The Wyoming Cowboys were looking for one more magical finish, but it wasn’t to be as they fell by three points, 27-24, to the San Diego State Aztecs in the 2016 Mountain West Conference Football Championship Game on Saturday in Laramie.
Trailing by 14 points, 24-10, heading into the fourth quarter, Wyoming rallied with an eight-play, 75-yard drive to start the fourth. That drive included two 15-yard passes from Cowboy quarterback Josh Allen to tight end Tyree Mayfield and wide receiver Jake Maulhardt. The drive would end with a familiar play for Cowboy fans -- a 33-yard touchdown strike from Allen to wide receiver Tanner Gentry in the right corner of the end zone to pull to within seven at 24-17.
The Cowboy defense would force SDSU into a punt on its next possession, putting the Pokes in a position for a drive to tie the game. But the Aztec defense would quickly come up with a big play of its own. On third and nine from the Wyoming 14, it appeared that Allen was going to run for a first down but SDSU linebacker Jay Henderson stripped Allen and Aztec defensive end Kyle Kelley recovered the fumble at the UW 22.
The never-say-die attitude of the Wyoming defense was put on display as it held the Aztecs out of the end zone and forced a 20-yard field goal by John Baron to keep the game to within 10 points at 27-17 with 6:54 remaining in the game.
The quick-strike ability of the Cowboy offense was evident on its next possession. Allen connected with Gentry for a 32-yard pass play down to the SDSU 43-yard line on first down. On the second play of the drive, Allen hit wide receiver C.J. Johnson across the middle. Johnson reversed his field and sprinted into the corner of the end zone for the score. The drive took only 42 seconds off the clock, and the Cowboys were back to within three, 27-24, with 6:12 left in the game.
As he had done two weeks earlier, San Diego State running back Rashaad Penny broke a big kick return on the next play, going 75 yards down to the Wyoming 25, but three plays later Wyoming’s defense gave UW life again. Cowboy linebacker Logan Wilson force Aztec running back Juwan Washington to fumble at the Wyoming 15-yard line and strong safety Marcus Epps recovered.
The next two series by both teams were played between the Wyoming 15 and 24-yard lines. The Cowboys went for a fourth and two from their own 23, but failed to pick up a first down. Then SDSU went for a fourth and four from the UW 15, but was stopped by the Cowboy defense.
The Cowboys had one final possession with 1:07 remaining from their own 24-yard line. But after a holding penalty negated a six yard run by Brian Hill, the Pokes faced a fourth and 20 from their own 14-yard line. SDSU sacked Allen and the game would end with the Aztecs coming away with a 27-24 victory of the Mountain West Conference title.
“I want to congratulate San Diego State and Coach (Rocky) Long. Their team was well prepared and it was a hard fought game,” said Wyoming head Coach Craig Bohl in the postgame press conference. “That did not surprise our football team, it did not surprise me and I’m sure it did not surprise San Diego State.
“San Diego State made more plays tonight than we did. We want to congratulate them. I also want to thanks our seniors. During the course of this year, the things they have accomplished, really no one would’ve thought of at the beginning of the year except for those seniors and myself. We had set a goal to win the conference championship and we came up short. We’ll move on. We’ll be in a bowl game. We don’t know which one or where it’s going to be, but we’ve still got some more season to play.”
Bohl was asked what this season has meant to him.
“If you remember how the season started out here, it was a game that was decided at about 3 o’clock in the morning,” said Bohl. “What became apparent was the resolve and the belief that these players have in each other, and the coaches. That belief and that togetherness and that unity really pushed us to overcome some difficult, challenging times. There’s no doubt that the trajectory of this program is pointing up. That’s a credit to these seniors.
“We have an exciting ballgame left. We want to cap off our season on a high note. I can tell you that I believe the stage is set. The culture in the locker room has shifted 180 degrees. There’s a winning attitude. There’s a never-say-die attitude. That’s all part of building a program. We certainly wanted to have an opportunity to win the championship this year. We didn’t get it done, but in my mind these guys are champions because they have set the stage to propel our program to higher levels.”
The first half was dominated by defense, as Wyoming allowed San Diego State only 160 total yards and the Aztecs gave up only 122 to the Cowboys.
In the end, the Cowboys and Aztecs were as evenly-matched a two teams as there was all year in the Mountain West Conference. At the end of Saturday night’s game, Wyoming had 343 yards of total offense and San Diego State had 327.
Wyoming won the regular-season meeting by one point, 34-33 on Nov. 19, and San Diego State won the MW Championship Game by three points, 27-24.
Bohl’s final comment was about the great support Wyoming fans showed the Cowboys this season.
“I want to give a big shout-out to our fans,” said Bohl. “It’s a commitment for them to come here on a cold night. I thought the atmosphere was electric. I appreciate our fans showing up tonight.”
The Cowboys will now wait to see where they will play their final game of the 2016 season when bowl invitations are made on Sunday, Dec. 4.