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Bowl season kicks off with OT thriller
New Mexico Bowl Footb Heal

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Wyoming trailed by 11 points in the fourth quarter. Its offense was led by a freshman quarterback, its defense was facing the nation's leading rusher.

Time to worry? Not these comeback Cowboys.

Freshman Austyn Carta-Samuels threw three touchdown passes, the last a 13-yarder to David Leonard in the second overtime Saturday, and Wyoming rallied past Fresno State 35-28 in the New Mexico Bowl.

"Same old deal for all of us," Carta-Samuels said. "We knew we could do it."

The first of 34 bowls was a high-scoring matchup that was decided at the end by defense.

Wyoming (7-6) stopped the nation's leading rusher, Fresno State's Ryan Mathews, on three rushing attempts from the 1 in the first overtime. The Bulldogs (8-5) tried a quarterback sneak on third down, and Mathews came up short again on fourth down.

"If you can't put it in from the 1-yard line, you have to give a lot of credit to the defensive stand by Wyoming," Bulldogs coach Pat Hill said. "We had our chances."

The Cowboys, who won four times this season after rallying in the fourth quarter, scored on the first possession in double overtime, then held Fresno State on downs.

"Another typical game by the Wyoming Cowboys," first-year coach Dave Christensen said. "We kept everybody in their seats."

Wyoming fans spilled out of the stands to celebrate as the school band played "Cowboy Joe." This was Wyoming's first bowl appearance since 2005, and it capped a winning season for Christensen after the Cowboys were picked to finish last in the Mountain West.

Mathews, who led the nation in rushing average at 151.3 yards per game, finished with 144 yards on 31 attempts with two touchdowns. But he had a big fumble midway through the fourth quarter, setting up Carta-Samuels to lead a 19-play drive that tied it.

Wyoming lineman Mitch Unrein, picked the defensive MVP, stripped the ball.

"I got my hand on it. It kind of rolled away from him," Unrein said. "It was right on my chest. I said to myself, 'I can't believe that just happened.' I got up and I was showing the refs. They didn't believe me. They were like, 'No way.'"

Officials initially ruled Mathews was down but reversed the call after a replay.

Wyoming's Ian Watts kicked a 37-yard field goal with 20 seconds left in regulation. After the Cowboys stopped Mathews in the first overtime, Watts was wide left a 40-yard field try that would have won it.

Christensen said there was no disappointment on the sideline.                      

"These kids don't change much," he said. "I don't know if it's belief or they don't know any better. They walked down to the end of the field. We scored a touchdown, then we stopped them."

Carta-Samuels, the Mountain West's freshman of the year, was chosen the game's offensive MVP after he completed 17 of 31 attempts for 201 yards passing with one interception.

He led the Cowboys back after Mathews' 5-yard TD run put the Bulldogs up 28-17 with 13:59 remaining. Carta-Samuels found Leonard on an 11-yard TD pass, then connected with Greg Bolling for a 2-point conversion that got Wyoming to 28-25 with 10:15 to go.

"I guarantee after that their defense didn't want to come out on the field again to try and stop us," Carta-Samuels said.

Fresno State, trying to build on the lead, was driving when Mathews fumbled at Wyoming's 26. The Cowboys took over with 8:08 remaining and converted twice on fourth downs — including a daring fake punt — on the march that ended with Watts' 37-yard field goal.

"We told our guys, 'You've got to believe,'" Christensen said. "Being behind is nothing new for this football team."