LARAMIE — Wyoming’s seniors have been a part of some bad teams over the last five years.
Safety Marcus Epps and running back Nico Evans were redshirts during the Cowboys’ 4-8 season in 2014 during Craig Bohl's first season at the helm. Andrew Wingard joined the program the next season and started all but one game alongside Epps at safety as Wyoming limped to a 2-10 campaign.
Wyoming was flirting with making it five losing seasons in seven years when a 24-16 loss to Utah State on Oct. 20 had the Cowboys at 2-6 overall and trending toward a forgettable season.
“Three years ago, a team probably would’ve folded at 2-6,” Wingard said.
Now it’s going to be a hard one for Wingard and his teammates to forget.
Wyoming hasn’t lost since, ripping off four straight wins to become bowl eligible for the third straight season. As the seventh and final Mountain West team to get to six wins, Wyoming will sweat it out until bowl matchups are announced Sunday to see if it will actually play in a third straight bowl game, which would be a first for the Cowboys.
The last time Wyoming gained bowl eligibility in three consecutive seasons was 1997-99, but the Cowboys didn’t play in a bowl game any of those years. The Cowboys lost the Poinsettia Bowl to BYU in 2016 before beating Central Michigan in last year’s Famous Idaho Potato Bowl, and a convincing 31-3 win at New Mexico in this year’s regular-season finale at least has Wyoming in position to turn the possibility of history into reality.
“I think it says a lot about the men that are in that (locker) room — coaches, players and strength staff — to be able to continue to not have doubt, stay together, not turn on one another and pull together,” Bohl said. “That’s the Cowboy way.”
Evans' 1,000-yard season was interrupted by a rib injury that caused him to miss two games, including one against FCS member Wofford on Sept. 15 in which the Cowboys needed a last-minute touchdown drive to avoid the upset. But reaching the end zone was rare for Wyoming with Tyler Vander Waal at quarterback.
Despite Evans’ best efforts when healthy, the Cowboys averaged the fewest yards, passing yards and points in the MW with Vander Waal throwing more interceptions (4) than touchdowns (3) through the first eight games. Bohl made the switch to true freshman Sean Chambers early in the second half against Utah State, which proved to be a turning point.
Chambers led three scoring drives in the final two quarters for an offense that went the previous 10 without scoring a touchdown, and a defense with eight starters back from one of the MW’s top groups a season ago started to look like it. Wyoming held the nation’s second-highest scoring offense at the time to less than 200 total yards and 17 points (the Aggies returned a kickoff for a touchdown) to help the Cowboys keep it close.
“That was one of the first games where we started playing like how we know we can play,” Epps said. “I think after that, we just carried some momentum defensively into these next four games.”
The Cowboys lost Youhanna Ghaifan the next week to an indefinite suspension after the all-league defensive tackle got involved in an altercation resulting in two misdemeanor charges, but the defense didn’t budge. Wyoming has allowed just 15 points per game during its winning streak while averaging 31.
That includes a season-high 35-point effort against Air Force, all of which were scored after Chambers went down with a broken leg on the Cowboys’ opening possession. Vander Waal led touchdown drives on each of the Cowboys’ final three possessions, rallying Wyoming from a two-touchdown deficit midway through the fourth quarter to a 35-27 win.
“We kept fighting when things were bad,” Epps said. “We never started pointing fingers or turning on each other or throwing in the towel. We just kept fighting, came to practice every day and worked hard to get bowl eligible.”
Evans also missed the final three quarters against Air Force with a sprained ankle and didn’t practice at all last week. Yet he split carries with freshman Xazavian Valladay in what could end up being the final game of his collegiate career and helped the Cowboys rack up 366 rushing yards while the defense yielded a season-low 83 yards in Wyoming’s runaway win over New Mexico.
“We need this bowl game,” Evans said. “I’m not done playing football.”
It would be one that would mean a little bit more to the Cowboys considering everything they’ve waded through to get to this point.
“I’ve always said the 2016 season was the most memorable for me because we’d come off a really bad season, but this season is really starting to creep up there because you’ve just seen the leadership from this group of seniors that’s been through so much,” Wingard said. “This is definitely one of the memorable finishes to a season in my football career.”