PROVO — As a Wyoming native and a former BYU defensive star, Brady Poppinga is a resident expert on the modern-day BYU-Wyoming rivalry.
Of course, the Cougars and Cowboys haven’t played in six years. And BYU has won seven in a row in a series that dates back to 1922. But for decades, the schools competed as rivals in the Western Athletic Conference and Mountain West Conference before the Cougars became an independent in 2011.
The two teams renew their longstanding rivalry in the Poinsettia Bowl on Dec. 21 (7 p.m., MST, ESPN) in San Diego. It will mark the 78th game between BYU and Wyoming.
Having grown up in Evanston, Wyoming, and having been recruited by both schools, Poppinga, who enjoyed a successful NFL career after playing at BYU from 2001-2004, knows what this matchup means to the state of Wyoming.
“If they can beat BYU, this whole season will go down as one of the greatest seasons of all time and it would be one of their signature wins in the history of Wyoming football,” Poppinga said. “It’s a big deal for them. We’ll see if BYU can handle business under those circumstances or if they let their guard down and think they can roll over Wyoming.”
Even though the Cougars and Cowboys haven’t played since 2010, this rivalry hasn’t lost its luster in Wyoming.
It’s fitting that this Poinsettia Bowl showdown takes place on the 20th anniversary of the most famous game between the two teams — the 1996 Western Athletic Conference championship game in Las Vegas.
The Cougars won in overtime, 28-25, in an outcome that has gone down as one of the most bitter losses in Wyoming's history.
Going into the game, BYU was ranked No. 6 and boasted a 12-1 record. The Cowboys were 10-1 and ranked No. 20. Wyoming was clinging to a 25-20 lead with 2:57 remaining in regulation, and with the ball on its own two-yard line, when coach Joe Tiller opted to take a safety on fourth down rather than punt.
On BYU's ensuring possession, it drove deep into Cowboy territory, where Ethan Pochman nailed a field goal to send the game into overtime. In OT, Pochman again drilled another field goal as BYU claimed the WAC title.
With that win, the Cougars clinched a berth in the Cotton Bowl while Wyoming wasn't invited to a bowl game. BYU finished with a 14-1 record and a No. 5 national ranking.
Poppinga’s older brother, Casey, was a freshman tight end on that ’96 Wyoming team.
“That Wyoming team was probably it’s most talented team,” Brady Poppinga said. “There were guys that went to the NFL. They should have gone to a bowl game.”
While current players at Wyoming and BYU have no history of playing each other, the Cougar coaching staff knows all about the rivalry with the Cowboys. Both assistant head coach Ed Lamb and receivers coach Ben Cahoon were on BYU's 1996 team that played Wyoming in the WAC title game.
Quarterbacks coach Ty Detmer’s first game at BYU was played in Laramie in 1988. Detmer, a redshirt freshman, replaced an injured Sean Covey and committed five consecutive second-half turnovers in a 24-14 loss.
“Always good, hard-fought games. They always played hard,” Detmer recalled. “It was my first college experience playing in Laramie. It didn’t go so well for me. I always looked forward to redeeming myself against Wyoming. They’ve always been a team that plays hard. They were always one of the better teams in the WAC at that time.”
Wyoming went on to post an 11-2 record in 1988 and it captured the WAC title. Detmer, meanwhile, went on to whip the Cowboys the next three years and won the 1990 Heisman Trophy.
“The passion’s still there to want to beat BYU and same for us. We want to beat Wyoming. It will be a great matchup and I was excited to hear we were playing Wyoming," Detmer said. "Being in the Mountain West area, we follow each other and keep track of what the others are doing somewhat. We still expect it to be a spirited game and renew some of those rivalries. The fans will enjoy it probably more than the players.”
“I’ve always had a lot of respect for Wyoming and their fan base and the passion they have for their team,” said coach Kalani Sitake, a former Cougar running back. “It’s exciting to get them back on the schedule. To have the opportunity to play them in San Diego — Laramie’s a tough place to play. It’s good we get them in San Diego.”
