LARAMIE, Wyo. — Nick Smith’s first start in two years was one play away from a perfect ending.
The junior backup quarterback led the Cowboys down the field for their only scoring drive of the day late in the fourth quarter. After Wyoming’s defense regained possession with a three-and-out, Smith and the offense set out to move the ball 80 yards in 50 seconds for the win.
The Cowboys got within striking distance, but Smith was tackled from behind at the line of scrimmage before he could get off a fourth-down pass from the Fresno State 27-yard line.
“I mean, that situation I think is kind of crazy, but it’s kind of what you live for,” Smith said. “It’s what you dream of sometimes as a little kid. To have a ball with 50 seconds left and be able to go score and to win the game. I mean, it was a cool moment, but again, we didn’t capitalize. So it could’ve been better.”
Smith was starting in place of Josh Allen, who missed his first start in 25 games due to a shoulder injury suffered the week before.
Smith finished the day with 231 yards on 20-of-31 passing (62.5 percent) with a touchdown and no interceptions. He set career highs in passing yards and completions. His touchdown pass, a 6-yarder to Nico Evans, was his first since October 2015.
“I think, like (head coach Craig Bohl) says to us, losing is definitely not the goal,” Smith said. “But I think this week was just a good step in the right direction for me, personally. It’s great for me, but it’s not about me. It’s about our team and moving forward and moving this team forward.
“Yeah, it was a great experience, and I’ll learn a lot from it, and I’ll continue to get better and move forward. But I’m just trying to help (us) as a team move forward and get win number eight.”
Smith said he had a sense throughout the week that he would probably start in place of Allen. Bohl was not sure after the game whether Allen would play in Wyoming’s regular-season finale at San Jose State.
Smith put up 153 of his passing yards in the fourth quarter alone, including 133 on the last two drives alone, the Casper Star-Tribune reported .
“I think typically, I’ll watch the tape, but if you’re a defensive coach,” Bohl said, “you look at the clock and you look at where you’re at on possessions and you look at what it’s going to take to lose the game. And so there’s time that you change the structure of some stuff and I thought we hit some really good intermediate routes.”
Smith said, though, that he didn’t feel like Fresno State’s defense, now the best in the Mountain West in points allowed per game, played the Cowboys much differently on the final two drives.
“I think, yeah, they knew they had a 13-point lead and four-and-a-half minutes to go, so they knew they could play a little more cushion,” Smith said, “but I think we were able to still find some holes and move the ball. It really wasn’t until, what, 40 seconds left where they really started to play some more prevent stuff.”
Smith struggled on the ground, being stopped four of five times on short-yardage keepers.
“Me personally, I think I missed a couple holes and not really trusting the block, to be honest with you,” Smith said. “I don’t think the defense really did anything crazy to stop it. I think there were some opportunities there that I missed on those third-and-shorts, and that wasn’t definitely what we needed. We needed those first downs.”
And Smith failed to give Wyoming one last chance at the win by not getting a pass off on fourth down.
“They rushed three, and I just moved to try to get into a better position to try and fire something in there,” Smith said. “I didn’t really see (tackler Robert Stanley), but then I kind of felt the pressure and was trying to escape to the right just to kind of get the ball off, but then it was just too late.
“I probably could’ve just stood back there and waited until something kind of came open. … I was looking, but there were a lot of white jerseys back there. I think my eyes didn’t catch anybody wide open.”
Wyoming’s offense also struggled mightily before its late breakthrough; the Cowboys had eight three-and-outs Saturday.
Overall, though, Smith avoided turning the ball over and put Wyoming in a situation to nearly pull off a 13-point comeback.
“I think Nick did an excellent job,” receiver Austin Conway said. “I think Nick stepped up, he made plays, he did what he’s supposed to do, he managed the game, he put us in position to win the game. Unfortunately we came up short. Of course, missing Josh, that’s our quarterback. He’s a great quarterback. But man, did Nick do a great job? Yes.
“And looking down the road, (should) Nick be our quarterback (would we) be confident in him? Anytime. So if Josh unfortunately has to go through anything like that, which we pray and hope that nothing ever happens like that again, we have a guy who can step up and make plays.”
Information from: Casper (Wyo.) Star-Tribune, http://www.trib.com