MOSCOW, Idaho — Big plays, career days, five lead changes and a dramatic finish.
That's how the University of Wyoming football team won its first game of the season Saturday.
Sophomore quarterback Brett Smith, who returned after missing last week's game with Cal Poly with a head injury, threw a 25-yard touchdown pass to sophomore receiver Jalen Claiborne on UW's first play of its first possession of overtime to give the Cowboys a 40-37 victory in front of an announced crowd of 13,558 at the Kibbie Dome.
It was Smith's career-best fifth touchdown pass of the game. He also threw for a career-high 365 yards and didn't throw an interception. UW's offense didn't commit a turnover for the first time this season.
“I was nervous just to play. I wasn't nervous about my head or anything,” Smith said.
Smith hit five different receivers for each of his touchdown passes, but the biggest was to Claiborne one play after Idaho took a 37-34 lead on a 49-yard field goal by senior kicker Trey Farquhar.
“I called it,” Smith said. “Initially when I threw it I thought I had too much air under it. The corner turned around and I didn't know Jalen had those kind of hops. He was like a rocket man going up and getting it. I'm glad I threw it there. I was saying go for (the win) right away.”
UW's defense gave up 509 yards — 203 rushing yards and 306 passing. Idaho (0-4) averaged just 44.3 rushing yards entering the game. Idaho junior quarterback Dominique Blackman was 34 of 48 for 306 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions.
But the Cowboys (1-3) made enough plays when they needed to.
The biggest one was early in the fourth quarter. UW trailed 27-20 and Idaho had the ball first-and-goal at the Cowboys' 1-yard line. Blackman tried a quarterback sneak. But as the 6-foot-5 Blackman was stood up by the defense, true freshman linebacker Siaosi Hala'api'api stripped the ball and senior linebacker Ghaali Muhammad recovered at the UW 3-yard line.
“I was an outside blitz for me, and I was coming off the edge and saw quarterback had tried to sneak it,” Muhammad said. “I saw the ball pop out and I grabbed it and tried to score.”
He didn't. But on UW's first play, Smith hit senior receiver Chris McNeill deep down the sideline for 80 yards to the Idaho 17-yard line. Two plays later Smith hit sophomore receiver Justin Berger for the touchdown and the game was tied with 11 minutes, 26 seconds left to play.
The Cowboys forced a season-high three turnovers and scored 14 points off those miscues. They almost had 21 as UW recovered a fumble with five second left before halftime. Smith threw a Hail Mary into the end zone that sophomore receiver Trey Norman got his hands on and appeared to drop.
McNeill finished with eight catches — one shy of his career-best — for a career-high 219 yards and a touchdown. His yards are the sixth-most in a single game in school history.
It looked like UW put the game away in regulation after the defense forced an Idaho punt. The offense went on a 15-play, 78-yard drive that ate up 6 minutes, 9 seconds on the clock. A Smith scoring pass to junior running back Brandon Miller gave UW a 34-27 lead with 3:30 to play.
Idaho forced overtime on the final play of regulation when Blackman hit senior receiver Mike Scott from eight yards.
Junior defensive end Mark Willis was credited with the sack on Blackman on a third-and-8 play in overtime for a loss of nine yards. It was UW's third sack of the game. It had only two in its first three games. That forced the long field goal.
And then came Smith's final throw of the game that not only gave him a single-game career-high in passing yards, it moved him into the top 10 in career total offense in school history with 4,414 yards — one yard ahead of the guy he replaced in Austyn Carta-Samuels.
“If you give me 13 ugly wins a year I'd take them,” fourth-year coach Dave Christensen said. “Our kids fought hard. You have to find ways to make pays. We had three takeaways, which took points off the board for them. We didn't turn the ball over. We had to come back and score.
“No question the monkey is off our back. We all want to win. We found a way to get it done today.”
True freshman running back Shaun Wick left the game in the second half and didn't return.
Miller played even though Christensen listed them as doubtful earlier in the week. Sophomore running back Kody Sutton didn't make the trip even though Christensen said he would earlier in the week, likely because Miller's health status improved.
Senior defensive tackle Miraldo Michel, also listed as doubtful this week, warmed up but was on the sideline in street clothes during the game.
Senior defensive tackle Kurt Taufa'asau played despite a large wrap around his right wrist, and had six tackles.
Junior receiver Robert Herron (shin) didn't make the trip.
Fourteen of Christensen's 19 wins at UW have been by eight points or less. ... UW is 5-4 in overtime games and has won two straight. Its last overtime game prior to this was the 2009 New Mexico Bowl where it won 35-28 in double overtime against Fresno State. ... This was UW's first game at Idaho since 1950. ... The Cowboys improved to 5-3 in their last eight road games. ... The Cowboys lead the series with the Vandals 5-1 and have won five straight. ... UW is 39-38-1 against current members of the Western Athletic Conference, but 63 of those games were against Utah State. ... Senior safety Luke Ruff played in his 41st game for UW, the most among current players.