RENO, Nev. – University of Wyoming redshirt freshman quarterback Levi Williams and the Cowboys needed to pull one last rabbit out of their hat Saturday night in Reno.
And, despite UW’s best efforts, a rally that had the makings of an all-time great comeback came up agonizingly short.
Trailing 28-6 late in the third quarter, the Cowboys stormed back to tie the game 31-31 at the end of regulation and send the matchup into overtime, due in no small part to the heroics of freshman walk-on kicker John Hoyland, who hit the tying field goal with just 23 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter.
Nevada’s Carson Strong ended UW’s hopes of a miracle, however, by throwing a game-winning touchdown pass to Romeo Doubs and sending the Wolf Pack home with a 37-34 victory in the season opener for both teams following the Mountain West’s delayed start due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
UW (0-1) is now 8-9 all-time in overtime games and falls to 78-44-2 in season openers.
“The will to fight and the poise to stay composed is there. But there’s things that we can certainly do better,” UW coach Craig Bohl said. “We can’t dig ourselves into that deep of a hole. But there’s some things that we can build on.”
It was an emotional game from the opening moments.
Redshirt sophomore quarterback Sean Chambers, playing in his first game in 363 days after suffering a season-ending knee injury against Nevada in 2019, took the ball on a keeper on the game’s third play. He rolled awkwardly on his ankle and remained on the turf for several minutes. He was taken off the field on a cart and was on crutches the remainder of the game.
A UW spokesperson says it is possibly a broken fibula, and Bohl said Chambers’ injury could be in the “category” of being season-ending.
After witnessing their team captain go through a hellish offseason of recovery, the Cowboys were thrilled to have Chambers back on the field. When he went down, the air was immediately taken out of the entire sideline.
“(Chambers) is one of my best friends. He’s one of my roommates, one of the guys I go to for everything. Losing him early, and seeing him go down … was just almost heartbreaking,” junior wide receiver Gunner Gentry said. “He’s a tough kid, and he’s really going to work hard to come back, and I have a lot of faith in him.”
In came Williams, the Texas native who last dazzled Cowboys fans in the Arizona Bowl in his first career start. Williams threw for 234 yards in and accounted for four touchdowns in a 38-17 UW win over Georgia State.
Williams’ night didn’t start nearly as well in Reno as it did in Tucson, however, as the Cowboys struggled to put together any semblance of offense in the first half while giving up massive yardage to Strong and the Wolf Pack. The Cowboys racked up just 106 yards of offense in the first half while Nevada rolled up 293, including 253 off the arm of Strong. Almost half of UW’s first half yards came on a single passing play, a leaping, acrobatic 45-yard reception by redshirt freshman Isaiah Neyor.
Despite the disparity in yardage and momentum, it was only a 14-6 Nevada lead at halftime, with all of UW’s points coming off the leg of Hoyland. The Cowboys were able to stay in the game due to a pair of fumble recoveries and a four-down goal line stand from inside their own 2-yard-line.
“I just kind of started a little bit slow. I could have been better,” junior linebacker Chad Muma said. “We’ll learn from these mistakes, that we started off early on. And I think that as a defense we’ll be better this upcoming week with everything that we learned from the first half of the game.
The second half started off much like the first half did for UW, as the Wolf Pack scored another two touchdowns, including another scoring toss from Strong, and took a commanding 28-6 with 3:47 left in the third.
For all the world, it seemed the Cowboys were dead in the water. But then Williams found a little bit of that Arizona Bowl magic again.
Trailing by 22, he led three consecutive scoring drives, the first coming on a 21-yard touchdown keeper on the ground. Williams then threw a perfectly lobbed touchdown pass to Gentry on the ensuing drive to cut the deficit to just eight.
Williams then scored his second rushing touchdown on the following drive, and his Tim Tebow-like two-point conversion jump pass to Treyton Welch tied the game 28-28 with 8:30 left in the fourth.
Williams finished with 267 total yards and three total touchdowns.
“(Williams) did well. His reads, a couple times were off,” Bohl said. “Along with that, we had problems with protection. But he did come up and make some good plays.”
The Cowboys’ defense came through at times in the second half as well, forcing three consecutive punts during the fourth quarter after having surrendered massive yardage up to that point.
“We rallied. We got together as a defense and kind of talked about our mistakes early on, and I think that we fixed those mistakes,” Muma said. “We came together as a defense really well and didn’t … give up early.”
With a chance to take the lead with just over 5minutes remaining in regulation, Williams was intercepted at his own 9-yard-line, giving the Wolf Pack premier field possession. The UW defense held, however, and forced a field goal, which set up Hoyland’s heroics to send the game to overtime.
Hoyland, a Colorado native, was only playing because redshirt freshman kicker Luke Glassock was out with a groin injury. Hoyland, who Bohl said spent much of fall camp under quarantine due to COVID-19 contact tracing, made all four of his field goal attempts on the night, including the tying knock from 42-yards out to send the game to overtime.
“Boy, did he deliver,” Bohl said. “For a freshman player who just showed up that we didn’t know a lot about, I thought he really did a great job.”
With momentum finally on its side, UW’s offense was unable to get anything going on its lone overtime drive, forcing another Hoyland kick to give the Pokes a 34-31 lead.
Nevada took advantage of UW’s offensive miscues, as Strong found Doubs over the middle of the end zone from nine yards out on second-and-5 to end the game. Strong finished with a career-high 420 passing yards and four touchdown passes.
It was a brutal ending for a game that almost had the makings of an all-time great UW comeback.
“Losing always sucks,” Muma said. “But we kind of discussed that we can’t dig ourselves into a hole like that. I think that I need to be better and start off a little bit better and faster.”
Redshirt junior running back Xazavian Valladay, the defending MW rushing champion, finished with 87 rushing yards but had a long gain of just 14 yards. UW, which averaged 214.8 yards rushing per game a season ago (23rd nationally), ran for just 128 yards on Saturday.
After a dismal first half start offensively, UW finished the game with 361 total yards.
The Cowboys (0-1) hosts Hawaii at 7:45 p.m. Friday.