TUCSON, Ariz. – If only for a day, it was Levi Williams’ world. And the only other person who happened to be living in it was his running mate in the backfield.
Making the first start of his career on the eve of a new year and decade, the true freshman quarterback from Texas threw for 234 yards and accounted for four total touchdowns Tuesday afternoon in a 38-17 victory over Georgia State in the Arizona Bowl. Redshirt sophomore running back Xazavian Valladay had a career-best 295 total yards of offense and scored two touchdowns for the Cowboys, who ended 2019 with eight wins, tied for the program’s most since 1996 when a Joe Tiller-led Wyoming team finished the season 10-2.
Valladay was named the offensive MVP of the game while senior safety Alijah Halliburton won defensive MVP honors. Valladay finishes the season with a Mountain West-leading 1,265 rushing yards, becoming the first Wyoming player to lead the conference in total rushing yards.
UW's 38 points were the most the program has scored in its 16 bowl appearances. The Cowboys improved to 8-8 in bowl games.
“This team that we have this year has been a resilient team. They’ve played together as a team,” Wyoming head coach Craig Bohl said. “(We) capped off an excellent year. Couldn’t be more proud of our seniors and the guys who are also up here on the stage with me,” Bohl said.
Williams’ three touchdown passes, all coming in the first half, were the most by a Wyoming quarterback in a game this season. UW (8-5) signal callers had thrown just eight touchdown passes in 2019, with seven of those coming from redshirt freshman Sean Chambers, who suffered a season-ending knee injury in late October. Williams’ 234 passing yards were the most passing yards in a game by any combination of UW quarterbacks. He also ran for 53 yards and a touchdown.
Redshirt sophomore Tyler Vander Waal started the previous four games for UW following Chambers’ injury, and the Cowboys went 1-3 in those contests following their 6-2 start. At times, the offense was stagnant.
Williams saw his first action of the season in the Border War victory against Colorado State and played against Air Force as well. But on Monday during the pre-bowl press conference, Bohl announced that he would hand the reins of the offense to his smooth-faced signal caller, saying that Williams gave the team the best chance to emerge victorious vs. Georgia State (7-6).
Bohl’s proclamation proved prophetic.
Time after time Tuesday afternoon, Williams made plays with both his legs and his feet, dazzling the 36,892 fans in attendance at Arizona Stadium. Yes, he made a costly freshman mistake in the second quarter when he underthrew a heave to the end zone that resulted in a redzone interception. But the freshman kept his cool and kept delivering strikes from inside and outside the pocket, providing a much-needed spark for an offense that had been dormant in recent weeks.
Williams’ third touchdown pass of the game followed a pivotal roughing the punter penalty and was his most electric moment of the afternoon. Under pressure, Williams rolled to his right and threw a prayer down the sideline as he fell out of bounds to junior wide receiver Ayden Eberhardt. Eberhardt made a leaping catch, broke several tackles and cut up the field for the 51-yard score with just 32 seconds left in the second quarter.
Wyoming had a season-high 524 yards of offense and converted 11 of 17 third down attempts while scoring on four of its five redzone trips. For the first time in months, UW's offense fired on all cylinders.
“He was composed (and) made a lot of big plays … For a freshman or for any quarterback, I thought he played with great poise and composure,” said Bohl, who has led Wyoming to three bowl games in his six season as head coach. “Some people may think it was a bold step, playing a freshman quarterback. It really wasn’t, in effect. I thought it was the right move. It was great experience for him, and we’re glad that he’s here.”
Valladay, who battled through nagging leg injuries through much of the season, was “100%” coming into the game, according to Bohl. He looked every part of fully healthy, rushing for 204 yards and a touchdown while hauling in three passes for 91 yards and another score. Valladay had two plays of 60 yards or more, one through the air and one on the ground.
“(I) felt really good just getting back in the swing of things because we had some time off,” Valladay, said. “Just staying in the training room, just doing everything that my coaches asked me to do, doing the work.”
Things didn’t necessarily start out well for the Cowboys. Georgia State, led by senior quarterback Dan Ellington, made easy work of the vaunted Cowboys’ defense on the game’s first drive, leading a scoring drive that spanned just two minutes. Ellington, playing on a torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), gashed UW’s run defense for 45 yards on the drive and capped it off with a touchdown run.
After that, however, UW’s defense, led by Halliburton’s 11 tackles and interception, clamped down on the normally prolific Panther offense that entered the matchup averaging more than 36 points per game. Wyoming held Georgia State to a combined 4 of 17 on third and fourth down and just 355 yards of total offense.
“For whatever reason we didn’t have the open looks that we typically have. I thought we were holding up pretty well in protection. I didn’t think they were giving us any unnecessary looks from a blitz scheme,” Georgia State head coach Shawn Elliott said. “I think they played well defensively and took some things away from us. And credit to them and their staff.”
When Halliburton committed to Wyoming in 2015, the Cowboys were in the midst of suffering through a 2-10 season. Four years and 30 wins later, the Colorado native and the rest of the 2019 senior class leave with three bowl appearances, four Border War wins and program-defining victories over Boise State and Missouri, among others.
Proudly holding the Arizona Bowl trophy on the field after the game, Bohl said that the, “future is bright” for Wyoming football. His senior safety, who battled a wide range of emotions after realizing he had donned brown and gold for the final time, couldn’t agree more.
“I don’t even know what to think right now. I’m just happy, excited, sad, all over the place. This is my last game. But it was just such a big game to end the decade off,” Halliburton said. “This program has changed so much since then.”