ALBUQUERQUE -- The memory is etched in the minds of Wyoming football coach Craig Bohl, and the Cowboys upper classmen.
The Cowboys finish their regular-season play on Saturday afternoon at New Mexico, not only with the goal of becoming bowl eligible for the third year in a row, but also avenging what was arguably the most disappointing game in Bohl’s coaching career, and for Wyoming football.
Unlike this year, when the Cowboys will have something at stake against the Lobos, two years ago, they took the field knowing they had clinched the Mountain Division spot in the Mountain West title game. Any celebration was run into the ground by the Lobos, who rambled for 586 yards, the most ever allowed by Wyoming.
“An embarrassment,” Bohl said of the game, admitting that when he told the team it had clinched the Mountain spot in the MW playoff, “it was almost like the air went out of the room.”
Andrew Wingard is one of 21 players on the Cowboys current two-deep who took part in that game, one of the 12 who was a part of that defense.
“After we got off the plane,” he said, “knowing we were in the championship game, it was like, `What’s the point?’”
That’s not the case this time around. This time there is a definite point. Simply getting bowl eligible isn’t going to guarantee anything. Unlike years past, there are an abundance of teams that figure to finish with six or more wins. And the Mountain West already has six bowl-eligible teams with only five bowl tie-ins, meaning if the Cowboys were to get to 6-6 the MW would need to get bids to two non-tie-ins to accommodate the conference’s bowl-eligible teams.
This isn’t a New Mexico team like the one the Cowboys faced two years ago, which, like the Cowboys and Boise State, went 6-2 in conference play, the Cowboys earning the Mountain spot in the MW playoffs thanks to tiebreakers. They have givien up 5,269 yards in 11 games, ranking 119th out of 129 Division I teams.
This New Mexico team is 3-8, including 1-6 in the MW. Since beating UNLV in its conference opener, New Mexico has not only lost six in a row, but has been outscored 237-105. The wins have come against Incarnate World, New Mexico State and UNLV. The defense has allowed 403 yards in 11 games.
But then there are areas of caution for the Cowboys, too. They have won three in a row, but are still 5-6, and in last Saturday’s win against New Mexico, freshman quarterback Sean Chambers, who provided a lit to a 2-6 Cowboys team when he stepped in as the starter, suffered a broken leg on the first series of the game.
The Cowboys also lost running back Nico Evans, who went into the game with the sixth highest rushing total in school history despite missing 2 ½ games with bruise ribs, to a sprained ankle on that first series He was listed as a Game-Day decision this week.
Bohl, however, said he feels good about the attitude of the Cowboys.
“I had breakfast with a lot of our players (Monday),” he said earlier in the week. “This is an energized football team. Our guys are really excited. They are drained.”
That’s not a surprise. The Cowboys had to rally to beat Air Force 35-27 last Saturday, scoring three touchdowns in the last five minutes with Tyler Vander Waal, who had been displaced by Chambers, stepping in on that opening drive, at the helm. Vander Waal passed for a personal-best 225 yards, and accounted for four of the Cowboys five touchdowns – passing for two and rushing for one.
An the defense came up big in that closing rally by the offense, holding the Falcons to a three-and-out on one possession, and picking off interceptions on the final two Air Force possessions of the game.
“That was a hard fought game, but the attitude, and the mentality of this team is really running at a high pace right now, which is encouraging,” said Bohl.
It is a far cry from the attitude when the Cowboys landed in Albuquerque for that game on the weekend after Thanksgiving two years ago.
The challenge for the Cowboys is to make sure the result is every bit as different.