As has been their pattern in this season of great improvement, the New Mexico Lobos dominated the time of possession against the Wyoming Cowboys. But UW needed just 2:47 to completely change the complexion of the game.
The Cowboys scored 21 points on three big pass plays in that stretch of time then held of a second half charge by UNM to claim a 28-23 win at Branch Field at University Stadium before an announced crowd of 17,839 Saturday afternoon.
"It was definitely giving up big plays, without a doubt," said New Mexico head coach Bob Davie. "We continued to give up big plays. It's no secret. People try to expose us. We gave up some big plays out there."
Wyoming head coach Dave Christensen was elated following the win.
"It was nice for us to be on the other end of a close game, to make the plays to win the game and to have the lead going into the end," said Christensen. "Some of those other games we were down by a point or whatever. It is just great to win."
It was a disappointing result for New Mexico (4-7, 1-6), which was eliminated from bowl consideration with the loss. It was especially galling to the Lobos, who amassed 551 yards of total offense and 396 yards with its vaunted rushing attack.
But it was Wyoming’s lighting strike passing attack that won them the advantage and then helped hold off the Lobos. The Cowboys’ sophomore quarterback Brett Smith struck on touchdown passes 81, 64 and 33 yards in the pivotal second half to transform the game. Then with the game hanging in the balance in the fourth and UW leading 21-17, Smith drove the Cowboys 65 yards on 9 plays – seven of them passes – to secure the win.
"From the defensive perspective, it was the big plays," said UNM junior linebacker Dallas Bollema. "The offense has to finish, and we have to execute. It's a team effort all around, and we have to execute."
After a failed fake field goal in the a wind-blown, scoreless first quarter New Mexico put together a 13 play, 96 yard drive punctuated by freshman Cole Gautsche’s first collegiate touchdown pass, a nine yard strike to tight end Andrew Aho to give UNM a 7-0 lead.
But Wyoming struck back on the first play of its next possession, a 35 yard pass by Smith that receiver Robert Herron turned into an 81 yard catch and run touchdown. The Lobos then went three and out and the Cowboys struck again, going 91 yards in two plays on their next possession for a touchdown.
UW led 21-7 at halftime after UNM kicker Justus Adam’s kick to end the second quarter was blown wide right at the final gun.
New Mexico clawed back in the third quarter as Gautsche completed his second touchdown pass, a 52-yard touchdown pass to senior Ty Kirk five minutes into the third quarter. The Lobos added a 20-yard field goal by Adams with 39 seconds left in the third quarter. UNM ‘s first drive of the third ended on a fumble at the Wyoming 12-yard line, short circuiting the Lobos’ comeback momentarily.
New Mexico would finish scoring with a 1-yard touchdown run by Kasey Carrier to cap an 8 play, 71 yard drive with 8:59 left in the game. But Carrier was stopped on his run for the ensuing two-point conversion and the Lobos were unable to get past the 50 yard line on its final two possessions.
Smith finished with 20 of 32 passing for 374 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions for Wyoming (3-7, 2-4). New Mexico's Gautsche 305 yards of total offense going 8 of 15 passing for 155 yards and two touchdowns and 150 yards rushing on 17 carries. Carrier finished with 109 yards on 32 carries and Kirk had his first 100-yard receiving game with 108 yards on four receptions an one touchdown.
"I'm really proud of this team," said Davie. "We had 551 yards total offense to their 429. We give up big plays. I'm really proud of this team with what they are able to do. Talking to officials and coaches after the game on the opposing team, they agreed. That is three conference games that we have lost now, Boise State, Air Force and Wyoming where we basically had the ball in the last possession of the game with a chance to win it.
"They (the Lobos) stuck in there and played and fought," said Davie. "They gave themselves a chance to win it at the end of the game. Whether anyone else sees it, I don't care. I see it, and I'm proud of this team."