Wyoming uses more balance to grind out win over New Mexico
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UW FOOTBALL | WYOMING 23, NEW MEXICO 10

Wyoming uses more balance to grind out win over New Mexico

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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.

“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

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LARAMIE -- He recovered a first-half fumble for Wyoming’s lone takeaway. On the first possession of the second half, with New Mexico electing to go on fourth down from Wyoming’s 29-yard line, he was the first to get to Ahmari Davis in the backfield for a loss to end the Lobos’ scoring threat.

Whenever he gets the chance, Esaias Gandy is usually around the ball.

“It’s exciting every game,” Gandy said. “You practice hard in practice, and you never know how much time you’re going to get in the games. Just being able to get in and actually make plays, it just feels good.”

That’s become a theme for Wyoming’s safeties in recent years. Andrew Wingard and Marcus Epps, the most productive safety tandem the program has ever seen, ended their careers last season among the top 11 tacklers in school history. Wingard’s replacement, Alijah Halliburton, leads the team and all Mountain West safeties with 69 tackles.

Gandy doesn’t have nearly those numbers, but he’s not a starter either. But he’s starring in his most significant role on Wyoming’s defense since joining the program three years ago, and he’s earning rave reviews.

“Every time he’s out, it’s less and less that you worry about E,” defensive coordinator Jake Dickert said. “He just goes out there and gets it done.”

Gandy has 14 tackles on the season, which doesn’t sound like a lot until context is attached to it. Buried on the depth chart behind Wingard, Halliburton and sophomore Miles Williams at strong safety, he had 12 tackles for his entire career entering this season, spending the majority of his first two years in the program as a contributor on special teams.

But Gandy is experiencing the most significant playing time of his career this fall, and it’s not just because of the attrition at the position. The 6-foot-1, 193-pounder has always had the physical ability, but Gandy has grown more comfortable with the Cowboys’ defense, one that hasn’t changed much from the 4-2-5 base look Wyoming ran the previous two seasons under Scottie Hazelton. With that comes less thinking and more confidence in his assignments.

“I think I know the plays very well, so I’m just able to react,” Gandy said. “(The coaches) just put me in the right position to make plays, so I make it.”

By the time the spring was over, Gandy had earned his spot as Halliburton’s backup on the depth chart -- the first in his career he had appeared on Wyoming’s two-deep. He held on to that spot all the way up to the Cowboys’ season opener against Missouri and didn’t waste any time making his presence felt.

With Missouri looking to add to its 14-3 lead early in the second quarter, quarterback Kelly Bryant tucked the ball and took off around left edge. Gandy quickly recognize it, pushed past his blocker and stuck Bryant before he could turn the corner, popping the ball free. C.J. Coldon scooped it up and returned it 30 yards for a touchdown, sparking a 24-point second quarter and a 37-31 win that got the momentum going on Wyoming’s 5-2 record to this point.

Gandy also has two tackles for loss and a pair of pass breakups as the first safety off Wyoming’s bench.

“(Opposing offenses) always throw you something different each game, but if I see a formation I recognize, I can recognize what I’m about to get out of the formation just off the set.

“I know the coaches are going to put me in the right position to make plays. I just don’t try to do too much. Just try to make plays when the opportunities are there to make a play.”

With Halliburton being a senior, Wyoming will be looking for yet another replacement at strong safety after this season. Gandy may be at the forefront of that impending competition now that he’s emerging as a reliable reinforcement on the back end of Wyoming’s defense.

“I can tell you this, our confidence level is better with him,” Wyoming coach Craig Bohl said. “I talked to him about his play during fall camp because I’d noticed a difference. … He came into fall camp and he compared well (to the other safeties) during fall camp, and it was showing. Now he has an opportunity, and he’s taking advantage of his opportunity.”

Injury update

Right tackle Alonzo Velazquez is scheduled to have knee surgery Monday, Bohl said Wednesday. What that means for Velazquez’s availability for the rest of the season will be determined then.

“When (doctors) get in there, it’s either going to be a two-week, smooth-out deal or maybe eight months,” Bohl said.

Velazquez missed last week’s game against New Mexico after reinjuring his knee at San Diego State. Ryan Galovich (shoulder) practiced Tuesday and Wednesday and is in line to handle punting duties Saturday against Nevada, Bohl said.

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