TULSA, Okla. — As ugly as it was for Wyoming at times, the Cowboys ultimately gave themselves a chance.
But in a game where the margin for error was slim for both sides, a timely mishap made all the difference.
Sean Chambers fumbled inside Tulsa’s 5-yard line with less than a minute left Saturday at H.A. Chapman Stadium, and the Golden Hurricane recovered to seal a 24-21 win that knocked Wyoming from the ranks of the unbeaten. The loss snapped a seven-game winning streak dating back to last season, which was tied for the fourth-longest active streak in the Football Bowl Subdivision.
“It was a hard-fought game that came down to a play here or there.,” Wyoming coach Craig Bohl said. “They made more plays than we did.”
For a while, it looked as if there wouldn’t be much drama given Wyoming’s struggle to yet again get its passing game going and stop much of anything Tulsa (2-2) did through the air. Chambers completed less than half of his passes (9 of 25) for the fourth straight game as Wyoming (3-1) had just 168 total yards going into the fourth quarter and mustered just 24 in the third.
Bohl pulled Chambers in favor of Tyler Vander Waal late in the quarter. Vander Waal, who started 10 games last season, didn’t fare much better, completing just 1 of 6 passes for 21 yards. Meanwhile, a Wyoming defense that came in allowing the third-most passing yards in the FBS had few answers for Tulsa’s passing attack behind Baylor transfer Zach Smith, who went 25 of 50 through the air amid constant pressure from the Cowboys (seven sacks, 14 tackles for loss) and finished with 354 yards and two passing touchdowns.
“We needed to spark some emotion, and we needed to spark a change,” Bohl said. “Sometimes change for change is not always the best response, but I do think that change shook some things up. I think our team rallied back. I appreciated how Tyler went in, and I really appreciate how Sean went back in and competed.
“At that time, we were in the doldrums, and we weren’t during anything. That was my decision. I do not second-guess that decision.”
One of those was a 37-yarder to Sam Crawford Jr. to give Tulsa a 14-7 late in the second quarter, and Jacob Rainey’s 29-yard field goal with 9 minutes, 26 seconds left in the third quarter pushed the Golden Hurricane’s advantage to 10 — one that held until early in the fourth.
That’s when Chambers was reinserted and tossed Wyoming’s first passing touchdown of the season to Ayden Eberhardt, who ran free down the middle of the field to catch Chambers’ 53-yard toss in stride.
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“They played kind of a cover-2 trap (defense), and I got kind of got lost in the shuffle,” Eberhardt said. “Then their safeties all kind of dropped down for the run, so no one was over the top.”
Tulsa decided to go on fourth-and-4 near midfield on its ensuing possession. Teagan Liufau sacked Smith to get the ball back for the offense, which went 50 yards on six plays to give Wyoming the 21-17 lead on Chambers’ 15-yard touchdown run with 5:25 left.
Tulsa faced another fourth down at midfield on its next possession but converted on a 17-yard connection between Smith and Keenan Johnson. The Golden Hurricane, which was 9 of 22 on third down and 3 of 5 on fourth, was in the end zone one play later on Shamari Brooks’ 17-yard touchdown run to go back up with 3:26 left.
A 6-yard run by Xazavian Valladay, who was limited to just five carries because of his ankle injury, and a false start had Wyoming facing its own fourth down from Tulsa’s 44 on its final possession, but Chambers found Dontae Crow for 34 yards to get the Cowboys knocking on the door. Three plays later, Chambers rolled out and took off. He made one man miss, but Colton Edmiston caught up and popped the ball free before Reggie Robinson II pounced on it at the 3 to seal Wyoming’s fate with 50 seconds left.
A Wyoming spokesman said Chambers was unavailable for comment after the game.
“Ball security comes into play,” Bohl said, “and he’ll learn from that.”
Wyoming flipped the script on the slow starts that had plagued it in its first three games, scoring its first points of the first quarter when Chambers tucked it on third down and outran Tulsa’s defense 37 yards to give the Cowboys a 7-0 lead after its first possession.
But with Tulsa’s success moving the ball and Wyoming’s inability to sustain drives, it didn’t last long. The Golden Hurricane converted 6 of 12 third downs in the first half and found a groove through the air behind Smith, who moved Tulsa into Wyoming territory on all seven of its first-half possessions. Rainey pushed a 36-yard field goal attempt wide early in the second quarter, but Tulsa eventually got on the board on Keylon Stokes’ 56-yard catch-and-run score before Smith found Crawford over the middle to cap Tulsa’s next drive.
“They didn’t make anything confusing or hard for us,” safety Alijah Halliburton said. “It was more like we probably missed a tackle there. Kind of like a one-play game where they busted for a touchdown, so that’s really it.
“(Smith) is tough. We did hit him a couple times. ... Credit to him, but we need still need to work on our stuff.”