One snap and three seconds changed the entire complexion of the atmosphere in Tucson, AZ.
The Wyoming Cowboys trailed the Toledo Rockets, 15-13, in the 2023 Barstool Sports Arizona Bowl, possessing the ball seven yards short of the end zone. Wyoming head coach Craig Bohl stood on the sidelines in anticipation, watching an entire coaching career of 43 years flash before his eyes as he directed his special teams unit onto the turf at Arizona Stadium. Only one play remained in his 43 years of coaching before retirement.
Kicker John Hoyland lined up in position and nodded, giving the signal he was ready to for the critical 24-yard attempt. Instances later, the ball sprung into the net and the entire Wyoming roster mobbed its 10th-year head coach, sending him off into the sunset as an Arizona Bowl champion. Wyoming edged Toledo, 16-15, claiming its fourth postseason victory under the head coach who threw up the peace sign on an accomplished tenure once the clock struck zero.
“Coming into this game from my perspective, I felt it would be a one possession game which it was,” Bohl said. “I talked about winning the kicking game which is really important. It’s great to come up with a win. It’s great to close out my career with this football team. It truly has been special.”
An atypical announcement enlightened the postgame ceremony as a kicker was showered with MVP honors in the aftermath of the celebration. Hoyland not only sunk the game-winner, but he was the bowl’s leading scorer with 10 of Wyoming’s 16 points — draining all three field goal attempts. One of those makes included a 52-yard bomb in the second quarter which bounced off the bottom upright before catapulting through the post in another MVP moment for the kicker.
“I never really liked lifting up the kicker on the head and shoulders because just we kind of finish it off,” Hoyland said of his MVP honors. “There’s a whole lot work. There’s a whole lot of pushing and bumping of big guys and hitting people to get into that spot.”
Hoyland’s successful 52-yard pinball wasn’t the only bizarre happening in Tucson on Saturday evening. In the first quarter, Toledo pulled off an unthinkable touchdown which was too good to be true — literally. Tucker Gleason targeted running back Jacquez Stuart on a screen and the ball slipped through Stuart’s hands and landed right into the unsuspecting gloves of center Devan Rogers. The 6’2”, 285 pound senior raced to the finish line in a moment he waited his entire playing career for, diving into the blue paint of the end zone in style. However, the referees changed their decision several times regarding the play’s legality, ultimately ruling the incredible highlight as illegal touching.
“The whole stadium thought he had a touchdown,” Toledo head coach Jason Candle told Barstool Sports sideline reporter Caleb Pressley during a halftime interview. “That’s an o-lineman’s dream right there — kind of a weird play. I wish we would have made the catch with the running back. I think we probably would have scored with the running back rather than with the offensive lineman.”
Toledo came up empty-handed on that drive as Gleason threw the game’s only interception on the ensuing play, but the Rockets finally reached the end zone in the late second quarter when Stuart raced down the sideline for an 80-yard touchdown, providing the team its first advantage of the game at 10-6. Stuart finished with 99 rushing yards and Gleason added 42 from the quarterback position. It was Gleason’s first start of the season, stepping in for MAC MVP Dequan Finn who recently announced a transfer to Baylor.
“Last time I played real football was early in September, so it was good getting experience and trying to build momentum for the offseason,” Gleason said.
The game continued to trend in Toledo’s favor in the third quarter, scoring 15 unanswered points on the Cowboys after trailing 6-0 in the early going. Defensive tackle Esean Carter made his mark in the second half with a strip-sack near the goal line in the Rockets’ most critical defensive play of the Arizona Bowl. Toledo registered a safety on the scoreboard and then capitalized on its supplementary possession with a field goal — establishing a multi-score lead at 15-6. The Rockets entered the final stanza of their season clinging on to that 9-point margin.
“We were playing good complementary football for three quarters with field position,” Candle said. “Whether it be the safety or whether it be a couple punts downed inside the five... that’s tough sledding for anybody. We were doing a good job there, but I would have liked to pick up a few more third downs on offense.”
Enter Andrew Peasley and Evan Svoboda for Wyoming. Peasley, a gritty quarterback participating in his final collegiate action, guided the Cowboys into the red zone in the middle of the fourth quarter hoping to trim the deficit. However, the sixth-year quarterback took a brutal hit, lying on the field with an injury. When Peasley walked to the sideline, the Wyoming-dominated crowd chanted his name as he passed the reins of the position off to Svoboda. Two Svoboda rushes later, Wyoming registered its first and only touchdown of the contest, slicing the deficit to 15-13.
“That was probably one of the coolest moments I’ve ever experienced,” Peasley said reflecting on his injury. “I was in pain and I could hear that. I had a lot of adrenaline and I said, ‘Please get me up,’ and I got up and I gave them a wave. It got pretty hyped and that led to Evan going in there and getting a touchdown, so it was pretty awesome.”
Peasley’s college career wasn’t finished quite yet. The battle-tested quarterback checked back into the game for the Cowboys’ final drive which initiated with 4:11 remaining in the game clock’s lifespan. On his first snap back, Peasley delivered a 26-yard bullet to wide receiver Ayir Asante to provide a spark, but once again, the quarterback suffered an injury.
“That’s Andrew,” Bohl said. “He’s resilient. He’s as tough as boot leather. The other day, he was sitting in the office with his father and we were looking at one another saying how this was gonna be. It’s turned out great. He’s a Cowboy through and through and he’s got ice water running through his veins.”
But this time, Peasley wouldn’t return. Svoboda concluded what Peasley started, maneuvering Wyoming down the field with short runs and completions, and the team was also assisted by an unnecessary roughness flag on Toledo. Wyoming utilized three quarterbacks in total on the final drive, and Svoboda’s final run positioned the Cowboys at the 7-yard line before Hoyland put the finishing touches on the comeback.
“They put me in the tent and I was trying to peak through the thing to see what the hell was going on,” Peasley said. “I have full trust in Evan. I wish I could have been out there to finish that drive, but what it comes down to is us getting the W.”
Wyoming concludes its 2023 campaign at 9-4, officially sending Bohl over .500 territory with a final record of 61-60 in his 10 years manning the sideline. The Cowboys move forward with an internal hire, as defensive coordinator Jay Sawvel was announced as Bohl’s successor in early December. But Saturday night in Tucson was about the present, celebrating Coach Bohl’s accomplished career with a thrilling walk-off victory.
“It’s special because it’s the last one for me,” Bohl said. “I’ve done this 43 years and I have not gone to work a day in my life yet. It is a tremendous profession. It’s great to go out with these guys. I have a real sense of peace about moving on. It was time for this Cowboy to ride off and Coach Sawvel is gonna do a great job.”
Toledo finishes its season at 11-3, dropping consecutive games in the MAC Championship and Arizona Bowl to put a damper on an otherwise extraordinary season. The Rockets matched their best record under Candle at 11-3, and they continue to chase their first 12-win season since 1971 as the head coach returns for his ninth year at the helm.
“Disappointed that our senior class didn’t get a chance to win their last football game,” Candle said. “But we had a great year and I’m looking forward to what the offseason brings.”