Wyoming welcomed the 5th ranked (FCS) Montana Grizzlies to War Memorial Stadium in Laramie, Wyoming this Saturday to a near-capacity crowd of 25,243. This was the Cowboys first game under new head coach Craig Bohl and they were looking to carry the winning tradition Bohl was bringing from North Dakota State. It is safe to say the Cowboys did just that in a 17-12 victory over the Grizzlies. Wyoming now leads the all-time series 14-0 over Montana.
Junior Shaun Wick rushed for 134 yards and redshirt sophomore D.J. May added 96 yards on the ground to lead the Cowboys offensively. The Pokes also rolled out an improved defense, holding the Griz to just 42 yards on the ground, the lowest total for a Wyoming opponent since 2008. Wyoming's new 4-3 Tampa 2 defense was relentless and showed much improvement in fundamentals, namely tackling and being in the right position.
"We knew coming into this game with Montana, with the type of program they have, that it wasn’t going to be an easy game," head coach Craig Bohl said. "There was a lot of adversity to deal with. I personally have never been through that many rain delays, which apparently is common practice around here."
For those that remember last season, Wyoming had numerous lightning delays during ballgames.
Montana held a slim 6-3 lead at halftime, before one defensive play sparked the Cowboys and one offensive play put the Pokes in control. Montana attempted to convert a fourth-and-seven, but senior linebacker Mark Nzeocha came unblocked up the middle and sacked Montana's talented quarterback Jordan Johnson to give Wyoming the ball near midfield. The Cowboys used that momentum to craft a five-play, 58-yard drive that cumulated with a five-yard touchdown run from Wick, as the extra point put Wyoming up 10-6 with five minutes left in the third. Following a Montana punt, May ripped off a 58-yard run down the left sideline to push Wyoming's advantage to 17-6 just three minutes later.
"I’m really proud of how our team prepared, played and the fourth quarter is a trademark of what we are about," Bohl said. "Certainly there are things that we can build and improve on – pleased with the players and the coaches with the preparation."
Wick’s night came on 22 carries to average 6.1 yards per carry, while May ran 13 times for a 7.4 average. Both posted one touchdown run. Redshirt senior quarterback Colby Kirkegaard made his first start since 2012 and finished 13-of-21 for 92 yards. Senior Dominic Rufran collected four catches for 25 yards.
Defensively, Nzeocha tallied 12 tackles, just two shy of his career high, and added a sack and three pass breakups. Senior linebacker Devyn Harris and senior defensive lineman Patrick Mertens added eight stops apiece and combined for 3.5 tackles for loss.
As a team, Wyoming earned a 209-42 advantage on the ground for a 301-253 advantage in total yards. The Cowboys held the ball for 34:54 and committed just one penalty for four yards. Even for a first game, the Cowboys seemed disciplined and for the most part under control.
Wyoming got on the scoreboard first with a field goal on its opening drive. The Poke defense forced a three-and-out from Montana that the Cowboy offense drove 57 yards to set up a 41-yard field goal that senior Stuart Williams knocked through. Wyoming drove into Grizzly territory on its second possession as well, but a fumble from Kirkegaard gave UM the ball back. Montana converted the turnover to points with a 64-yard drive that ended with a UM score off a trick play. The Grizzlies missed the extra point, though, for a 6-3 lead early in the second quarter.
That would be the extent of the scoring in the first half. Wyoming threatened late in the second quarter after sophomore Eric Nzeocha blocked a Montana punt that freshman Brian Hill recovered at Montana's nine-yard line. Kirkegaard threw an interception in the endzone, though, to send the game to halftime at 6-3 Montana.
Montana had a slim 122-108 advantage in total yards during the first half, but the Wyoming defense held the Grizzlies to just 31 yards on the ground. The Cowboys earned an 18:34-11:26advantage in time of possession, thanks in part to 5-of-9 on third-down conversions. Kirkegaard was 8-of-14 in the first half for 60 yards, while Wick added 46 yards on the ground.
The defensive battle continued into the second half, until Nzeocha’s sack and May’s touchdown run.
Montana pulled within 17-12 after a touchdown with eight minutes left in the game, but could not convert on the two-point attempt. After exchanging punts, the Cowboys got the ball back with 5:21 left and reeled off nine-straight rushes from Wick, May and Hill to run the clock down to two seconds and put the game out of reach.
The Cowboy faithful will definitely take the win but they were far from a finished product. Offensively the Cowboys had problems protecting Kirkegaard as Montana's All-American and pre-season Big Sky defensive player of the year pick in defensive end Zack Wagenmann was constantly in the backfield. The passing game just didn't seem to click more times than not in the ballgame. If the Cowboys can play defense and run the ball the way they did Saturday, they will have a good shot of making a post-season bowl game.
Wyoming continues its season by hosting the Air Force Falcons in a Mountain West Conference matchup next Saturday at 8:15 p.m. MT in War Memorial Stadium. The game will be also broadcasted on ESPNU.