Nov. 12, 2011
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. - An outstanding defensive performance and clutch plays by the Cowboy offense keyed Wyoming's 25-17 road victory over Air Force on Saturday to improve Wyoming's record to 6-3 overall and 3-1 in the Mountain West Conference. The Cowboys are now tied for second place in the Mountain West with Boise State.
Wyoming's defense limited Air Force to 311 yards of total offense, which was 145 yards under its season average, and forced four Air Force turnovers. Air Force had been averaging 34.0 points per game, but was held to a season-low 17 points on Saturday.
Offensively, Wyoming generated 351 yards of total offense -- 212 rushing and 226 passing -- and committed only two turnovers.
The Cowboy defense was led by senior defensive end Gabe Knapton, whose 12 tackles moved him into sixth place on both the Wyoming and Mountain West Conference career tackle lists. Knapton now has 347 career tackles. He passed former Wyoming Cowboy Ward Dobbs, who had 343 career tackles from 2005-08.
Two other Cowboys also recorded double figures in tackles. Junior strong safety Luke Ruff had 11 tackles, and senior defensive end Josh Biezuns had 10 and forced one fumble. Senior linebacker Brian Hendricks added eight tackles, and junior defensive tackle Mike Purcell had seven tackles and recovered a fumble late in the game.
Wyoming's defense forced three of four Air Force turnovers in the final two minutes of the contest. With a little less than two minutes remaining and Wyoming leading 18-17, Air Force was driving. On third and six from the Wyoming 25-yard line, Cowboy defensive tackle Ben Durbin forced Falcon running back Mike DeWitt to fumble and Purcell recovered at the 24 to end the threat.
The final two turnovers forced by the Cowboy defense both involved sophomore cornerback Marqueston Huff. Air Force faced a fourth down and 22 yards with less than a minute to play, and attempted a hook-and-ladder play that resulted in a catch and then a series of laterals with the ball ending up in the hands of Huff. Huff returned the fumbled lateral 48 yards for a touchdown to give Wyoming a 25-17 lead following a successful PAT by freshman place-kicker Daniel Sullivan.
After Wyoming's kickoff, Huff intercepted Air Force quarterback Connor Dietz at the Wyoming 35 to seal the victory.
The key play for the Wyoming offense came on its first possession of the fourth quarter. The Cowboys trailed 12-17 and found themselves with a fourth down and 10 yards to go at the Air Force 30-yard line. Head coach Dave Christensen and his staff decided to go for it on fourth down with a little more than eight minutes remaining. The decision paid off as freshman quarterback Brett Smith hit senior wide receiver Mazi Ogbonna on a 16-yard pass across the middle, giving Wyoming a first down at the 14-yard line. Following rushes of seven and five yards by junior running back Alvester Alexander, Smith took it the final two yards for a TD. UW's two-point conversion failed, but the Pokes had taken a lead they would never relinquish as the Cowboy defense would shut out Air Force in the fourth quarter.
Smith concluded the day rushing for 75 yards and two touchdowns on 16 carries. He would also complete 17 of 30 passes for 139 yards, one TD and no interceptions for 214 yards of total offense. Wyoming's leading rusher was Alexander, who carried the ball 15 times for 83 yards. True freshman running back Kody Sutton, playing in his first college game, had 11 carries for 56 yards. Junior wide receiver Chris McNeill had a career high nine receptions for 67 yards and one TD catch.
"I'm just so proud of the way they (the Cowboys) performed today," Christensen said. "The fight they showed today was the fight they've shown all season in all of our six victories.
"That's a football team (Air Force) that plays for 60 minutes. We talked about that there's going to be some adversity, and you are going to have to fight back and fight through momentum swings. You better play your tails off for 60 minutes.
"We've got a lot of great leadership on this football team. You talk about leaders, we have a team full of leaders that work extremely hard and do great things on the field and off the field."
