LARAMIE — It all comes down to this.
Minus the middle quarters of last week’s game against Air Force, Wyoming has played some of its best football of the season over the last three weeks to keep their hopes of a bowl game alive. Wyoming will take a three-game winning streak into the final week of the regular season, needing to extend it to four to become bowl eligible for the third straight season.
Wyoming coach Craig Bohl and his players said they’ve done too much work over the last month to let anything distract them. That includes any notion that gaining bowl eligibility should be rather easy considering who’s next on the schedule.
“Just in the Mountain West in general, you can’t just show up and beat people,” safety Marcus Epps said. “(New Mexico) almost beat San Diego State a few weeks ago, so it doesn’t work like that. You have to be prepared and bring your game every week.”
Wyoming (5-6, 3-4 MW) will try to get its sixth win against the Lobos, who are in cellar of the Mountain West’s Mountain Division for the second straight year. Since beating UNLV in its conference opener on Oct. 6, New Mexico (3-8, 1-6) has lost six straight and enters Saturday’s game with just three wins overall.
“Their record I don’t think is anywhere close to the indication of the type of football team they have,” Bohl said. “They have been hot and cold, and we’re going to assume they’re going to play really hot against us. They always seem to.”
New Mexico, which beat the Cowboys 56-35 in their last trip to Albuquerque before Wyoming returned the favor with a 42-3 win last season, has struggled to stop much of anything through the air. Only San Jose State is yielding more passing yards in the MW than the Lobos, who are yielding nearly 37 points per game.
The offense hasn’t fared much better without quarterback Tevaka Tuioti, who was lost for the season with a broken collarbone he suffered against Liberty on Sept. 29. Sheriron Jones has filled in with mixed results, accounting for 1,683 yards of offense with 13 touchdown passes. He’s completing just 54 percent of his passes and has nearly matched that touchdown total with interceptions (12).
Much like Wyoming, the Lobos have leaned on their running game as their primary method of moving the ball. Behind running back Tyrone Owens (669 yards, 6 TDs), New Mexico owns the fifth-best running game in the MW at 163 yards per game.
“Just from watching them against Boise last week, I think they’re better than their record,” Epps said. “They have a good, big receiver in (Delane Hart-Johnson), and their quarterback is a playmaker as well. Can run around and make the throws. They definitely have talent and playmakers on the field.”
Of course, Wyoming is dealing with personnel changes of its own on offense.
Tyler Vander Waal is back under center after Sean Chambers suffered a broken leg against Air Force that ended his season. Vander Waal, who started the Cowboys’ first eight games before being benched, is coming off his best game of the season, accounting for four touchdowns and tossing the go-ahead touchdown pass to cap Wyoming’s rally from 13 down in the fourth quarter in a 35-27 win.
Vander Waal is completing just 50.7 percent of his passes with nearly as many interceptions (4) as touchdowns (5) on the season, but the redshirt freshman is more of a true pocket passer than the more mobile Chambers. Wyoming may have to try to utilize Vander Waal’s arm more against New Mexico if the nation’s third-leading rusher, Nico Evans (ankle sprain), and backup running back Jevon Bigelow (bruised ribs) aren’t able to go.
“We’ll continue to rework the playbook,” Bohl said. “There are certain things Tyler does well actually a little better than Sean, and I thought he showed those things in the game. We’ll look at what he does well and what our offense is doing well right now.”
Evans didn’t practice until Thursday this week while Bigelow is doubtful to make the trip to Albuquerque, Bohl said. Evans will travel but may only be used in an emergency situation, leaving redshirt freshman Xazavian Valladay in line to make his second career start in the Cowboys’ most important game of the season.
“We’re not so much worried about their record because we have to go out and do what we have to do,” Valladay said. “Obviously that is to win, so we’ve got to just keep playing fast, keep playing hard, keep executing, stay in the coaches’ game plan and everything will be all right.”