Laramie, Wyo.----- The constant War Memorial Stadium reminders of 7,220 feet above sea level were not a distraction to the San José State University football team when it took on the University of Wyoming.
For the Spartans, it seemed like the ascent to a 27-20 overtime victory over the Cowboys was filled with stair-step precision and crafty deception mixed with the jagged edges and rough terrain of any mountain climb that threatened to send San Jose State to its third consecutive road loss of the season.
The Spartans (3-3, 2-1 Mountain West) relied heavily on its top-20 ranked defense, clutch plays from an offense that rolled up a season-high 31 first downs and 477 yards and desperately needed Austin Lopez's a 50-yard field goal with 42 seconds left in the fourth quarter just to have a chance at winning the game in overtime.
San Jose State regained the .500 mark for the season and moved into second place in the conference's West Division with a Joe Gray-to-Tyler Winston, 4-yard touchdown pass in overtime and linebacker Christian Tago stopping Wyoming running back Shaun Wick for a 1-yard loss at the Spartans' 18-yard line on the final play of the game.
The bounce of the ball figured prominently in the outcome. Cowboys' kicker Stuart Williams had converted field goals of 36 in the second quarter and 19 yards with 4:10 remaining in the fourth. Williams had a chance to win the game on the last play in regulation, but hit the right upright squarely with a 46-yard field goal try leaving the two teams to settle a 20-20 tie in overtime.
Wyoming (3-4, 1-2 Mountain West) seized the momentum of the game by tying the score at 10-10 with 1:33 left in the third quarter when safety Blair Burns stole the football from Limihai Hifo as the freshman running back had gained an apparent first down on a short yardage play at the Wyoming 40-yard line. With Hifo still churning his legs and San Jose State linemen pushing the pile, it appeared the Spartans were setting themselves up for their largest lead of the game. Instead, it was Burns stripping Hifo of the ball and torching San Jose State with a 63-yard fumble return for a touchdown.
The Spartans answered immediately with quarterback Joe Gray capping a five-play, 75-yard drive with an 18-yard bootleg around the left side. A 15-yard personal foul on Wyoming when San José State failed to gain a first down on 3rd-and-11 preceded a Gray-to-Billy Freeman pass for 26 yards and the touchdown run giving the Spartans a 17-10 advantage with 14:16 left in the fourth.
San Jose State had completely throttled Wyoming's ground game and offense in general for three quarters. The Cowboys finished with 277 yards of total offense, but had a measly 73 yards and just 17 rushing yards on 15 carries heading into the fourth quarter. That changed dramatically in the final 15 minutes as Wyoming running back Shaun Wick on 4th-and-1 from the San Jose State 48-yard line broke through the San Jose State line and past two would-be tacklers to answer Gray's scoring run and tie the score for the third time at 17-17.
After Williams' short field goal, the Spartans needed an 18-yard Tyler Ervin fourth-down reception that withstood a replay review and a 16-yard pass from Gray to tight end Andrew Vollert preceding Lopez's 50-yard field goal just to survive and begin another climb. The Spartans' kicker redeemed himself after missing consecutive tries from 47 and 31 yards in the first and third quarters, respectively.
In the overtime, San José State had the ball first and gained first downs on an 11-yard Winston reception and a defensive holding call advancing the ball to the Wyoming 7-yard line. Faced with 3-and-goal from the 4-yard line. Winston out-leaped a Wyoming defender for his game-high eighth reception of the game on a fade route for a 27-20 lead.
Finishing with a game-high 97 yards rushing, Wick gained 2 yards on first down and caught a third-down pass from three more yards leaving Wyoming with a 4th-and-3 from the Spartans' 18-yard line in the first and only overtime. Then it was Tago's time to end the game with his stop of Wick.
For the Spartan linebacker, it was his second crucial stop of the Wyoming running back that rushed 234 yards and a touchdown in the 2013 game between these teams. Prior to Williams' 19-yard field goal, Tago stopped Wick at the San Jose State 2-yard line after a 2-yard, 2nd-and-goal run.
Penalties proved costly to both teams. Three major Wyoming penalties led to Spartan first downs on two of their touchdown drives. A "chop block" call against San José State offset an apparent 34-yard touchdown pass from Gray to Hansell Wilson that would have given the Spartans a 23-20 lead. Instead, it was the Lopez 50-yard field goal that kept San Jose State's breathing in the thin air.
Gray did his share completing 33-of-45 for 322 yards and two touchdowns. The first was a 13-yard lob to Wilson who outhustled a Wyoming defender at the goal line sending the Spartans into halftime with a 10-3 lead.
San Jose State can go above the .500 plateau and make it three wins in a row when it travels to Navy for the final time in a four-game, home-and-home series, Saturday, October 25 in a 1:00 p.m. (EDT) game.