LARAMIE — Wyoming coach Craig Bohl vividly remembers meeting with his team at the hotel. He could almost feel it coming.
While the Cowboys flew to Albuquerque the day before ending the 2016 regular season against New Mexico, Boise State and Air Force played a game that had implications for the Cowboys. An Air Force win would give Wyoming the tiebreaker atop the Mountain Division and clinch the Cowboys’ spot in the Mountain West championship game. But if Boise State won, Wyoming would have to take care of business against the Lobos if it wanted to play for the title.
Once the team’s plane landed, players immediately checked their phones to see which one it would be. Air Force had beaten Boise, rendering Wyoming’s game against New Mexico virtually meaningless.
“It was almost like the air went out of the room,” Bohl said. “It was like, ‘OK, we did our job.’ And New Mexico took us to the woodshed on national TV. It was an embarrassment.”
Wyoming on Saturday will return to Dreamstyle Stadium for the first time since turning in one of its worst performances of Bohl’s five-year tenure. The Cowboys scored 35 points, and it wasn’t nearly enough to keep them competitive.
The Wyoming defense allowed 690 yards, including a whopping 568 on the ground — the most ever allowed in program history and the most for an FBS team in any game that season. New Mexico ripped off 11 plays of 20 yards or more, and that was just in the first half.
By the time they were done running over, around and through Wyoming’s defense, the Lobos had a 56-35 win that Bohl and his players are still having a hard time shaking.
“You don’t really forget getting beat down like that, but it happened,” senior safety Marcus Epps said.
Everybody that’s still around from that experience admitted it was a struggle to stay motivated knowing a conference title game loomed the next week — one Wyoming lost 27-24 to San Diego State. The Cowboys didn’t play with the same intensity they would’ve had they needed to win that game, though not everybody was convinced the outcome would’ve been different.
“We’d been getting killed all week even by the scout team. It was terrible,” safety Andrew Wingard said. “Don’t even want to think about it anymore.”
Motivation won’t be an issue this week for the Cowboys (5-6, 3-4 MW), who have to beat New Mexico (3-8, 1-6) in order to become bowl eligible. Wyoming, which has won three straight to put itself in this position, is vying for its third straight bowl game, which would be a first in the program’s 122-year history.
It would be a strong finish to a season that hasn’t exactly gone as planned.
It started with Tyler Vander Waal at quarterback before the redshirt freshman was benched in favor of true freshman Sean Chambers amid a four-game losing streak eight games in. But Vander Waal is back under center after helping Wyoming turn a 13-point deficit with 8 minutes, 38 seconds remaining against Air Force last week into a 35-27 win by leading three straight scoring drives in place of Chambers, who broke his leg in the first quarter and will miss the rest of the season.
Nico Evans is the nation’s third-leading rusher despite missing two games with an injury early in the season, but a sprained ankle has his status up in the air for Saturday’s game. Injuries as well as a lack of production at some spots have forced the Cowboys to go with a handful of different combinations along the offensive line. They’ve also played the last three games without all-conference defensive tackle Youhanna Ghaifan, who’s still suspended indefinitely after being charged with a pair of misdemeanors last month.
“If you look at all the ups and downs and some of the challenges that were out there, and to be in this position where we’re in our last week and this game means a lot, there’s a lot of teams that I think would’ve spit the bit out and said, ‘To heck with it,’” Bohl said.
Wyoming got some redemption last season in Laramie with a 42-3 pasting of a New Mexico team that finished 3-9 with just one conference win. The Lobos again find themselves at the bottom of the Mountain Division standings this season, but Wyoming has plenty of reasons to ignore what the Lobos look like on paper.
“We beat them pretty bad last year, and they have nothing to lose either,” Wingard said. “They’re going to come hot into this game wanting to beat us, but there’s definitely motivation to get that last win and try to get bowl eligible.”