ALBUQUERQUE — Wyoming did its part. Now the Cowboys wait to see if they’ve done enough.
Like it has all season, Wyoming leaned on a stout defense and a bruising running game to wear down New Mexico for a 31-3 win Saturday at Dreamstyle Stadium in both teams’ regular-season finale. Its most lopsided victory of the season made Wyoming bowl eligible for the third consecutive year.
That could mean a third straight bowl game for the Cowboys (6-6, 4-4 Mountain West), which has never happened in the program’s 122-year history, but there’s no guarantee with bowl slots filling up. Six MW teams were already bowl eligible coming into the day in a conference with just five automatic bowl tie-ins, meaning Wyoming will have to wait and see if the rest of the conferences fill up their slots before it finds out if it will be a part of the postseason when bowl matchups are announced Dec. 2.
“It’ll be interesting to see how the games fall out,” Wyoming coach Craig Bohl said. “We can only control what we can control. I do know we put a great product on the field. We won 31-3 over a Mountain West opponent on the road. It’s a great way to end the regular season, and hopefully we can play more.”
The Cowboys at least put themselves in consideration by dominating New Mexico for their fourth straight win.
Wyoming racked up 366 rushing yards — its second-most of the season — with 142 of those coming from Nico Evans, whose sprained right ankle held him out of practice all week. Bohl said throughout the week Evans would be limited if he played at all, but the senior got a carry on the first play of the game and had his seventh 100-yard game of the season by halftime highlighted by a 30-yard touchdown run in which he ran through a UNM defender to give Wyoming a 14-0 lead midway through the second quarter.
“There’s no guarantee we have a game after this, so I just knew I wanted to play in my last game in college football,” said Evans, who began the day as the nation’s third-leading rusher.
Tyler Vander Waal struggled in his first start since Oct. 20 in place of the injured Sean Chambers, completing just 4 of 17 passes for a season-low 41 yards against the MW’s worst pass defense. But with Evans and Xazavian Valladay ripping off chunk after chunk on the ground, it didn’t matter much.
Valladay got his biggest opportunity of the season with Jevon Bigelow’s bruised ribs keeping him from making the trip and made a career day out of it. The redshirt freshman started the scoring for Wyoming with a 21-yard touchdown less than three minutes in, ending it with a 20-yard scoring run with 9 minutes, 24 seconds left and carved up the Lobos in between on his way to a career-high 192 yards.
Among Valladay, Evans and receiver Austin Conway, who scored on an 11-yard run to make it 24-3 with 12:32 remaining, the Cowboys averaged 6.7 yards per carry.
“Just talking with Nico and (running backs coach) Gordie (Haug), they just told me to go through my reads and things will start picking up,” Valladay said. “Just trust the offensive line. Those yards were for them.”
Added Bohl: “(The offensive line) did a great job getting man on man and getting movement, and the running backs found creases. That had a big, big factor in our victory today.”
It was more than enough support for Wyoming’s defense, which bounced back from the 362 rushing yards it allowed to Air Force the previous week with its most suffocating performance of the season. New Mexico (3-9, 1-7) played three quarterbacks in Sheriron Jones, Bryson Carroll and Coltin Gerhart to give the Cowboys different looks, but rarely did any of them work.
Wyoming held the Lobos to 83 yards — their fewest since mustering 85 against TCU in 2011 — and six first downs while forcing a pair of turnovers. New Mexico’s only points came on Andrew Shelley’s 25-yard field goal making it a 14-3 game just before the half after a botched punt attempt gave the Lobos the ball at Wyoming’s 31-yard line.
Logan Wilson led the Cowboys with six tackles. Andrew Wingard finished with five to tie former UNM standout Carmen Messina atop the Mountain West’s career tackles list (454).
“We knew they had a Wildcat package for (Carrol), so we were prepared for all three guys,” Wingard said. “Honestly we just went out and did our jobs. When we do our jobs, it shows on that scoreboard.”
Wyoming forced four straight three-and-outs after New Mexico’s opening drive of the second half to take control. Cooper Rothe’s ensuing 37-yard field goal started a span of three scores in four possessions for Wyoming, which sent the Lobos to a seventh straight loss and the Cowboys back to Laramie with hope of playing one more time this season.
“We were so locked in,” Wingard said. “We’ve been saying since the (Colorado State) game it was a one-game playoff, and this game was treated no different than any of those other games. It was a great performance.”