LARAMIE — Even against the nation’s most vulnerable pass defense, Wyoming didn’t stray from its offensive identity.
But the Cowboys at least tried to establish some rhythm in the passing game. And with some doubt still lingering as to the outcome of their homecoming game, they went to the air to remove it.
Sean Chambers connected with Josh Harshman for a 15-yard touchdown with 9 minutes, 50 seconds left, icing Wyoming’s 23-10 win over New Mexico at War Memorial Stadium. It increased the lead to three scores for the Cowboys, who used 259 rushing yards, some timely defense and, yes, even an efficient passing performance to avoid its first losing streak of the season with its third straight win over the Lobos.
“I think while we ran the ball well, we certainly threw the ball better,” Wyoming coach Craig Bohl said. “We can still improve there, but there were some big plays in the passing game. That helps us.”
Wyoming began the day with the lowest completion percentage in the Football Bowl Subdivision (36.5), but Chambers finished 9 of 15 passing for 81 yards for a clip that rose above 50 percent for the first time all season. He also ran for a score, but his lone touchdown pass was clutch as it capped a 10-play, 75-yard scoring drive to answer a UNM field goal that cut Wyoming’s lead to 13-3 early in the fourth quarter.
“The one common message was we’ve got to go down and score,” Chambers said. “We’ve got to finish on the football field, and that’s what we did. We put together a nice drive, went down and scored.”
UNM replaced Sheriron Jones with Tevaka Tuioti at quarterback and went on a nine-play, 75-yard drive that ended with Tuioti’s 21-yard scoring toss to Aaron Molina on fourth down, but it was one of the Lobos’ few conversions. UNM outgained Wyoming 372-345 in total yards, including 203 passing on just 14 completions, but the Cowboys held the Lobos to a combined 5 of 14 on third and fourth down to limit their points despite seven UNM possessions crossing into Wyoming’s side of midfield.
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“We could give up one big play. There’s still another 40 yards to go,” said safety Alijah Halliburton, who finished with seven tackles. “After that, we just need to hold in there, get a stop and make a play.”
But the Cowboys eventually wore down UNM with a running game that’s been constant all season. With Wyoming missing two of its top three running backs to injuries, Xazavian Valladay was fed a career-high 33 times and finished with 127 yards for his third career 100-yard game. Chambers went for 117 yards on just 18 carries, including a 40-yarder on third-and-long that helped set up Wyoming’s final score with 58 seconds left.
Wyoming, with Patrick Arnold and Frank Crum filling in for the injured Eric Abojei (knee) and Alonzo Velazquez (knee) on the offensive line, averaged 4.9 yards on 55 carries, converted 11 times on third down — a season-high — and held the ball for 10:48 in the fourth quarter.
“Pat and (right guard) Logan (Harris), they were doing a great job of opening those holes for me, Sean and the rest of the backs,” Valladay said. “Credit to the O-line for getting us right today.”
Chambers put the ball in the air 12 times in the first half. He completed seven of those for 56 yards as the Cowboys worked to establish a rhythm in the passing game against a UNM defense that came in yielding 391.7 passing yards per game — by far the most in the FBS.
His 25-yard completion to Valladay out of the backfield late in the first quarter helped the Cowboys capitalize on Esias Gandy’s fumble recovery. Chambers capped the quick three-play, 36-yard scoring drive with a 1-yard sneak for his ninth rushing touchdown of the season to give Wyoming a 7-0 lead that held until halftime.
Chambers completed his first seven passes to six different receivers. Wyoming needed it with a running game that was slow to get going with just 97 yards in the first half, but the Cowboys got it going enough late to separate.
“We’re nowhere close to where we want to be (in the passing game), but it’s been a long time coming,” Chambers said. “And it makes us feel good going into next week. It’s something we can build off of and just keep going.”
Follow UW athletics beat writer Davis Potter on Twitter at @DavisEPotter