RENO - The Wyoming Cowboys dared Devin Combs to beat them Saturday at Mackay Stadium.
"They were coming up and stuffing the box and trying to stop our running game," Combs said. "I think that was maybe a challenge to me, like they were saying, 'You make the throws. You try to beat us.'"
So that's exactly what Combs did.
The Wolf Pack's backup quarterback tossed a 44-yard touchdown pass to Richy Turner with 1:18 to play in regulation to send the game into overtime, and then found Aaron Bradley on a 24-yard scoring strike in overtime as the Wolf Pack stunned the Cowboys, 35-28, in front of 24,025 fans.
"I always believed I could do it," said Combs, who was pressed into duty late in the first half because of a back injury to starter Cody Fajardo. "But there's a difference between believing and achieving."
Combs definitely did both against the Cowboys.
"He really struggled in that third quarter," Pack head coach Chris Ault said. "We were shooting ourselves in the foot and it was frustrating. But those last three minutes he really stood up. And that's what we expect from him."
Before he took over for Fajardo with 1:18 to go in the first half, the 6-foot-2, 215-pound Combs had not thrown a pass in a game since he was a freshman at Modesto Junior College in 2010.
"Obviously, you're scared when that (Fajardo's injury) happens," said tight end Zach Sudfeld. "Cody is a special player and is a huge part of the offense. So when he went down it was a little scary."
And, Ault admitted, it was also a little scary to watch.
"He was making mistakes that he doesn't normally make," said Ault of Combs. "And he knew it. It was after the fact and we were out there punting but he knew what he was doing wrong."
Fajardo, who threw a pair of touchdown passes to Sudfeld (13 yards) and Kendall Brock (20 yards), helped the Wolf Pack build a 21-7 lead before he left the game. Combs then spent the better part of the second half trying to find his rhythm as Wyoming took a 28-21 lead behind three touchdown passes and one rushing touchdown from quarterback Brett Smith.
"That third quarter was rough," Ault said. "He (Combs) wasn't in a groove at all. But he's tough. He was out there fighting for everything he could get."
"I wasn't very good early in the game," said Combs, who also fumbled the ball away in the fourth quarter on the Wyoming 9-yard line. "I had a lot of bad throws."
Smith, who completed 21-of-34 passes for 197 yards and also rushed for 60 yards and a touchdown, methodically picked apart the Pack defense. But the animated sophomore, who was the Mountain West's Freshman of the Year last year, might have cost his team the game with his extracurricular activities.
Smith was ejected from the game after receiving two unsportsmanlike conduct penalties in the fourth quarter with his team leading 28-21. The first was after his 8-yard touchdown run gave the Cowboys their 28-21 lead with 13:07 to play and the second was after an incomplete pass on third down with just over eight minutes to play.
"We didn't treat (backup quarterback Jason Thompson) any differently," Wolf Pack safety Duke Williams said.
Thompson, though, treated the Pack defense much differently than Smith.
Thompson, who took over for Smith with 7:24 to go, completed just one of his six passes and failed to lead the Cowboys offense to a first down on three possessions (the last two in regulation and their one drive in overtime).
"The difference in this game was the backup quarterbacks," Ault said.
Combs, who completed 11-of-19 passes for 217 yards and also rushed for 38 yards on 11 carries, matured right before his teammates eyes on Saturday.
"At first he was a little shaky but he definitely started to calm down the more he was in there," Bradley said. "You could see him gain confidence in the second half."
"I had to get my timing down," Combs said. "But, really, after that first drive in the second half (which ended in a missed 30-yard field goal by Allen Harrison), I felt pretty good. I knew we could do it. I just told myself, 'I have to play now. I just have to do my job.'"
Combs and the Pack, though, found themselves down by seven with 95 seconds to play in the fourth quarter and 59 yards away from the end zone. Things didn't look good for the Pack after an incomplete Combs' pass on first down. But Wyoming's Marqueston Huff was called for pass interference on second down, giving the Pack a first down at the Cowboys' 44-yard line.
Combs then connected with Richy Turner on a 44-yard touchdown pass and Hardison kicked the extra point to help send the game into overtime, tied 28-28. Turner, who caught seven passes for 150 yards, also hauled in a 71-yard pass from Combs earlier in the fourth quarter.
"Our game plan was to throw the ball," Ault said. "He (Turner) just ran by him. We thought we could get behind them in their secondary."
The Wolf Pack got the ball first in overtime and scored on their second play -- on a 24-yard pass to Bradley -- to take a 35-28 lead.
"The whole game we were running comebacks to me," Bradley said. "I just gave the cornerback a comeback look and it worked perfectly. Devin threw a nice ball and just led me into the end zone."
The touchdown catch was Bradley's second of the year.
"That was a good call from Rolo (offensive coordinator Nick Rolovich) up top (in the press box)," Bradley said. "We set them up pretty good with the comeback routes."
Bradley said the Wolf Pack offense, despite the struggles in the second half, never lost confidence.
"This system works," he said. "We believe in it."
The Wolf Pack, which last won a game in overtime on Nov. 26, 2010 against Boise State (34-31), is now 5-1 overall and 2-0 in the Mountain West. Wyoming fell to 1-4 and 0-1.
"It's a great team win," Ault said. "The morale of the team now, it's exciting."
Combs was asked if he could imagine a better breakout game for his young Wolf Pack career.
"A few better throws and no fumble," he smiled.