Nov. 13—FORT COLLINS, Colorado — The University of Wyoming football team allowed a punt return for a touchdown, lost its starting quarterback and was outgained by 136 yards by Colorado State on Saturday night.
Even with the adversity, the Cowboys were able to stave off a late comeback attempt by the Rams and cling to a 14-13 win at Canvas Stadium in Fort Collins. The win allowed UW to keep the Bronze Boot traveling trophy for the sixth time in the last seven seasons.
"We've got a young football team that overcame adversity," UW coach Craig Bohl said. "Certainly, Jayden (Clemons) did some phenomenal things coming in. He hasn't gotten to play a lot but he's been really, really solid in practice.
"The team kept believing. We came on the road, and this was a hostile place to play and we're so happy we got the win."
Clemons, the backup quarterback behind starter Andrew Peasley, came into Saturday's Border War with just two pass attempts on the season. But Clemons was sprung into action early against CSU after Peasley left the game with an apparent head injury.
The game couldn't have started much worse for the Cowboys, who went into the weekend No. 2 in the Mountain Division of the Mountain West. CSU scored on its first time touching the ball, with Tory Horton returning a Clayton Stewart punt 72 yards for a touchdown with 12:48 left in the first quarter.
Horton's return was the first time the Cowboys had given up a punt return for a touchdown since 2014.
Things continued to get worse for UW early in the first half. On the Cowboys' second drive, Peasley was intercepted by CSU's Henry Blackburn. UW's next two drives ended with Stewart punting the ball to the Rams.
CSU extended its lead with a 40-yard field goal with 14:10 left in the second quarter. The 10-0 deficit was UW's second straight game starting 10 points in the hole.
The Cowboys tallied just 20 yards in their first 11 plays. But for what the offense lacked in firepower, UW's defense made up for with a handful of big plays as the game went along.
With CSU driving in Cowboys' territory after a 48-yard pass from quarterback Clay Millen to wide receiver Justus Ross-Simmons, cornerback Deron Harrell stepped in three plays later and intercepted a Millen pass in UW's end zone. The turnover shifted the momentum for both teams midway through the second quarter.
Clemons took over under center shortly after Harrell's interception. The sophomore helped spark the Cowboys' offense, starting with a 14-yard touchdown run with 6:33 left in the first half to cut CSU's lead to 10-7.
The scramble was Clemons' first touchdown as a college football player.
"This is my first game of my career, and that first drive being able to score and run it in myself and have that No. 1 next to rushing touchdowns for me, that's pretty surreal," Clemons said. "It's just a culmination of a lot of hard work and dedication I've put into this game and it's all coming to fruition."
The Rams had an opportunity to stretch their lead right before halftime but fell just short. With 6 seconds left on the clock, Millen found Horton on a 40-yard pass but the wide receiver was tackled at the 3-yard line with no time left on the clock to send both teams to the locker room with a 10-7 lead for CSU.
The Cowboys struggles on offense included an average of 3.3 yards per play. UW collected just 96 yards of total offense on 29 plays.
Momentum continued to swing in the second half in the Cowboys' favor. UW put together a 12-play, 62-yard drive that ate up more than 6 minutes of clock but kicker John Hoyland pushed a 37-yard field goal attempt wide left.
The game remained 10-7 going into the fourth quarter but the Rams were able to extend the lead to 13-7 with a 23-yard field goal with 12:55 left in the game. The Cowboys were forced to punt on their next offensive drive but Horton muffed the return to give UW the ball right back in CSU territory.
Two plays later, Clemons found wide receiver Alex Brown on a 32-yard touchdown pass to give UW its first lead of the game at 14-13 with 10:47 left to play. The catch was Brown's third of the season and his first career touchdown in college.
CSU had a chance to reclaim the lead on its next drive but missed a 40-yard field goal attempt wide left with 4:48 left in the fourth quarter. UW was able to kill off a little over 2 minutes of clock on its next possession but was forced to punt back to CSU with 1:05 left in the game.
