LINCOLN, Neb. — For 30 minutes, the University of Wyoming Cowboys did everything they had hoped to do against No. 18 Nebraska in the season opener for both teams at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln, Neb.
Over the next 25 minutes, the Cornhuskers did everything to Wyoming that the Cowboys had feared might happen.
Yet something unexpected happened at the end. Instead of Wyoming riding off into the sunset with a lopsided loss, the Pokes battled back, made the big plays in the fourth quarter and had the ball with a chance to win with just over a minute to go.
The storybook ending didn’t quite write itself, as Nebraska finally stopped the Wyoming and hung on for a 37-34 victory before a crowd of 91,185. But the Cowboys left Memorial Stadium with heads held high, not only getting an ovation from the 2,500 or so Wyoming fans in attendance, but from the majority of the Nebraska fans as well.
“The closer ones (losses) are definitely more heartbreaking, especially with the team we have this year,” UW junior receiver Dominic Rufran said. “But we’re a lot closer and we’re a better team than we were in the past.”
Wyoming led twice in the first half and trailed 17-14 at halftime.
Nebraska appeared to put its stamp on the game in the second half, building a 37-21 lead with just over 11 minutes to play.
But over the next 10 minutes, the Cowboys scored twice on Brett Smith touchdown passes to Jalen Claiborne and Robert Herron, the last coming with 1:32 to go, cutting Nebraska’s lead to 37-34.
Wyoming barely missed recovering an onside kick, but stopped the Cornhuskers on downs, getting one final chance with the ball on its own 6-yard line with 1:07 left. The Cowboys got one first down, but holding penalties pushed UW back and the game ended on an incomplete pass near midfield.
“I think the offense did an outstanding job executing, but more importantly we didn’t lose that fight,” Smith said. “There was screaming on the sideline at the end telling everyone not to lose their edge. Everyone really believed we were going to win that game.”
Smith had a terrific game against the Cornhuskers defense, throwing for 383 yards and four touchdowns and running for 92 more for 475 yards of total offense.
UW coach Dave Christensen said he just wanted to get the ball back in Smith’s hands one more time and he got that chance.
“He (Smith) did a great job of throwing it and we did a great job of catching it today,” Christensen said. “Our protection was really solid against very good players.”
Wyoming outgained Nebraska 602-530. It’s the eighth-most yards ever given up by Nebraska at Memorial Stadium.
Smith spread the football around in the passing game. Rufran had a career performance with 11 catches for 120 yards, both career highs. Jalen Claiborne added seven receptions for 88 yards and Robert Herron caught four balls for 91 yards.
In addition to Smith’s 383 yards in the passing game, UW rushed the ball effectively for 219 yards. Shaun Wick had 101 yards.
But Wyoming also had two costly turnovers, an interception by Smith that ended one scoring drive in the first half and a pick off a trick play in the fourth quarter.
“We executed offensively throughout the night, unfortunately we turned the ball over twice in the red zone,” Christensen said. “When you throw away those opportunities against a team like Nebraska it’s difficult to win.”
Nebraska wasn’t too shabby on offense, either.
The Huskers ran for 375 yards, with Ameer Abdullah leading the way with 114, Imani Cross 105 and Martinez 80.
In the end, Nebraska made a couple more plays than did Wyoming.
“Our whole goal going into this football game was, we needed to be in the game going into the fourth quarter,” Christensen said. “We needed to be in the game because the pressure’s all on them (Nebraska). We got it where wanted it, we had our opportunity, we just didn’t take advantage of it.”
UW defensive end Sonny Puletasi appeared to injure his right leg in the second quarter. Puletasi did come back into the game late in the contest.
Freshman defensive back Tyran Finley was also hurt late in the game and had to be helped to the sideline.
The win was the 28th straight season-opening win for the Huskers. … Wyoming fell to 1-16 all-time against Big Ten teams. … Smith moved into third place all-time at UW with 51 touchdown passes. The QB also moved into fourth place in total offense with 6,892 yards, passing Josh Walwork. … Saturday marked the second straight season-opener on the road — both against top 25 teams — and only its third opener on the road since 2005.