Yes, playing at War Memorial Stadium in Laramie was a unique experience for BYU.
"When we played Wyoming in 2003, I remember warning all of the players, ‘Don’t expect this to be the Coronado Marriott in San Diego,'" said Poppinga, who went 3-1 against Wyoming during his time at BYU. "'This is going to be roughing it. We’re going to stay at a truck stop.' They were laughing at me. We get to Foster’s Truck Stop and guys are looking at me like, ‘No way. We didn’t think it would be this bad.' Some of the doors wouldn’t even lock. This brings back those sorts of memories.”
Quarterback John Beck once described playing in Laramie this way: “You drive in and everybody’s flipping you off. You stay at a truck stop on the side of the road. You do your walk-through in the dirt in front of the place. It’s a fun place to play. If every Wyoming fan could pick one team to hate, I think it’s us.”
"The fans wanted to send us home in our coffins," former BYU running back Hema Heimuli once said. "They are worse than Utah fans. They cuss, throw beer bottles at you. You feel unsafe, like you need bodyguards. It's a nasty atmosphere up there."
One of legendary coach LaVell Edwards’ most famous quotes was uttered in Laramie, prompted by a 33-20 loss to the Cowboys in a driving snowstorm. In October. "I would rather lose and live in Provo," Edwards said, "than win and live in Laramie."
Though the players involved in the Poinsettia Bowl aren’t aware about the past between BYU and Wyoming, according to Poppinga, it won’t take long for them to realize the significance of this game.
“Most of these kids don’t know about Wyoming-BYU history. On BYU’s end, they’ll realize Wyoming is a lot more scrappier and tougher than they anticipated,” Poppinga said. “That’s just the nature of kid they can get to Wyoming. They have kids who have a chip on their shoulders, kids that were overlooked. Those are things that make a Wyoming Cowboy football player different. From Wyoming’s perspective, they’ll realize that BYU is physical and bigger than most teams they face. It will be more of a realization of the physical nature of the game than the tradition.”
Meanwhile, for the long-time fans of the two schools, the tradition and history of the BYU-Wyoming rivalry lives on.
Here's a rundown of 11 memorable BYU-Wyoming games, in chronological order.
OCTOBER 18, 1969
Wyoming 40, BYU 7: When the Cougars visited Laramie that year, 14 black Wyoming players were kicked off the team by coach Lloyd Eaton after they told him they were going to wear black armbands to protest BYU and the LDS Church, institutions they saw as racist. This wasn't just a game, it was an event that featured a large band of protesters outside War Memorial Stadium. Reporters from national publications like Sports Illustrated and the New York Times were on hand. The Cowboys won easily that day, but they never fully recovered from the long-term effects of that "Black 14" incident, recording only one winning season in the 1970s.
NOVEMBER 4, 1972
BYU 33, Wyoming 14: In coach LaVell Edwards' first season at the helm of the Cougars, BYU crushed the Cowboys in Provo. It was a sign of things to come, as during Edwards' tenure, the Cougars posted a 19-6 record against Wyoming.
OCTOBER 24, 1981
Wyoming 33, BYU 20: On the morning of the game in Laramie, conditions were pleasant. But just before kickoff, the clouds rolled in, the snow fell and, suddenly, the Cougars and Cowboys were playing in a full-on blizzard. Wyoming prevailed over quarterback Jim McMahon and BYU, and it was one of only of two losses suffered by the Cougars that season. The experience prompted Edwards to offer his famous quote, "I'd rather lose and live in Provo than win and live in Laramie."