The Rams took over and their own 19-yard line with no timeouts and 50 seconds left on the clock and Horton's punt return burned off 15 seconds. CSU put together a 5-play, 49-yard drive but failed to get into field goal range to end the game.
The gritty 14-13 win pushed the Cowboys to 7-3 overall and 5-1 in conference play. The Rams fell to 2-4 and 2-8.
"Our team has really been galvanized by the ups and downs, but they keep playing," Bohl said. "We talked about that at halftime. You don't panic. It's a 60 minute game. We certainly wish we could have got started faster, but we didn't."
The Cowboys ended the game with just 236 total yards compared to CSU's 372 and picked up just 12 first downs over the course of the game. While the Rams may have won the battle in the box scores, the Cowboys, again, found a way to leave Fort Collins with the Bronze Boot onboard.
"It was mad panic by everybody after we lose to Illinois," Bohl said. "We come back and work through adversity and beat Tulsa and just keep chipping away. This is another example. All those trophies are great, but I want to be clear. This is the grand daddy of them all."
The Cowboys went a perfect 3 for 3 on traveling trophies this season, including the Bronze Boot, Jim Bridger's Rifle with Utah State and the Paniolo Trophy with Hawaii. While every trophy is special in its own right, linebacker Easton Gibbs knows the Bronze Boot is the most important one.
"It's definitely nice to have them all, full trophy case and all that," Gibbs said. "But when you go out and look at the year, this is the true rivalry game. ... It means a lot to our state and it means a lot to us. We were definitely grateful that we were able to hang on and bring the Boot back home."
Saturday was an emotional night for Clemons. The 14-13 win over CSU will be a memory that sticks with him for a long, long time.
"There's not very many words I can use to describe this feeling," Clemons said. "Just looking back on my high school recruiting and no one really believing in me and no one really giving me an opportunity, my background is I've had to work for everything I've been given.
"For me to be put in a situation like this where I have to go in in the first half and we we're down and I have to push my team and lead my team to victory, doing that, there's no better feeling than that. Especially when those guys in the huddle and those guys on the sidelines look at me in the eyes and they have my back. They're pushing me just as much as I'm pushing them."
Clemons' first career passing touchdown was also Brown's first career receiving touchdown. Clemons was emotional reflecting on how special it was to share that moment with a guy like Brown.
"Me and Alex have a pretty tight relationship off the field," Clemons said. "It's definitely brotherly. I've been telling him this whole season to stay in it. Every receiver and every play-maker wants to get the ball and wants to score. That's common with anyone. You can't knock him or blame him for having those feelings or whatnot.
"I told him his time is coming. I told him I love him and I trust him and I've been telling him that the whole season."
Clemons ended the night 7-for-11 passing for 90 yards and a touchdown. He added 32 yards and one score on the ground on five carries.
"Jayden came here originally without a scholarship," Bohl said. "He was on the bottom of the depth chart and we kept on watching him. ... Andrew we felt like performed the best, but Jayden moved up to the food chain and tonight was a big, big moment for him. He played on a big stage and he answered the bell. I don't think he did very many things wrong."
Titus Swen led the Cowboys' backfield in his first game back since being knocked out against Hawaii with a concussion. He finished with 76 yards on 16 carries and a long of 14.
Defensively, Gibbs had a team-high 13 tackles to go along with one sack. The Cowboys sacked Millen five times, including two from Jordan Bertagnole.
UW will return to the field for a crucial matchup with Boise State next weekend. The Cowboys will host the Broncos at 5 p.m. Saturday at War Memorial Stadium in Laramie.
The two teams will be playing for a first-place spot in the Mountain Division.
Alex Taylor covers the University of Wyoming for WyoSports. He can be reached at email@example.com or 269-364-3560. Follow him on Twitter at @alex_m_taylor22