LARAMIE — Sean Chambers faked the handoff, waited for Xazavian Valladay to clear the linebacker and connected with his running back for a 53-yard touchdown on Wyoming’s first offensive play. He capped the Cowboys’ next possession with a 2-yard touchdown run.
And the tone was set for a relatively stress-free day for the Cowboys.
Chambers added another passing touchdown before taking a seat in the second half while Valladay had the most productive day for a Wyoming running back in three years, helping the Cowboys take control early in a 31-3 win over Nevada at War Memorial Stadium that clinched bowl eligibility for them for the fourth straight season.
That hasn’t happened at Wyoming since the Cowboys ripped off four such seasons from 1996-99, though with Wyoming squarely in contention in the Mountain West’s Mountain Division heading into their second and final bye week of the season, it was hardly much of a talking point for Wyoming coach Craig Bohl and his players afterward. Wyoming remained a game back of Boise State and Utah State and one-half game back of Air Force atop the division standings heading into Saturday night’s games with all of those teams still left on its schedule as an all-important November looms.
“It’s always been the priority ever since fall camp,” said safety Alijah Halliburton, who notched seven tackles. “That was the only goal we were trying to work was trying to get to this Mountain West championship and win it. We’ve got four big games left, and we’ve got to really prepare.”
The only real scare for the Cowboys was the hit Chambers took to his left knee on his touchdown run. The redshirt freshman, who added 20 rushing yards, was briefly replaced by Tyler Vander Waal before eventually returning for Wyoming’s fourth possession. He was intercepted at the tail end of it in the red zone but came back to lead a five-play, 42-yard scoring drive capped with his 37-yard touchdown pass to Rocket Ismail Jr., who finished with four catches for a career-high 93 yards.
Chambers watched the second half from the sideline with an ice pack on his knee and wasn’t made available to the media afterward. Bohl said he wasn’t sure of the severity of the injury.
“He was able to return, so we’ll know a little bit more,” Bohl said. “I can’t comment on anything, but we’re hopeful he’ll be back with the bye week.”
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The 14-0 lead less than six minutes in was more than enough of a cushion for the Cowboys’ defense, which limited Nevada and its two quarterbacks to 335 total yards. Freshman Carson Strong got the start while senior Cristian Solano also rotated in, but the Wolf Pack went three and out on three of its first four possessions and fell behind 24-3 at the half. It forced Nevada to largely abandon the run (68 yards on 23 carries), and Wyoming combined to sack Strong and Solano four times while 153 of their 254 passing yards came after halftime.
“(Solano) is kind of more of a runner, and (Strong) is the more passing quarterback,” Halliburton said. “It was a little different at first, but we adjusted pretty well to it.
“They decided to pass the ball a lot, and we knew coming into the game they were going to try to air it out on us. I think we adapted pretty well to whatever they were doing.”
The Cowboys had two more takeaways to push their turnover margin to plus-9 for the season, but the day belonged to a Wyoming offense that kept its momentum in the passing game going to balance out a career day from Valladay, who ran for a career-high 206 yards on 26 carries to finish with 280 all-purpose yards. That’s the most for a Wyoming player since former running back Brian Hill had 302 against Nevada in 2016.
“You’ve just got to step up and be the next man up,” Valladay said. “When you’ve got to put the team on your back, you’ve got to do just that. You’ve got a lot of guys that’s counting on me, and you don’t want to let your brothers down because at the end of the day you win as a team and lose as a team. I’m just grateful to be in this spot.”
After completing 60 percent of his passes against New Mexico the previous week, Chambers went 6-of-9 for 158 yards. Vander Waal was just 3-of-10 through the air, but one of those completions was a 25-yard touchdown to Jackson Marcotte as the Cowboys finished with a season-high 221 yards through the air.
“We’re just getting in a groove,” Ismail said. “We just keep climbing. Obviously everybody talks about the passing game, but I didn’t see any problem with it today.”
The scoring toss to Marcotte capped Wyoming’s first possession of the third quarter and extended the lead to four scores, putting the Cowboys well on their way to their second straight win heading into their November gauntlet. Wyoming will play three of its final four games on the road with a trip to Boise State on Nov. 9 up first.
“We’ll need to get healed up during the course of this bye week and utilize it well,” Bohl said. “Obviously the next team we play after this is a good football team. We’re a good football team as well. We’ll go in with the same mantra of being 1-0.”
Follow UW athletics beat writer Davis Potter on Twitter at @DavisEPotter