Both the Wyoming offense and defense set the tone early. UW took its first possession of the game and drove the ball 80 yards in 14 plays, taking 6:33 off the clock. Smith completed two key third-down passes on that drive. On a third down and seven from the Wyoming 45, Smith connected with McNeill for 14 yards. Later on the drive, the Pokes faced a third down and five at the Air Force 13-yard line, and Smith hit freshman wide receiver Josh Doctson on a 12-yard pass down to the Air Force one-yard line. On the next play, Smith scored on a one-yard run. Freshman place-kicker Daniel Sullivan's extra point sailed wide on an extremely windy day at the Academy, and UW led 6-0.
It appeared that Air Force would also score on its first drive of the game, but the Cowboy defense had other ideas. Air Force had first down and goal at the Wyoming nine-yard line following a 44-yard run by Wesley Cobb. Three plays later, the Falcons had fourth-and-goal at the Wyoming one-yard line. Air Force went for the touchdown, but Cowboy seniors Brian Hendricks and Gabe Knapton combined to tackle Falcon quarterback Tim Jefferson at the one to take over on downs. Jefferson would later leave the game due to injury and would never return.
After a three-and-out on its next possession, Wyoming was forced to punt into the wind from the shadow of its own goal line. Air Force took over at the Wyoming 46, and proceeded to drive 46 yards in seven plays capped off by a nine-yard run by DeWitt. Air Force converted the extra point for a 7-6 lead.
The second quarter featured a series of three punts by each team. On Wyoming's fourth series of the second quarter, the Pokes took over at Air Force's 42-yard line, following a 12-yard punt by the Falcons into the wind. Seven plays later, Smith hit McNeill on a six-yard pass to the front corner of the end zone. McNeill caught the ball right at the goal line and the officials signalled touchdown. The play was reviewed and the call on the field would stand. Wyoming attempted a two-point conversion by passing, but the attempt fell incomplete, however a roughing the passer penalty gave the Pokes another chance from the one-yard line. Alexander tried to run the ball in from the one, but was stopped and Wyoming led 12-7. Wyoming kicked off to Air Force with only 20 seconds remaining in the half. Air Force took a knee, and the Cowboys went to the locker room with a five-point lead.
UW had 195 yards of total offense in the first half to 151 for Air Force. Smith led all rushers for both teams with 52 yards and one rushing TD at halftime, while McNeill had eight catches for 59 yards and a receiving touchdown. Neither team committed a turnover in the first half.
Air Force would be the only team to score in the third quarter. Falcon wide receiver Jonathan Warzeka took the opening kickoff of the second half and returned it 36 yards to the Wyoming 41-yard line. Wyoming's defense stiffened, allowing Air Force only 24 yards in 10 plays and forced a 35-yard field goal by Parker Herrington, pulling Air Force to within two at 12-10.
After a Wyoming punt on the next series, the Cowboys forced an Air Force turnover on a fumble by quarterback Connor Dietz at the Wyoming 14-yard line. Two plays later, Sutton fumbled the ball back to the Falcons at the Wyoming 15. Air Force capitalized five plays later on a one-yard TD run by DeWitt. The extra point gave Air Force a 17-12 lead.
It looked liked Wyoming would regain the lead on its next possession, driving the ball to the Air Force 14-yard line. On a first down play at the 14, Smith would fumble -- Wyoming's second fumble in successive possessions -- and Air Force took over.
The Cowboy defense would again exert its will on the Falcon offense, forcing a three-and-out on the series following the turnover.
Smith and his Cowboy offense would then engineer the drive that would put them ahead to stay. Wyoming converted two third-down plays during the drive -- one an eight-yard pass from Smith to McNeill on a third and five and another on an eight-yard pass from Smith to freshman receiver Josh Doctson on a third and eight. But the biggest play was the fourth down and 10 play that Smith hit Ogbonna across the middle for 16 yards, setting up the winning TD. The drive would cover 79 yards in 16 plays and run 6:36 off the clock, culminating with Smith running in for a two-yard TD to give the Pokes an 18-17 lead after a failed two-point pass attempt.
The Cowboys one misfortune on the day was losing their leading receiver McNeill to injury on that final drive. Christensen announced after the game that McNeill would be lost for the year due to the undisclosed injury.
The victory places Wyoming in a tie for second place in the Mountain West Conference with Boise State at 3-1. Wyoming has three games remaining: at home versus New Mexico on Nov. 19, at Boise State on Nov. 26 and at Colorado State on Dec. 3.