They play every year for the Bronze Boot, a traveling trophy with significance measured far beyond won-loss record. For the record, Wyoming won this year's game 45-31. Now both teams have two wins on the season. And Cowboy fans can exhale.
There were a lot of people - present company included - who thought Wyoming would be in the thick of the Mountain West championship race in 2012. Coming off a bowl season in 2011, and featuring outstanding young quarterback Brett Smith, the Cowboys were a trendy pick to give Boise State and newcomers Nevada and Fresno State a run for their money.
It hasn't turned out that way. A pair of concussions suffered by Smith - who was the MW Freshman of the Year last season and seemed poised to have an even bigger year this time around - effectively squelched the Cowboys hopes of having a really big year. As far as 2012, it became apparent very early that as Brett Smith goes, so go the Wyoming Cowboys.
After playing well in a loss at Texas in the opener, and locked in a tough battle with Toledo in week two, the Pokes saw the trigger man of their high powered spread offense leave the game with his first concussion mid-way through the fourth quarter. Smith had thrown for 339 yards and two scores before he was helped off the field, and the Pokes fell 34-31. Without Smith at all in game three, Wyoming dropped one to Cal Poly to fall to 0-3.
After beating Idaho and then resting up during a bye week, Smith returned for a highly anticipated match up at Nevada. He suffered a second concussion in what became an overtime loss to the Wolf Pack. After throwing three touchdown passes, the star QB's night ended early and the Pokes hopes of an upset fell short 35-28. Wyo fell to 1-4.
Smith was sidelined for the stomach-churning loss to Air Force. Then came a pair of blowout losses to a very good Fresno State team and even better Boise State squad, and suddenly, Wyoming was sitting there with a 1-7 record.
So the Border War game and all that came with it could not have come at a better time for the Pokes. Smith had returned against the Broncos but wasn't back to his pre-injury form quite yet. He showed early against CSU that he WAS finally 100% healthy, and having Smith at this best was plenty to help Christensen earn his fourth straight Bronze Boot. Wyoming was remarkable on third down, converting their first nine tries, including four "3rd-and-double digits." For the game they produced numbers most people expected them to produce all season: 228 yards rushing, 240 yards passing, 32 first downs, including an amazing 15-for-20 on third down. Smith threw for four scores and ran for another. It was a sparkling performance.
The bad news: It's too late to get bowl eligible again, and the Pokes have discovered the hard way that they probably didn't have a solid enough contingency plan going into the season in the case of an injury to their star quarterback. Consider it a lesson learned. They've begun playing talented back up Jason Thompson a series or two even in games that Smith is healthy, just to keep him ready. An experienced Thompson could be the remedy for what ails the Pokes offense when Smith (who has gotten more than one sideline lecture about the virtues of sliding or ducking out of bounds) misses time.
The good news: Smith will be back next season as a well healed and seasoned junior, when he and everyone in brown and gold will get a fresh start. Expect the Cowboys to be in the thick of the 2013 MW title chase.