Richard Anderson photo
Wyoming linebackers Gabe Knapton, 52, and Josh Biezuns smother a UNLV running back Saturday. At left is sophomore cornerback Tashaun Gipson.
By Richard Anderson
The Wyoming offense bent, but did not break. Tashaun Gipson and Gabe Knapton made sure of that.
Gipson picked off a pair of Omar Clayton passes, one at the Cowboys own 1-yard line, and Knapton had one big pass breakup late and 17 total tackles, as Wyoming made the plays defensively it needed to, holding off the Rebels 30-27 Saturday at War Memorial Stadium.
The high-flying Rebels offense, led by Clayton at quarterback, and talented receivers Ryan Wolfe and Phillip Payne, seemed to stay a step ahead of the Wyoming defense in the second half, twice breaking ties with effective touchdown drives.
Both times, the Wyoming offense battled back to get into the end zone itself to knot the game up again. After a 28-yard field goal by Ian Watts gave the Cowboys a three-point lead with 3 minutes, 20 seconds to play, the Cowboy defense needed one more big stop.
It got it when the Rebels failed to convert -- even get off a 50-yard field goal attempt in the final minute of play. UNLV did earn four first downs on that late drive, but stalled inside the Wyoming 30 on a 7-yard pass and two straight incomplete passes that led to the ill-fated field goal attempt.
“I thought we played pretty good,” Knapton said. “There were a couple of series out there where we let a couple of plays slip, but we all came together as a defense and stopped them when we really needed to.”
Although the Rebels finished with 386 yards of total offense, converting 10 of 17 third-down possessions, the Wyoming defense came up big on the final full UNLV possession.
“I think we just realized that we needed to do something," Knapton said. “There has been a lot of talk about going out there and playing four quarters. We didn’t really do it for all four quarters, but we came together and got fired up. It wasn’t what they said, it as just our own ideas of what we had to do.”
One of the biggest defensive stops in the game came early in the third quarter when the Rebels were looking to break a 13-13 tie. They got one yard short of the goal-line when Gipson made a diving interception in front of a Rebel receiver.
“No question that Tashaun Gipson’s interception (at the 1-yard line) was as big a play as any,” Wyoming head coach Dave Christensen said. “UNLV was having success moving the football. We talk about when teams get down in that area we have to make something happen and he did."
Late in the game, Gipson stopped another potential drive when he basically did the same thing, stepping in front of Clayton’s pass on the Vegas 37-yard line. Wyoming would then move down for the eventual winning field goal.
The two picks now give Gipson three on the season. He enjoyed caching the football on Saturday.
"I just saw the ball and I wanted it,” Gipson said with a grin. “Both of those catches, I just clued on the quarterback, which was one of my biggest things coming in. Against Weber State and Colorado, the quarterbacks were kind of sloppy on their clues, so my brother (Marcell) and I got back to the basics. We started zoning in on the quarterbacks, which I thought was a vital part of those two big plays I had out there.”
The Cowboys secondary had a tough chore ahead of them with Clayton and the talented Rebel receivers. It was a test they accepted.
“It was a lot of fun,” Gipson said. “They had some great receivers out there, so it was a challenge for us. I credit coach Grinch, he kept preaching and harping at us to keep us focused because that is a good receiving corps. We came up big time.”
For some reason, the UNLV coaching staff elected to go after Gipson, despite his ability to defend and catch the football. Gipson said he “guessed” he had to show them.
“There was a lot of hype about their receivers," Gipson said. “They have some good players, but our secondary, and I have been saying this, is one of the best in the country. When we go out and make plays, we can make things happen.”
The Cowboys now have eight interceptions on the season, compared to nine of all of last year.
“We are just out there playing Cowboy Tough football,” Gipson said. “We want the ball. We have a different motto -- it’s all about the ball. We want the ball every time the ball is in the air. If they run, we want to strip it out. We’re just trying to put our offense in a better situation.”
Knapton just missed an interception on that late UNLV drive, but got a big pass knockdown.
“When you are flying around, like we do in practice, trying to get the ball, you are going to be more effective,” Knapton said.
Although the Cowboys are giving up an average of 416 yards a game, their play on defense has allowed the offense to work through some struggles and now show some success.
“In the first four games, we fell like we are better than we have played,” Gipson said. “The stats don’t prove that we are better than we played, but we want to prove to everybody that we can stop some of the best offenses, not only in the conference, but in the country.”
The Wyoming linebacking corps that also includes sophomore Brian Hendricks and senior Weston Johnson, is proving to be among the best in the conference. Hendricks leads the way in tackles with 50, followed by Knapton at 45.
“It’s trouble for an offense when we have two linebackers like Brian Hendricks and myself making tackles," Knapton said. " I think it was a team effort by the entire defense."