Wyoming was playing in their first bowl game since 2011, BYU was making what seems like a pretty regular appearance in a San Diego bowl game. Both teams came into Wednesday night’s Poinsettia Bowl with eight wins. For Wyoming this was the most wins they’ve had since that 2011 season.
The Cowboys came into the season as the last place team in the preseason rankings in the Mountain West. Fast forward from August to December and the Cowboys are the home team in a post season bowl game. This might have been unexpected for Wyoming fans, but the Cowboys’ locker room have been hearing Craig Bohl say since he walked in the door in 2014, “those who stay will be champions.” The Poinsettia Bowl was the first step of Bohl’s plan to turn this Wyoming team into a perennial post-season contender.
In 2016 the Cowboys made two huge strides in that area. They played for a Mountain West championship and played in a bowl game. Neither game made them a champion, but both games are serious steps taken toward marching towards Craig Bohl’s plan for the team.
Wyoming and BYU squared off for the 78th time in their series history. Like many other contests against BYU this game came down to the wire.
In a rain soaked San Diego, who gets an average of 43 days of precipitation a year, the Poinsettia Bowl started off as a slog through the weather and sloppy football played by both teams. BYU took the ball first and ran the ball to the Wyoming 40 yard line. The Cowboy defense flexed their muscle and forced BYU to punt despite the good field position.
After a three and out by the Cowboys the Cougars would get the ball back. Their drive stalled when Cassh Maluia forced a fumble on BYUs Jamaal Williams and recovered by Lucas Wacha. Both teams spent the first quarter stalling out until BYU scored on a muffed punt by Ethan Wood. In the rainy weather Wood had the football go through his hands and BYU would recover at the Wyoming three yard line. Two plays later Tanner Mangum would find pay dirt as he dove into the endzone.
Curiously Brian Hill was absent for the first few Cowboy drives. Shaun Wick carried the load the entire first quarter. No exact reason was given for Hill’s absence during the first quarter, despite being on the sideline and in full pads. Sources say the absence was due to a violation of team rules.
BYU would tack on a field goal before halftime by Rhett Almond to put the score at 10-0. The second quarter was filled with five stalled drives combined as neither team could get their footing and struggled throwing the ball. Receivers failed to haul in easier passes.
Starting off the third quarter the Cowboys would get the ball coming out of the locker room. Wyoming marched on a 16 play, 60 yard drive that took 8:22 to complete. The result was a touchdown by Brian Hill from four yards out to get the Cowboys on the board. On the drive the Cowboys converted two third downs and two fourth downs to keep the ball moving for positive yards.
BYU was quick to respond as they went on an eight play 73 yard drive that was capped off with one of the most bizarre plays of the season. Tanner Mangum was being hurried in the backfield when he lobbed up a floater into the endzone. The ball bounced off of Tanner Balderee and then off of two Cowboys and finally landing back in Balderee’s hands for a touchdown. Magnum ran to the endzone patting his chest as if saying, “my bad” to putting Balderee in that position.
With the score sitting at 17-7 the Cowboys failed to pick up a first down and would punt back to the Cougars. BYUs Jamaal Williams turned in one of his finer performances of his career in his final game for the Cougars in the Poinsettia Bowl. Williams ripped off a 36 yard run down the sidelines to put the Cougars up 24-7 late in the third quarter. Williams would finish the game with 210 yards on 26 carries. He averaged 8.1 yards per carry. Williams came into the game two spots behind Brian Hill in the season rushing yards total.
The young Wyoming Cowboys are a team too young to know better, and their resiliency through the season has been tested throughout the course of the season. The Cowboys weren’t done swinging on the Cougars heading into the fourth quarter and set the fans up for a great finish.
The Cowboys marched on a 14 play, 76 yard drive that covered 6:26 as Josh Allen connected with Tanner Gentry in the back of the endzone to creep the Cowboys closer to catching BYU on the scoreboard.
Wyoming would stop BYU on their following drive and get the ball back. The Cowboys began the march down the field once again, this time a seven play 80 yard drive that setup a 25 yard pass from Allen to Gentry again, a beautifully tossed floater over the defense and into Gentry’s hands.
Wyoming now down 24-21 with 1:44 left and BYU has the ball deep in their territory. The Cowboys, who had been very shaky against the run on Wednesday night, as well as throughout much of the season were now in charge of stopping a running back who had already piled up 200 yards of rushing offense against them. With heavy doses of Jamaal Williams coming at them the Cowboys buckled down and held him in check on first and second down. On third down Kevin Prosser was able to chase down Cougar quarterback Tanner Mangum in the backfield and pick up a sack. BYU was punting back to the Cowboys with 1:22 left in the game and no timeouts.
The Cowboys were built for these kinds of moments. They were built for late fourth quarter drives to end the game with a winning score. With 51 yards to go the Cowboys at least needed to get into field goal range to tie the game, or go for the win. Allen hit Brian Hill for a 19 yard gain getting the Cowboys near Cooper Rothe’s field goal range. On the second play of the drive Allen scrambled to his right and lobbed a pass up that was intercepted by BYUs Kai Nacua.
And so ended the Cowboys’ hopes of winning the Poinsettia Bowl.
The Cowboys finished the season at 8-6, six wins better than their 2015 football season. The Cowboys will head into the offseason wondering how this game would have turned out had the BYU hot potato touchdown pass been knocked down in the endzone, forcing the Cougars into a field goal. Of the Cowboys six losses this season four of them were by 3 points or less. What would have happened if those contests had flipped the other way.
The Cowboys finished the season with two victories over top 25 teams. They were 6-1 at home on the season. Brian Hill broke the all-time rushing record for a Cowboy running back. Josh Allen introduced himself to the football watching world.
This season, despite two disappointing losses to end the season, will go down as a success by all measures. This Cowboy football team kept swinging at their opponent until the final snap of the season. The coaching staff has a mantra, “Building something special.” Hard to disagree with them.
Wyoming is now 6-8 all-time in bowl games. The Cowboys have not won a bowl game since the 2009 New Mexico Bowl vs Fresno State.
Wyoming is now 30-45-3 vs BYU all-time.
Wyoming finished the season with 503 total points, the second most in school history behind the 1988 team, who also played in a San Diego bowl game.
Tanner Gentry finished his Cowboy football career with 180 catches, good enough for eighth all-time.
Josh Allen finished the season with 35 touchdowns responsible for, tying Josh Wallwork for most in a season all-time.
Lucas Wacha finished his Cowboy career with 344 tackles, ranking seventh in career tackles.
Cooper Rothe was a perfect 64/64 on extra points this season.
The attendance for the 2016 Poinsettia Bowl was 28114.