LARAMIE -- Tyler Vander Waal could only watch hopelessly from the bench.
Were his playing days numbered, he asked himself? Had he just thrown his final pass in a Wyoming uniform? The fans were booing. Craig Bohl obliged, inserting Sean Chambers into the lineup.
The freshman quarterback, who was third on the depth chart, took the Pokes on three scoring drives in four opportunities. He was the offensive spark Wyoming needed. They were on the brink of knocking off one of the top teams in the Mountain West Conference.
Vander Waal said it was in that moment his confidence was rattled. Bohl reinserted him into the lineup for the Cowboys final drive with 2:12 to play, a decision that wasn't popular with the home crowd inside War Memorial Stadium that October afternoon.
Vander Waal promptly tossed four straight incomplete passes to end the Cowboys upset bid.
Utah State 24
"That's always in the back of my head," Vander Waal said this week. "I think it always will be. That moment, against that same team, was one of the lowest situations I've been in."
Chambers got his first career start the following week in Ft. Collins. He led the Cowboys to the 34-21 Border War victory. Chambers followed that up with a home win over San Jose State. The kid could run like the wind and was making the few throws he was asked to.
Chambers quickly became a crowd favorite.
Vander Waal didn't expect to get back into the lineup last season. Standing on the sideline, headset on, he watched as Chambers led the first few drives against Air Force on a snowy, bitterly cold November day in Laramie.
Then, he saw teammates motioning for the trainers after a first quarter goal line play. It was Chambers. He had a leg injury. One that would cost him the rest of the season. Vander Waal was getting his second chance.
Admittedly, Vander Waal said the first eight starts of his young career were filled with anxiety and frustration. Mistakes ate at him. He heard the moaning in the crowd. Things tended to snowball.
"Last year, I wasn't necessarily having fun," he said. "I was so worried about everything, trying to balance having fun with making the next throw. I was worrying about what everyone thinks about me.
"Now, I'm just like, I don't care. I'm going out and playing football. I'm living the dream."
Despite Air Force extending its lead to 27-14 heading into the fourth quarter, Vander Waal was playing loose. His first pass of the day was an 11-yard scoring strike to Raghib Ismail Jr. He was running around in the snow like a kid again, making plays with his feet and arm.
In that final 15 minutes, Vander Waal led the Cowboys to 21 unanswered points and an unthinkable come-from-behind victory. He finished the day 14-of-26 for 225 yards and a pair of touchdown tosses. He also scored twice on the ground in the win.
That was the day Vander Waal's mindset changed forever. But that didn't guarantee anything. He played in the season finale the following week in Albuquerque, helping lead Wyoming to a dominant 31-3 win over New Mexico.
A healthy Chambers would regain the starting job in fall camp.
Here we are, nearly a calendar year later. Chambers has once again been lost for the season with a leg injury. Vander Waal is now the guy under center. He got his first start last Saturday at Boise State.
Wyoming fell 20-17 in overtime.
The loss was brutal. Vander Waal expressed as much with his words following the game. The tear resting on his left cheek really told the tale. This one hurt.
Vander Waal wanted to prove the doubters wrong. He wanted to show his growth as a quarterback. Most important, he wanted to lead his team to a victory over the No. 22 team in the nation on the road.
The sophomore from Elk Grove, Calif., accomplished some of those goals.
He completed 15-of-23 passes for 160 yards. He scored a touchdown on the ground from three yards out. Where he really impressed was with in his body language and competitive spirit.
As the Cowboys left the locker room, Vander Waal was seen razzing fans. When he got sacked in the first quarter, he popped up and gave the defender an ear full. After hitting Ayden Eberhardt on a 12-yard roll out, Vander Waal once again turned his attention to the crowd behind Wyoming's bench.
Don't get it twisted, he was fully invested in this one, but he was letting his emotions fly.
Or as he calls it ...
"I was having fun again," he said with a smile. "I'm on national television, I'm playing football, I'm living my dream. A couple of throws helped confidence, but like I said, I got sacked and made one guy miss. I was definitely talking to him. Boise State fans, they were talking. I was talking back. It's all about the love of football."
Did Vander Waal feel any of those old Air Force feelings in Boise? You bet.
"I keep going back to a third-down throw to Rocket I missed," he said. "I was upset, but I went to the sidelines smiling. I thought to myself, I still have a whole fourth quarter to go. I'll go get it the next play. It's growth from where I was a year ago. Last year, I'm punching the sidelines, getting mad at myself and letting that one play swell up to two, then letting that two get in my head. Now, I just missed four straight passes."
Vander Waal said he'd be lying if he didn't want another crack at the Aggies. Well, he will get that shot Saturday when the Pokes head to Logan for a 2 p.m. kickoff.
This one means just a little more.
The last time he faced this team, he completed just 7-of-19 passes. He finished with 38 yards and an interception. His quarterback rating was a 6.4.
"I've learned from that," Vander Waal said. "I look at that from a growing experience. You learn from what happened. This is an opportunity to get back at them. To show how much I've grown in a year and what I can do. Who I was last year is not who I am this year."
Does he think the Aggies are chirping about him being under center Saturday? Vander Waal sure hopes so.
"Awesome, I hope they do talk," he said. "I'm going to go out Saturday and play my game of football."