TULSA, Okla. – Despite an uneven performance by its offense and despite a defense that allowed the University of Tulsa 354 passing yards, Wyoming still was in position to be 4-0 for the first time since 1996.
But then something happened that had not happened Saturday. A fumble. And it cost UW a chance for a last-second score to win the game, or, at a minimum, send it into overtime.
With the Cowboys driving for a potential game-winning score, redshirt freshman quarterback Sean Chambers fumbled the ball at the TU 3-yard-line with 50 seconds remaining as Wyoming left Tulsa with a 24-21 loss in front of an announced crowd of 16,246 at Chapman Stadium.
UW faced a third-and-goal from the TU 10-yard line when Chambers scrambled to his right and was heading toward the end zone when he was hit by Hurricane defender Cooper Edmiston causing a fumble that TU’s Reggie Robinson II recovered ending UW’s chances at a comeback win and instead handing it its first loss of the season.
“There’s a lot of fight to this group. Now, we’re gonna have to learn from this,” coach Craig Bohl said.
It was a physical game that took a toll on the Cowboys as several players left the game with injuries and one left in an ambulance.
“We knew coming in we were gonna be in a dogfight,” junior receiver Ayden Eberhardt said.
After struggling since taking an early 7-0 lead, Eberhardt gave UW new life in the fourth quarter when he caught a Chambers pass for a 53-yard touchdown with 11:03 left to bring the Cowboys to within 17-14. It was the first time UW had scored since the 7:46 mark of the first quarter.
Then about 5 minutes later, the Cowboys’ surge continued as they regained the lead when Chambers ran for a 15-yard score with 5:25 remaining.
It seemed like a moment of redemption for Chambers, who struggled most of the day, and yet the Cowboys were in position to win.
“It definitely swung momentum our way, I can say that for sure,” said Eberhardt, whose key TD grab was his only catch of the day. “At that point we were feeling good.”
Chambers was benched for a few series’ during the third quarter, but when redshirt sophomore Tyler Wander Waal was ineffective, Chambers returned in the fourth to spark the Cowboy offense.
“We needed to spark something,” Bohl said. “We needed to spark some emotion. We needed to spark change. Sometimes change for change is not always the best response, but I do think that change shocked something.
“That was my decision and I do not second-guess that decision. I thought we responded well after that.”
Chambers rushed for a team-high 83 yards and two touchdowns. His 33-yard touchdown run in the first quarter gave UW an early 7-0 lead and was the first time this season it had scored in the first quarter.
But Chambers struggled through the air going 9 of 25 for 193 yards.
Bohl, however, defended his young signal-caller, although when asked about his starting quarterback going forward he said, “I think we’re gonna have to look at that.”
“We keep on saying (Chambers). I saw a lot of dropped balls,” Bohl said. “I’m not gonna put all this, and I’m not gonna have (the media) put all this on (Chambers). I get he needs to improve. There were some dropped balls. I’m gonna stand up for him.”
Compounding UW’s offensive issues were key injuries.
Leading rusher Trey Smith was lost at the 2:02 mark of the first quarter. The graduate transfer had a career-high 152 yards Sept. 14 against Idaho, but only had five carries for 5 yards Saturday.
Junior right tackle Alonzo Velazquez and junior right guard Logan Harris also sustained injuries. Harris left the game in an ambulance at the end of the third quarter.
“(Harris) is in the hospital,” Bohl said. “I don’t know if he’ll be kept there overnight. But anytime you get carted off in an ambulance that’s serious.”
TU took the lead for good, 24-21, on a Shamari Brooks 19-yard run with 3:26 left. TU converted on a fourth down to keep that drive alive. Brooks led TU with 67 yards, but it was the passing of Zach Smith that did the most damage. The transfer from Baylor was 25 of 50 for 354 yards and two TDs. The TU offense ran 93 plays and was 9 of 22 on third downs and 3 of 4 on fourth downs.
“I thought it was an unbelievably physical game and competitive,” Bohl said. “Lots of emotion during the game. It was a hard-fought college football game that was real clean.”
UW has struggled this season in the passing game, but its rushing game has been effective during its 3-0 start.
But, the Cowboys struggled to get the ground game going after Smith left. Xazavian Valladay only carried five times, and Titus Swen also got banged up and was limited to nine carries for 24 yards.
Senior safety Alijah Halliburton had a game-high 17 tackles (the second game this season he’s totaled 17 tackles), and the UW defense combined for seven sacks and 14 tackles for losses.
“The mood in the locker room is on to the next (game), just learn from our mistakes,” Halliburton said. “We’re keeping our heads up high. We’re still a dangerous team.”
The Cowboys (3-1) host UNLV (1-2) at 6 p.m. Saturday in an ESPNU-televised game at War Memorial Stadium.