BYU and Wyoming have an intense, unfriendly, animosity-filled football history. Is the rivalry back?
No. 19 Cougars and 3-1 Cowboys meet Saturday night at LaVell Edwards Stadium for the first time since BYU’s 24-21 win in the 2016 Poinsettia Bowl
When the BYU Cougars left the Mountain West Conference after the 2010-11 sports season for college football independence and stashed most of their other sports in the West Coast Conference, several longtime rivals from the Skyline, Western Athletic and Mountain West conferences vowed that they would never schedule the Cougars again.
Wyoming was among them.
Cowboys athletic director Tom Burman told the Casper Star-Tribune in 2010 after the Cougars announced they were bolting that he didn’t have “any desire” to play BYU again. Of course, that wish fell by the wayside in 2016 when the Cougars and Cowboys met in the Poinsettia Bowl, a 24-21 BYU win over future NFL star Josh Allen and Pokes.
“I would rather lose and live in Provo than win and live in Laramie.” — Late and legendary BYU football coach LaVell Edwards after a 33-20 loss to Wyoming in an October blizzard in Laramie
A lot of the buildup to that game in San Diego focused on Wyoming’s intense hatred for BYU — a mountain of disdain not just because the Cougars had abandoned the rivalry a half-dozen years earlier, but also because of the animosity dating back to when the schools in neighboring states first played in 1922.
Also, since the infamous “Black 14” incident before the game in Laramie in 1969, Wyoming has generally been dominated by BYU, oftentimes embarrassed by big scoring margins, adding fuel to the Cowboys’ fire, and ire.
It was somewhat of a surprise, then, when BYU and Wyoming announced on Aug. 28, 2018, that they had agreed to a home-and-home series. After all, Burman is still Wyoming’s athletic director.
Maybe the pre-Christmas 2016 matchup softened some hearts. And time supposedly heals all wounds.
Yeah, probably not. Go to any message board out there, and you will learn that Wyoming and BYU still have a history, if not a bonafide rivalry.
It will be renewed Saturday when the 3-1 Cowboys visit LaVell Edwards Stadium (8:15 p.m. MDT, ESPN2) to test the No. 19 Cougars (2-1).
“Yeah, it is a legendary rivalry, I know, going back to the WAC days, going back to the Mountain West,” said BYU tight end Isaac Rex, son of former BYU great Byron Rex. “Wyoming has always been a key game for the Cougars. They are going to be tough. They are going to be gritty. Wyoming is a good team, so we have to be really prepared.”
Isaac Rex has some inside knowledge of the bad blood, of course, because of his bloodlines — even if he doubts his pops had good games against Wyoming back in the day because Byron doesn’t bring up those games when he goes into Al Bundy mode.
“He hasn’t talked about Wyoming much; maybe because he didn’t do much (against Wyoming) because they are such a good team,” Isaac said. “I gotta ask him more about it and see what he really thinks.”
BYU receiver Kody Epps, who grew up in Los Angeles and attended national prep power Mater Dei High School, said Monday that he knows nothing about the old BYU-Wyoming rivalry, and that it hadn’t been mentioned until this week.
Then there’s linebacker Keenan Pili. He was at that 24-21 Poinsettia Bowl win for the Cougars, watching from the sidelines as a first-year redshirt before his church mission when Kai Nacua intercepted Allen’s pass attempt in the red zone in the final minutes to seal BYU’s eighth-straight win in the series.
BYU leads the series 45-30-1 and has won 11 of the last 12 meetings. No wonder Wyoming wants revenge, Pili surmised.
“I know it has always been a great game vs. Wyoming and they are a great team with great players,” said Pili, who prepped at nearby Timpview High. “Josh Allen was on that Wyoming team. So I have been around it and I think it will be an amazing game this week.”
Current BYU kicker Jake Oldroyd was also on that 2016 team, but it was fellow kicker Rhett Almond who made a 27-yard field goal in the rain at Qualcomm Stadium that proved to be the difference.
Before that bowl game, former BYU linebacker Brady Poppinga, who grew up in Evanston, Wyoming, told the Deseret News how important the showdown was to the Cowboys.
“If they can beat BYU, this whole (2016) 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 is a big deal for them.”
The question is: Is it still?
Wyoming coach Craig Bohl, who was in his third year in 2016, said in his weekly news conference Monday in Laramie that it is, but also noted that it would be “counterproductive for us to dwell on all that.”
“I think they know it is there. I was not completely aware so much when I got back, and heard some rumblings about it, and different stories,” Bohl said. “Then when we played the bowl game, I went up to Kalani (Sitake) and I was like, ‘What is the deal?’ … So, it is on. I know our fans embrace it and are excited about it. They know it is a big game. It is going to be a nationally televised game Saturday night on (ESPN2), so it will be a big audience and it is a great opportunity for us.”
Obviously, Sitake was qualified that rainy night back in 2016 to tell Bohl all about the tensions that existed between the schools. A former BYU fullback, he played against Wyoming in 1999 and 2000, losing to the Pokes 31-17 in 1999 and enjoying a 19-7 victory in 2000. The rivals didn’t meet in Sitake’s first year (1994) or in 1997 and 1998.
“Back to my playing days, (intense games) are the standard that you always have to deal with when you play Wyoming,” Sitake said. “They are strong, tough kids and they come in with great effort, and they play with high energy. And that is the expectation from their fans. You can see it on film. Yeah, it is going to be a tough game, man. I am looking forward to it, though.”
