Not much was expected of Wyoming during the 2009 college football season.
Fresh off a 4-8 season, the Cowboys were starting over under first-year coach Dave Christensen and picked to finish last in the Mountain West’s preseason media poll. But UW exceeded expectations, finishing .500 in conference play and slipping past rival Colorado State in the regular-season finale to become bowl-eligible.
The Cowboys’ reward was their first-ever berth in the New Mexico Bowl. On the opposing sideline was Fresno State, an eight-win team that finished third in the Western Athletic Conference regular-season standings.
The teams needed more than 60 minutes to decide an instant classic. After pulling off four fourth-quarter comebacks during the regular season, the Cowboys did it again before eventually notching a 35-28 win in double overtime.
“It was another typical game by the Wyoming Cowboys,” Christensen said afterward. “We kept everybody in their seats and took it late into the fourth quarter and double overtime. Being behind is nothing new for this football team.”
UW trailed 21-17 late in the third quarter, and things only got worse when freshman quarterback Austyn Carta-Samuels was intercepted by Chris Lewis deep in UW territory. The turnover set Fresno’s offense up at the Cowboys’ 6-yard line, and Ryan Mathews, the nation’s leading rusher, extended the Bulldogs’ lead with a 5-yard touchdown run two plays later with 13 minutes, 59 seconds left in the game.
Carta-Samuels responded by leading UW on a seven-play, 68-yard drive capped by an 11-yard scoring toss to David Leonard. Carta-Samuels also converted the two-point conversion to get the Cowboys within a field goal.
Fresno returned the ensuing kickoff into UW territory. But defensive end Mitch Unrein stripped Mathews four plays later, and the Cowboys recovered the fumble to keep the Bulldogs from extending their lead.
“To come back the way we did, it was our fifth fourth-quarter comeback of the year,” UW cornerback Marcell Gipson said afterward. “And this time, we did it on national television. I think 95 percent of America predicted us to lose.”
UW converted three fourth downs on its next possession to milk most of the remaining time off the clock. Ian Watts capped the 19-play drive with a 37-yard field goal to force overtime, where the Cowboys’ defense bowed its neck.
The Bulldogs started the first overtime by driving to UW’s 1, but the Cowboys stopped Mathews, a future first-round draft pick of the then-San Diego Chargers, on three straight runs. The Bulldogs tried a quarterback sneak on fourth down, but UW stuffed that, too.
Watts missed a 40-yard field goal attempt to send the game to a second overtime, but the Cowboys reached the end zone this time on Carta-Samuels’ 13-yard touchdown pass to Leonard. UW held Fresno to 5 yards on its final four plays, sending many of the Cowboys faithful rushing from their seats to the field inside Dreamstyle Stadium to celebrate a victory that gave them a winning season.
“It’s like a fairy-tale ending,” UW receiver Greg Bolling said afterward.
Follow UW athletics beat writer Davis Potter on Twitter at @DavisEPotter.
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