LARAMIE – There are two things the University of Wyoming wants to do in a given game, and it’s really not particularly complicated.
The Cowboys want to run the ball down the opposing team’s throat until they prove they can stop it and play suffocating defense.
Neither of those things happened during the season opener in Reno, Nevada in a crushing 37-34 overtime loss to Nevada. UW ran for just 128 yards and surrendered 496 yards of offense in that game.
On Friday night against Hawaii, the Cowboys got their groove back.
UW ran for a whopping 281 yards and allowed just 233 total yards in a dominant 31-7 win over the Rainbow Warriors at War Memorial Stadium, the Cowboys’ first home game of a COVID-19 shortened 2020 season.
Redshirt junior running back Xazavian Valladay ran for 163 yards and a pair of touchdowns while graduate transfer Trey Smith ran for 89 yards and two scores. UW dominated all facets of the game, holding the ball for more than 38 minutes, running 20 more plays than Hawaii and outgaining the Warriors by 160 yards.
A week ago, UW was forced to rally from a 28-6 third quarter deficit to send the game to overtime. There was no need for any such heroics this time around.
UW improved to 15-10 all-time against Hawaii, and the Cowboys reclaimed the Paniolo Trophy after losing it the last time teams played, a 17-13 Hawaii victory in 2018.
“Going into the game, we felt like it was going to be very, very competitive. We certainly needed to make improvements,” UW coach Craig Bohl said. “our secondary contested their throws more, we got some pressure on the quarterback.
"The biggest thing was we were able to establish the line of scrimmage and get that tailback running game going. (We were able to get) the line of scrimmage moving.”
In front of 6,232 fans clad in brown and gold, the Cowboys (1-1) put Hawaii in a chokehold from the opening kickoff. While the UW offense didn’t always look like a well-oiled machine, the defense, led by five sacks, was relentless until the clock hit zero.
Hawaii quarterback Chevan Cordeiro was a revelation in a 34-19 season opening win at Fresno State last weekend, throwing for 229 yards and running for an additional 116. Just a week after surrendering 420 passing yards to Nevada's Carson Strong, the Cowboys made Cordeiro look quite mortal, as the sophomore threw for just 110 yards and ran for a single yard.
"Obviously, they were the better team tonight," Hawaii coach Todd Graham said. "Not much else you could say.”
After running for 323 yards against the Fresno, Hawaii was only able to muster 123 yards on the ground against the Pokes. The Warriors made just a single trip into the red zone and only crossed midfield three times.
“We played a lot more together. I feel like last (week) we weren’t really unified and there were some gaps in our play,” sophomore defensive tackle Cole Godbout said. “Coach always says the most improvement is made from first game to second game. And I think we upheld that.”
UW scored on its opening drive of the night on an 18-yard Valladay touchdown run, and for all the world it looked like Hawaii might get run out of the stadium. The Cowboys stalled for much of the rest of the first half, however, and Hawaii was able to score a touchdown with just over a minute left in the second quarter to make it a 10-7 game at halftime.
With the game still hanging in the balance despite having outgained Hawaii 198-132, UW turned to its redshirt freshman quarterback Levi Williams for guidance.
Williams, making just his second career start in place of an injured Sean Chambers, took the bull by the horns.
“I just told them that we need to keep working. We just need to keep pushing, and they’re going to break,” Williams said. “Hawaii is a great team, but our team is tough. That’s one of our staples.
"I told them that they’re going to break eventually, and when they do we need to be able to capitalize on that.”
Hawaii received the second half kickoff and moved the ball with ease initially, driving all the way down to the UW 27. As was the common theme throughout the night, the Cowboys held strong and forced a 44-yard field goal try that hooked wide right. After exchanging punts with the Warriors, UW marched down the field on an 11-play, 75-yard scoring drive that ended with a short touchdown run by Smith.
Hawaii still trailed by only 10 points to start the fourth quarter, though, and moved the ball down to the UW 43-yard line. Sophomore linebacker Charles Hicks proceeded to make the play of the night, intercepting a ball that deflected off a handful of players and returned it 47 yards. Valladay cashed in the prize from six yards out, giving the Cowboys much-needed breathing room.
UW scored 10 crucial points off of two forced turnovers on the night.
“Honestly, it was huge. I know we were looking for something on defense. We were looking for any sort of jump start,” Godbout said. “When that ball popped up and I saw Chuck get that, that was huge. I could hear it in the fans, I saw it in our players.”
The Cowboys put an exclamation point on the night late in the fourth quarter by converting a fourth-and-2 try at Hawaii’s 17-yard line. The drive was capped off by another Smith touchdown, the finishing touches on a night that went about as according to script as possible.
UW had 13 plays of 10 yards or more on offense Friday night.
“I just felt like we had to find ourselves, find our motive, find out who we are,” Valladay, who notched his ninth career 100-yard game, said. “We all wanted to make a statement tonight. We all knew we didn’t have our best performance
(last week) … We just had to make a statement.”
Williams, who moves to 2-0 as UW’s starting quarterback, finished the night 9 of 18 passing for 112 yards. Hicks led UW with two sacks while junior linebacker Chad Muma, redshirt freshman defensive tackle Jordan Bertagnole and Godbout each finished with seven tackles.
Last weekend in Reno, there were only 250 fans in attendance due to local health guidelines. While War Memorial Stadium was unable to be packed to the brim due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the 6,000 or so fans made their presence felt.
There were nearly 24,000 seats unable to hold ready and eager Cowboys fans. But the crowd that was there made it feel like a packed house.
“The crowd was amazing today, especially supporting the defense on those third downs,” Valladay said. “We love the crowd. … It was great energy out there.”
UW travels down to Fort Collins next Thursday to face archrival Colorado State in the Border War. The Cowboys have won the past four meetings with the Rams, including last year’s 17-7 victory at War Memorial Stadium.