DeKalb, Ill. — After surrendering a 26-point lead in a span of 15 minutes Saturday, the University of Wyoming’s offense woke up and saved the day for the second consecutive week.
UW allowed Northern Illinois to score 27 unanswered points between the 4:34 mark of the third quarter and 4:56 mark of the fourth, turning a presumed blowout into a late one-point deficit. But, as they did the previous week against Montana State, the Cowboys overcame their shortcomings to secure a victory.
Facing a third-and-goal from the 9-yard line with less than two minutes remaining, junior quarterback Sean Chambers kept it himself on a naked bootleg and beat the defense to the pylon, lifting UW to a 50-43 win over NIU at Huskie Stadium in DeKalb, Illinois.
“Just gotta score,” Chambers said of his mindset during the Pokes’ game-winning touchdown drive. “Why not end it in dramatic fashion?”
The go-ahead touchdown, as well as a game-sealing, seven-yard run by Chambers that allowed the Cowboys to run the clock out following a defensive stop, came on a play that had been set up over the course of the game.
UW compiled 162 rushing yards through the first three quarters, oftentimes with its offensive line imposing its will on the Huskies’ defensive front. This forced Northern Illinois to pay added attention to stopping the run and attacking the line of scrimmage.
The Huskies were able to slow down the Cowboys’ ground game, allowing just 29 yards on 14 fourth-quarter carries. However, this emphasis also created an opening UW offensive coordinator Tim Polasek was able to capitalize on.
“If you're going to stop a couple things on the inside run, you're going to weaken yourself on the perimeter,” UW coach Craig Bohl said. “A quarterback is an X-factor. If you dial up an outside pressure, that can stop a quarterback bootleg and weaken yourself on the run, and we'd done a good job of denting that line of scrimmage.
"I did not call those nakeds. Those were (offensive coordinator) Tim (Polasek's) calls, and he dialed them up at the perfect time.”
Added Chambers: “We knew we had a really good call and kept that one in our back pocket the whole game. Why not throw all our cards down on the table and show our hand?”
At several moments Saturday, the game appeared on the verge of getting out of hand.
The Cowboys’ 28 points at halftime were their most in a first half since Sept. 29, 2019, when they scored 33 in the first two quarters en route to a 53-17 win over UNLV, which was also the last time they scored 50 or more points in a game. Xazavian Valladay rushed for 101 yards and a touchdown on 21 carries, his first 100-yard performance since last November against Colorado State, while Titus Swen added 54 yards and a score on the ground.
“We were really able to create some seams, and our running backs ran hard,” Bohl said. “You cannot take that away. There were a couple times where they drug guys for like five extra yards. But, our offensive line came off the ball and created some holes.
“Our backs found those holes, and that was a really big impact. (Polasek) did a great job dovetailing the passing game with those runs.”
Sophomore Isaiah Neyor also played a key part in the offensive explosion, hauling in four catches for 87 yards and two touchdowns, while also rushing for 13 yards and a score. Neyor stretched the lead to 18 on a 19-yard pass from Chambers with 3:12 left in the second quarter, and scored again on a five-yard jet sweep that answered a 75-yard touchdown drive by NIU to open the second half.
Senior linebacker Chad Muma – who finished the day with 10 tackles, including seven solo stops and one tackle for loss – widened the gap to 26 points less than a minute later on an interception he returned 23 yards for a touchdown. This marked the third turnover forced by the Cowboys, with Miles Williams and Rome Weber each picking off NIU quarterback Rocky Lombardi in the first half.
After allowing NIU to cut the lead down to 20 on a 40-yard touchdown pass from Lombardi to Trayvon Rudolph late in the third quarter, the Cowboys still appeared poised to put the game away. They drove into the red zone mostly unimpeded on the next drive, and even facing fourth-and-1 from the NIU 10, little worry had set in.
With an offense whose running backs had been stopped for negative yardage just once up to that point, Bohl elected to go for the opportunity to score a touchdown and make it at minimum a four-possession game. A Northern Illinois defensive front that had been overmatched all day, however, blew up the play in the backfield – spurring an unlikely comeback attempt.
“There's no doubt about it,” Bohl said when asked if he considered kicking a field goal to put UW up by 23. “A couple things went into it. At that time, we hadn't had a negative run at all. We'd been controlling the line of scrimmage. And quite frankly, I saw the snap the time before ... and it was a low-trajectory kick, so you just balance those things out. Nothing told me we weren't going to be able to at least get a dent and get a yard at that time.
“We discussed that. In hindsight after it didn't happen, did I second guess myself? Yeah, but that was the information I went on. That was my call. ... We had a missed block, and allowed penetration. That can't happen, and it was certainly a swing in momentum.”
NIU freshman Harrison Waylee – who was held to minus-3 yards in the first half, yet ended up rushing for 179 – sparked the Huskies' turnaround with a 75-yard touchdown run four plays later. And after a backward pass resulted in a fumble for UW, Waylee delivered again with a 14-yard scamper, cutting a 20-point Wyoming lead down to 42-36 in a span of 13 seconds.
Clint Ratkovich completed the comeback, at least temporarily, on a three-yard touchdown run – his third of the day – with 4:56 remaining.
“They got the tempo going and were able to hit the backside on us a little bit, forcing some other players to fit the gaps and fit the pullers,” Muma said. “I think that's what opened up those gaps so much on us. We're going to have to go back and watch it on film to see what we can do better.”
Despite his team’s fourth-quarter collapse, however, Chambers wasn’t fazed by the prospect of needing to drive 75 yards for a game-winning score. After all, the Cowboys had done the same exact thing the week prior to beat Montana State.
“They're not very high anymore,” Chambers said of his nerves before the Pokes’ go-ahead drive. “This is my fourth year playing now ... and at the end of the day, it's just football.”
Chambers underthrew a wide-open Neyor amid pressure on the first play of the drive, but the duo connected moments later on a pass that flipped momentum in UW’s favor for the first time since its lead started to crumble. With the Cowboys on the edge of field goal range, Neyor jumped up over an NIU defender to catch the ball at its high point, landing a foot in bounds for a 30-yard catch – which was initially ruled as an incomplete pass, but was overturned following a review.
Three plays later, Chambers hushed a hyped Huskie Stadium with the go-ahead touchdown run.
“They came roaring back, and it took everything in our tank to answer the bell,” Bohl said.
The Cowboys return to action next Saturday with a home game against Ball State. Kickoff is set for 2 p.m. in Laramie.