When Andrew Wingard came out of Ralston Valley High School, having been honored as the Colorado High School Player of the Year, the only FCS offer he received came from the University of Wyoming. Heck, Colorado State University wouldn’t even allow him to have a campus visit.
The Cowboys provided him that opportunity he wanted, even if he was headed to a school where the football program was grasping for relevance.
Now, as he heads into his final game or two wearing Brown and Gold, Wingard is a part of a senior class that has pushed the Cowboys back into a factor in the Mountain West, which was underscored by the team’s 35-27 comeback victory against the Air Force Academy on Saturday afternoon.
It was a game in which the Cowboys were trailing 27-14 in the fourth quarter, only to score three touchdowns in the final five minutes, extending their winning streak to three games, and improving their overall record to 5-6. They head to New Mexico for the final regular season game a victory shy of being bowl eligible, which would put Wyoming in line for a bowl appearance in three consecutive seasons for the first time ever.
More than that, though, the Cowboys comeback against Air Force, in a game in which both starting quarterback Sean Chambers and No. 1 running back Nico Evans suffered game-ending injuries on the first series of the game, underscored how far the Cowboys have come since Wingard and the 15 other seniors on the team played their first college football game in 2015.
It was a win, said Wingard, that underscores the transformation of the Head Coach Craig Bohl Era of Wyoming fooball.
“It was testament to coach Bohl and the culture he is building here,” said Wingard, who has become the face of the new-look Cowboys. “Three years ago, that team would have quit, no doubt. Coach Bohl has 99 percent of this locker room guys buying in.”
And it showed on a snowy, sub-freezing afternoon at War Memorial Stadium.
“It was a perfect for our class of football, 2014 and 2015, the redshirt guys from 14 and the true freshmen who played from 2015,” said Wingard. “Nothing has gone our way. We came into a team that was 4-8 (in 2014) and we went 2-10 as freshmen. This class is built on grinding, being underdogs, never giving up and that’s what we did (Saturday).
“With this senior class and foundation we laid there will never be a quit in this team ever, and it showed (Saturday).”
It certainly wasn’t easy, but it was an example of a team that didn’t quit.
Consider that redshirt freshman Tyler Vander Waal, who lost his starting quarterback job early in the second half of an Oct. 20 loss to Utah State, got the unexpected call to duty on the first series on Saturday, when his replacement, true freshman Sean Chambers, suffered an ankle injury that had all the appearances of a break.
Consider that senior running back Nico Evans, who despite missing 2 1/2 games earlier in the season, has the sixth highest single-season rushing total in school history, also went down on the first series of the game with an ankle injury and returned for only one additional play.
Consider that Vander Waal threw for a touchdown pass on his first snap from center, and then capped off a touchdown drive by running up the middle for a touchdown on the next possession, saw Air Force shut the Cowboys down after that until it had taken a 27-14 lead, and there was eight minutes left to play.
Vander Wall and running back Xazavian Valladay, the last man standing among the running backs after both Evans and Jevon Bigelow had been sidelined with injuries, along with a resurgent defense didn’t quit. They ramped it up, and by game’s end, the Cowboys had their victory against the Falcons.
“I can’t say enough about Tyler Vander Waal,” said Wingard. “He could have thrown in the towel. He could have said, `I’m done, I’m transferring.’ He didn’t do that. He loves this team. He loves his teammates.”
And it was apparent in those final minutes of Saturday’s game.
It started and ended with a defense that had given up 403 yards in he first 51 minutes, 22 seconds of the game, but on three possessions in the final 8:38 managed to gain only 12 yards. The Falcons were held on downs once and then suffer interceptions on the final two possessions — on the first play from scrimmage after the Cowboys had taken a 28-25 lead with 1:09 to play, and on the second play after the Cowboys had expanded the lead to 35-27 lead with 39 seconds to play.
“We were terrible for three and a half quarters on defense,” said Wingard. “It’s like math, I can’t explain it too you. We made a few tweaks here and there.”
And it was capped off by the resurgent offense that put together the three touchdown drives of 76 yards, 58 yards,and after Wilson’s interception, two plays and 13 yards.
There was Vander Waal rushing for 15 yards to open that 76-yard drive, and rushing for five yards into the end zone to cap it. In between, Air Force was called for pass interference on a 4th-and-6 from the Woming 43, and a 3rd-and-15 on which Vander Waal combined with James Price on a 16-yard pass that set up Vander Wal’s toudhdown dash.
There was Austin Conway running the wrong pattern, but Vander Waal find him uncovered in the middle of the endzone for a 22-yard touchdown pass that capped the nine-play, 58-yard drive that put the Cowboys up 28-27 with 1:09 to play.
Then, after Wilson’s interception on Air Force’s ensuing first down, returning the ball to the Air Force 22, a three-play drive on which Valladay lost two yards and three years on carries the first two plays, and then broke off a 27-yard toudhdown drive for the final score of 35-27.
The comeback was complete, for the Cowboys and for Vander Waal.
“Tyler came out and played like a champion,” said Bohl. “We told him (after the time Chambers assumed the quarterback job) that his time was going to come, and it certainly did (Saturday).”