LARAMIE, Wyo. — At only one point did either team own a two-score lead, and it happened to be the four-score underdogs.

Idaho football proved itself to be a proficient ground-game team by playing toe-to-toe with bruising Wyoming of the Football Bowl Subdivision for a full game.

The Vandals outgained the highly favored Cowboys 303 to 287, held them to a 4-of-13 mark on third downs and frequently clamped down on inside runs, supplying themselves ample opportunities to win.

If only it weren’t for untimely penalties, a couple of explosive plays surrendered and a fourth quarter replete with wasted chances and detrimental mental lapses.

After constructing a 10-point edge in the second quarter, UI was chipped away at by the Pokes, who took advantage of coachable Vandal miscues to slip by 21-16 on Saturday evening at Laramie’s highly elevated War Memorial Stadium.

“I felt our guys played their hearts out,” UI coach Paul Petrino said. “We had a chance right up until the end. We didn’t close it out.”

The Cowboys (3-0) — who entered receiving top-25 votes and paid UI about $400,000 for the visit — weren’t clear of danger until they were in victory formation with a minute left.

Down eight midway through the final frame, Idaho quarterback Mason Petrino improvised to keep a drive alive, hitting Aundre Carter on a 14-yard floater on a pivotal third down. Two Wyoming penalties and a 17-yard Cutrell Haywood slant later, the Vandals (1-2) were inside the 5.

But a wide-open touchdown for Haywood was mishandled and dropped, called incomplete after it appeared Haywood had taken two steps. An illegal snap followed to snuff the series out. Chalk up a 24-yard field goal with just over seven minutes left. Each of them were short boots for Cade Coffey.

As it’d done throughout the day, UI’s defensive front closed, gang tackled and got off the field quickly. This time, and for the fourth time, it forced a three-and-out.

“Several (players) will look at film and be proud with the toughness and effort,” Paul Petrino said, perhaps with linebackers Christian Elliss, Charles Akanno and Tre Walker in mind. All three were stout in the run game, particularly Elliss, who routinely chased and corralled runners in tricky positions. Walker had a game-high 13 stops.

Thanks to consecutive Cowboy late hits, UI again found itself in scoring position. With about four minutes left, the Vandals had a shot at the lead. Once more, the possession was squandered.

Haywood was called for pushing off his defender on a fade touchdown. Then, Mason Petrino tried to make something out of nothing, but was sacked for a considerable loss.

Idaho punted, and after a Wyoming first down, its offense never saw the field again.

“I’m sure I haven’t seen two touchdowns at the end of the game that didn’t count,” Paul Petrino said.

Before, the Vandal offense had meticulously driven the field, faring well with a mostly cautious approach that’d pick up firsts, but eventually fizzle out when nearing the red zone. Its running game also started fast, but was suppressed as the clock wound.

Mason Petrino went 15-of-33 for 184 yards, many coming on makeshift displays that bought receivers time. Petrino threaded some uncharacteristically tough throws, but when facing steady pressure, sometimes tried to make too much happen, and was sacked four times.

Although, by all appearances, he has won the so-called quarterback competition.

Expectedly, his favorite target was Jeff Cotton, who made six catches for 91 yards.

Petrino — with a combo of three running backs, spearheaded by Roshaun Johnson’s 69 yards — played off momentum garnered by a defense that’d initially stifled a Wyoming attack led by run-first freshman Sean Chambers, who had only 26 yards rushing and went 4-of-12 for 50 yards passing.

The Pokes were held to two field-goal attempts in the first quarter, both of which missed wide left. They practically abandoned the passing game early.

Meanwhile, UI went up 10-0 after two lengthy drives underlined by commendable line play that dwindled as the game progressed. Early in the second, Johnson skipped in through a wide lane for Idaho’s only touchdown, a 15-yarder.

“In the first half, the offense kept the ball the whole half,” said Paul Petrino, noting a positive takeaway.

Negative?

“We got the ball in the red zone three times and came away with field goals. You can’t settle for three points,” and “you just can’t commit those penalties ... you can’t get 15-yard penalties.”

Personal fouls set up Wyoming’s 12-yard sweep touchdown by Rocket Ismail Jr. to trim the lead. The Cowboys then took it after a Johnson personal foul pinned Coffey’s back against the goal line.

A surprise 45-yard punt return — scooped just before rolling dead — was followed with a scoring run by Trey Smith, who also logged a bounce-out, series-opening 80-yard TD early in the fourth to make it 21-13. It more than quadrupled the Pokes’ second-half yardage and proved to be the dagger.

“When push came to shove, our guys made plays.” said Pokes coach Craig Bohl, whose team had six turnovers in two games, none Saturday. “(Idaho) did a good job of taking care of the football.”

SC TOP 10 — Idaho freshman tight end Hayden Hatten, who Paul Petrino said last week was primed for a breakout, delivered late in the third with a lay-out, one-handed sideline catch from DJ Lee, a former high school quarterback who caught a backward pass from Mason Petrino, avoided pressure and threw one deep. Right after the game, ESPN’s SportsCenter picked up the highlight, labeling it on Twitter, “HOW?”

Wyoming 21, Idaho 16

Stars of the game

Idaho linebackers CHRISTIAN ELLISS and TRE WALKER were the defense’s propellant. They combined for 22 tackles, and although the stat sheet only has Elliss with one stop for loss, the two made plenty of plays at the line of scrimmage. They were key in intermittently quelling one of the country’s top ground attacks.

Vandal receiver JEFF COTTON was matched up with standout corner Tyler Hall for much of the game, but Cotton still managed to collect his fair share of tough catches and finished with six receptions for 91 yards. He added a 17-yard end-around run.

Wyoming running back TREY SMITH, a Louisville transfer, collected a career-high 152 yards and two scores on 17 attempts. His tackle-busting 80-yard score midway through the fourth quarter easily was the Cowboys’ top play and a deciding factor in their victory.

Key plays

> Midway through the fourth, with the Cowboys up 14-13, Wyoming’s offense trots back onto the field after its previous four drives petered out. On the possession’s first snap, Smith takes a handoff, bounces it to the right and sheds an arm-tackle at the line of scrimmage. Smith runs through another defender and outraces two more for an 80-yard score, basically the Cowboys’ game-winner.

> Only about four minutes remain, and the Vandals trail 21-16. But, they’re in scoring position. MASON PETRINO lobs one for CUTRELL HAYWOOD in the far corner of the end zone, and he grabs it over his defender. But in comes a flag, and Haywood gets called for a push-off. After a timeout, UI looks to pass again, but Petrino is gobbled up in the backfield by Solomon Byrd. The Vandals are now out of scoring range, and their offense won’t see the field again.

Up next

Idaho has one more nonconference game before Big Sky play begins — but it happens to be against a league foe. The Vandals will play Eastern Washington at noon on Saturday in the Kibbie Dome.

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