Adding to Wyoming’s angst is the fact that BYU won all but seven games from 1970 to 2010 after that well-documented 40-7 loss to then-No. 16 Wyoming on Oct. 18, 1969, in which 14 African American Wyoming football players were suspended by coach Lloyd Eaton for wanting to wear black armbands to protest policies of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints regarding Blacks and the priesthood.
Between 1970 and 2010, BYU scored 50 or more points on Wyoming six times and 35 or more points 18 times. Wyoming fans often accused the Cougars, who had clearly surpassed the Pokes as the premier football program in the Rocky Mountain area, of rubbing their noses in the big losses.
“I think our guys understand (the importance of the game to the state of Wyoming),” Sitake said. “… Our guys know that we are going to get their best shot. This is just like a lot of the other teams that we play against, how important it is to them. I don’t know if the guys are really looking into the history of it, but it is pretty evident when you see it on film.
“These guys play tough football. Well-coached. Craig Bohl is a great coach and he is going to get these guys playing at a high level. You can see it on film, how strong they are, and how physical they are.”
Saturday’s game at LaVell Edwards Stadium, named after the architect of BYU’s rise to national relevance, is the first in the two-game series contracted in 2018. BYU was scheduled to play at Wyoming on Sept. 28, 2024, although that contest might have to be rescheduled or canceled because the Cougars will be subject to their Big 12 schedule in 2023 and beyond. The Big 12’s 2023 schedule could be released next month.
Speaking of Edwards, he had a part in adding to Wyoming fans’ hatred for BYU, and not just because of all those aforementioned drubbings after he took over in 1972 and handed Wyoming a 33-14 spanking.
After the No. 13 Cougars fell 33-20 to Wyoming on Oct. 24, 1981 in Laramie amid a blizzard, Edwards famously said the following:
“I would rather lose and live in Provo than win and live in Laramie.”
Here’s hoping fans from both sides are treated to pleasant weather Saturday night in Provo, and the rivalry renewal is another game for the ages. Until then, here’s a look at some of the more memorable BYU-Wyoming games in history:
Oct. 18, 1969
No. 16 Wyoming 40, BYU 7: Most BYU-Wyoming historians agree that this is when all the bad blood started. Playing without 14 Black members of their team who had been kicked off the team by Eaton, the Cowboys crushed the Cougars as protesters rallied outside War Memorial Stadium. Some former Cougars who played in the game told the Salt Lake Tribune in 2009 on the 40-year anniversary of the event that they literally feared for their lives on the bus ride to the stadium that day. Two years later, Edwards replaced Tommy Hudspeth as BYU’s head coach and built a football power in the West, while Wyoming recorded only one winning season in the 1970s. Edwards was 19-6 against Wyoming.
Oct. 24, 1981
Wyoming 33, No. 13 BYU 20: BYU took a 6-1 record and No. 13 national ranking into the game in Laramie, and quickly jumped to a 14-0 lead in the first quarter, quarterbacked by the great Jim McMahon. It looked like the Cougars were on their way to their fifth-straight win in the series. They had drubbed Wyoming by scores of 52-17, 54-14 and 48-14 the previous three games. But a blizzard rolled into War Memorial, and the Cowboys’ rushing game caught fire. Wyoming rushed for 344 yards and held BYU to 78 in a convincing win.
Oct. 13, 1984
No. 5 BYU 41, Wyoming 38: Wyoming entered this homecoming game at then-Cougar Stadium in Provo with a 3-3 record, while fifth-ranked BYU was on a 16-game winning streak and trying not to look ahead to a showdown the next week at Air Force. Naturally, Wyoming almost ruined BYU’s national championship season. The Cowboys took a 38-33 lead at the end of the third quarter on a 61-yard touchdown run by Kevin Lowe. But Robbie Bosco threw a 14-yard TD pass to David Mills and a two-point conversion pass to Kelly Smith with 4:16 remaining in the fourth quarter, and the Cougars held on. They finished the season 13-0 and were named national champions.
Dec. 7, 1996
No. 6 BYU 28, No. 25 Wyoming 25 (OT): The Cowboys almost spoiled what is often called the second-best season in BYU football history on a bitter cold, windy day in Las Vegas. In the WAC championship game at Sam Boyd Stadium, the Cougars were 12-1 and had their sights set on a possible Bowl Alliance berth in the Fiesta Bowl. Wyoming’s lead was cut to three when coach Joe Tiller chose to take a safety on fourth down from his own 2-yard line. BYU’s Ethan Pochman made a field goal to send the game into overtime, then another one in OT to help BYU claim the WAC crown. The Cougars went on to win the Cotton Bowl and finish with a 14-1 record and No. 5 national ranking, while Wyoming (10-1) was unfairly left out of a bowl game.
Dec. 21, 2016
BYU 24, Wyoming 21: The weather was perfect in the days leading up to the 2016 Poinsettia Bowl, while all the talk centered on the first matchup between these bitter rivals since the Cougars left the Mountain West for football independence. A few minutes into the game, the rains came, and never let up.
Playing in a quagmire at outdated Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego, BYU escaped what was looking like a sure loss in Kalani Sitake’s first season when Nacua stepped in front of an Allen pass with 22 seconds remaining. Allen was also picked off by Dayan Lake in the game. Jamaal Williams was BYU’s offensive star, rushing for 210 yards and a touchdown. BYU’s Tanner Mangum was the more-hyped QB in the contest, but threw for just 96 yards and a touchdown, with one interception.
Cougars on the air
Wyoming (3-1) at No. 19 BYU (2-1)
Saturday, 8:15 p.m. MDT
LaVell Edwards Stadium
Radio: KSL Newsradio 102.7 FM/1160 AM