OCTOBER 13, 1984
BYU 41, Wyoming 38: Wyoming nearly wrecked BYU's perfect season and nearly ended the Cougars' dreams of a national championship. BYU entered the Homecoming game in Provo ranked No. 5 in the nation, sporting a 5-0 record and riding a 16-game winning streak. The 3-3 Cowboys gave the Cougars a fierce battle. The game featured six consecutive failed extra point attempts by the two teams. Late in the contest, quarterback Robbie Bosco connected with David Mills for a 14-yard touchdown pass to secure the victory for BYU, which went on to a 13-0 mark and the national title.
SEPTEMBER 1, 1988
Wyoming 24, BYU 14: This contest, which was the '88 season-opener for both teams, was significant for several reasons. It marked the first-ever night game at War Memorial Stadium and it was the debut of BYU's redshirt freshman quarterback, Ty Detmer. Detmer, who replaced an injured Sean Covey, committed five consecutive second-half turnovers. Wyoming went on to post an 11-2 record and win the WAC title. Detmer, meanwhile, went on to whip the Cowboys the next three years. Oh yeah, and he also won the 1990 Heisman Trophy.
OCTOBER 17, 1992
BYU 31, Wyoming 28: The Cougars earned a narrow win over the Cowboys en route to another WAC championship. However, because of scheduling issues and conference changes, it was the last time BYU would play in Laramie for seven years.
DECEMBER 7, 1996
BYU 28, Wyoming 25 (OT): This was one for the ages. There was plenty on the line in this WAC championship game in Las Vegas. The Cougars boasted a top 10 ranking and a 12-1 record. The Cowboys were 10-1 and nationally ranked. BYU was looking to bust through the Bowl Alliance to a possible berth into the Fiesta Bowl. Clinging to a five-point lead with 2:57 remaining in regulation, and with the ball on his own 2-yard line, Wyoming coach Joe Tiller opted to take a safety on fourth down. BYU then drove deep into Cowboy territory, where Ethan Pochman nailed a field goal to send the game into overtime. In OT, Pochman again drilled another field goal to claim the WAC title for BYU. That lifted the Cougars to the Cotton Bowl while Wyoming wasn't invited to a bowl game. The Cougars finished with a 14-1 record and a No. 5 national ranking.
NOVEMBER 13, 1999
Wyoming 31, BYU 17: The Cougars, in their first trip to Laramie in seven years, had an 8-1 record, had won six straight games, were nationally ranked and were looking to wrap up the first-ever Mountain West Conference title. But the Cowboys dominated the game and, in the end, their fans tore down the goal posts. The loss triggered a tailspin for the Cougars, who lost their final three games.
NOVEMBER 10, 2001
BYU 41, Wyoming 34: Once again, the Cougars, under first-year coach Gary Crowton, had a lot at stake going into this game. BYU, ranked No. 9 in the nation, was looking to go 10-0 on the season against a weak Wyoming squad that won only two games all season. The Cowboys played inspired football, but a late defensive stand by BYU preserved a Cougar victory. Wyoming had fourth-and-goal from the BYU 5-yard line with 28 seconds remaining in the game when, on fourth down, a Casey Bramlet slant pass intended for receiver Brock Ralph in the end zone was tipped away at the last second by safety Levi Madarieta. The Cougars wound up going 12-0 before losing to Hawaii in the regular-season finale.
OCTOBER 18, 2003
Wyoming 13, BYU 10: This game featured two struggling football teams with losing records, but it also featured another exciting finish in Laramie. The Cougars rallied from a 13-0 deficit and were driving late in the game when a pass by quarterback Matt Berry was tipped and intercepted. Going into the game, Wyoming had a 1-21 record in MWC games since the start of the 2000 season. Once again, delirious Cowboy fans ripped down the goal posts in celebration.
NOVEMBER 12, 2005
BYU 35, Wyoming 21: BYU clinched bowl eligibility for the first time since 2001 in Bronco Mendenhall’s first season. Running back Curtis Brown ran for 153 yards and two touchdowns, quarterback John Beck completed 20 of 29 passes for 179 yards and two touchdowns and linebacker Justin Luettgerodt recovered three Wyoming fumbles and also intercepted a pass.