LARAMIE, Wyo. — It didn’t take long to see this was a resilient team.
Wyoming’s first defensive drive of the season resulted in a punt against Northern Illinois, but it ended in a Huskies touchdown. After the Cowboys had forced a fourth and 2, and then a fourth and 5 after a Northern Illinois false start, sophomore Carl Granderson hit punter Jake Ambrose long after the play and was called for a 15-yard penalty to extend the drive. Four plays later the Huskies were in the end zone.
It was one of those drives that, especially in the first game after a 2-10 season, made you go, ‘Oh, gosh. Here we go.’ For a team without resolve, such a knuckle-headed penalty would be the beginning of a slippery slope. Wyoming is not that team.
Not in 2016, anyway.
The Huskies wouldn’t score again that quarter, and when they scored on the first drive of the second quarter, Wyoming responded with a touchdown on the next drive. There were more of those moments in that game. Two missed field goals, both of which felt like punches to the gut. But the Cowboys didn’t falter and eventually won in triple overtime.
Game 2. In front of a crowd of nearly 90,000, Wyoming had just inched back within a touchdown after starting the game down 17-0. Then, quarterback Josh Allen threw a pass that went off Jake Maulhardt’s hands and into Kieron Williams’ for a 23-yard interception return for a touchdown. Uh-oh.
But no, Wyoming responded the next drive with another touchdown to enter the fourth quarter within seven points.
Of course, that fourth quarter was an utter collapse, as Wyoming turned the ball over four times. But the Cowboys didn’t let it carry over to the next week. When Allen gave the ball away to allow UC Davis to score a 21-yard defensive touchdown untouched, pulling within 14-9, the War Memorial Stadium crowd held its breath. Another collapse?
Wyoming scored four plays later.
Now, this team wasn’t perfect by any means. The next week, it was Eastern Michigan winning with resiliency, erasing a late Cowboys lead, but even then, the Cowboys’ defense forced four turnovers and scored two touchdowns to help Wyoming nearly win a game it had no business being in.
Against Colorado State, Wyoming bounced back from a 14-3 deficit. Against Air Force, Wyoming stood tall on a game-tying, 2-point conversion attempt. Against Nevada, Wyoming’s defense came up with an interception to end a potential game-tying drive before it started. Against Boise State, well, where to start? Trailing twice by two touchdowns? Converting on a game-tying 2-point conversion? Taking its first lead on a game-winning safety?
I might have made my point, but why stop now? Against Utah State, Wyoming looked like a deer in the headlights as the Aggies trucked their way to three consecutive third-quarter touchdowns. Then, Allen galloped for 38 yards, and Wyoming was back in control. Against UNLV, Wyoming drove 99 yards without timeouts in less than a minute to score on a highlight-reel Tanner Gentry catch before losing in a second triple-overtime affair. Against San Diego State, Wyoming again took its first lead with less than 2 minutes to play against a ranked team. And again, Wyoming’s defense held on a 2-point conversion attempt. This time, it would have given the Aztecs the win.
Against New Mexico, well... I don’t know exactly what that was. Then again, maybe it’s further proof. All year, Wyoming found resolve when it needed it most. The Cowboys didn’t really need to beat New Mexico. They lost by 21.
The Cowboys weren’t able to treat their fans to their first conference championship since 1993, but the resolve was still there in their second game against San Diego State in three weeks. The game looked like it could be over when Wyoming trailed by 10 with less than 7 minutes to play. The Cowboys drove 75 yards in two plays. Things looked bleak when the Aztecs returned the next kickoff 75 yards and got to the Wyoming 15. Logan Wilson forced a fumble. And the game was surely over when Wyoming then turned the ball over on downs and San Diego State found itself inside the Cowboys’ red zone yet again, right? Wyoming’s defense turned the ball over on downs itself.
The resolve ended there. There was no game-winning drive. But this was a season full of gutsy performances. This was a team that never quite grasped the concept of coming off the rails.
The train hit its bumps, but it ended up at the Poinsettia Bowl. Let’s all sit back and watch. There’s no reason to think the Cowboys will hold back now.
Follow University of Wyoming athletics reporter Brandon Foster on Twitter @BFoster91