’t want to think about that. So I’m not even going into what would be going through our heads right now.”
It looked like a very real possibility, as Wofford led for more than 16 minutes Saturday, including the majority of the fourth quarter. But the Cowboys survived. They beat the Terriers 17-14 on a 9-yard Tyler Vander Waal touchdown pass to Rocket Ismail Jr. with 17 seconds remaining.
“Now, we’ve got a whole lot of season left and we’ve got to get a whole lot better,” Bohl said afterward. “But this was a tough stretch. It was great to come up with a win like this. I think our guys are going to learn a lot from it, both the good and the bad.”
Ismail’s touchdown, the first of his Division I career, came at the end of a 13-play, 80-yard prayer of a drive. After the Cowboys’ previous series ended deep in Wofford territory when Vander Waal was hit from behind and intercepted, the Cowboys’ defense got the ball back in 1:26, giving its offense just under 2 minutes — but no timeouts — to work with. The game-winning drive featured Vander Waal passes of 12 or more yards to Ismail, Austin Conway, who had 11 catches on the day, James Price and Tyree Mayfield.
Then, faced with a fourth-and-4, Vander Waal found running back Xazavian Valladay, making his first career start, for a 10-yard gain.
Vander Waal aimed for Conway in the end zone the next play, but what might have been called a defensive pass interference was instead ruled a pass breakup. One Wofford timeout later, Vander Waal found Ismail on a “rub play” for the winning score. Chavez Pownell Jr. sealed the win with an interception with 5 seconds left in the game.
The teams, who were scoreless in odd-numbered quarters, entered halftime with Wyoming holding onto a 10-7 lead. The Cowboys lost that lead, which they held for all of the third quarter, when a 12-play march gave Wofford a four-point edge. Wyoming’s advantage probably would’ve disappeared even sooner if not for a one-handed Andrew Wingard interception in the end zone.
Wyoming’s first score of the day was gift-wrapped by Youhanna Ghaifan, who forced a fumble in Wofford territory, and Sidney Malauulu, who recovered it. Antonio Hull almost put a bow on it, as Malauulu gave him a hand-off while being tackled, but Hull went down at the Wofford 10. Wyoming’s offense couldn’t take advantage, but Cooper Rothe began the day’s scoring with a 20-yard field goal.
Wofford’s response was emphatic — and more bountiful. Lennox McAfee busted a 44-yard run, hurdling Chavez Pownell Jr. to break free. Less than 5 minutes before halftime, Andre Stoddard willed in the game’s first touchdown from 4 yards out.
The Cowboys’ own first touchdown drive was jump-started by Valladay, who at different points this fall has trailed four other running backs on the depth chart. The redshirt freshman, who had 80 total yards of offense, got the drive going with rushes of 6 and 8 yards and a reception of 7.
Then, Vander Waal put his legs to work. First, a 16-yard scramble on third-and-8 on which narrowly evaded a sack. Then, an 8-yard run that earned another first down. He had a chance at his first career touchdown pass with James Price wide open in the end zone, but Vander Waal airmailed the throw. Then he took the latest in a series of hard hits, earning a new set of downs by way of a roughing the passer call. The young quarterback’s next throw was on target, finding an open Mayfield for that first touchdown pass.
The Cowboys’ challenge Saturday was compounded by an abundance of starters missing the game due to injuries. Running back Nico Evans (ribs) dressed but did not play. Starting cornerback C.J. Coldon (arm) and starting nickel back Tyler Hall (unknown) also were sidelined by injuries.
True freshman Jevon Bigelow, who started last week in Evans’ place, did not play because of a concussion. Valladay got the start, with converted safety Dauson Booker at backup and wide receiver Dontae Crow as the third-stringer.
“I talked to our captains on Wednesday and we usually just do a check on where guys are at physically, how beat up they are,” Bohl said. “And they started talking, and I said, ‘Just stop. Screw it. The heck with your feelings. We’ve got to (gut) this thing (out). We’ve got to figure out how to win. We’ve got to get to 1-0.’”
The Cowboys (2-2) get a chance to rest with a bye week before hosting Boise State to begin Mountain West play.