In his first career start, Wyoming freshman quarterback Levi Williams threw for 234 yards and three touchdowns and added another on the ground against the Georgia State Panthers during the 2019 Nova Home Loans Arizona Bowl, more than helping the Cowboys finish their 8-5 season on a high note with a 38-17 win.
“For a freshman quarterback, I thought he played with a lot of poise and composure,” said Wyoming head coach Craig Bohl. “We’re glad he’s here.”
The Panthers quickly lit up the scoreboard on New Year’s Eve with a four-yard touchdown by quarterback Dan Ellington after six drives, gaining 75 yards in the first two minutes of the first quarter. Ellington has been playing with a torn ACL for the past month.
“(The Panthers) did a couple of things with play-action that kinda froze us up and kudos to them,” Bohl said. “There were a lot of times today when our defense had to come up with some big stops and they certainly did.”
Cowboys kicker Cooper Rothe answered with a 53-yard field goal in the first quarter, a personal best. His previous record was 51 yards.
Wyoming wide receiver Ayden Eberhardt scored after catching a 51-yard pass from Williams to close out the second quarter 14-points over the Panthers.
“That was a big, big play; it’s like he just kept going,” Bohl said. “There were a lot of key plays but that one changed the complexion of the game.”
The game’s two MVPs came from Wyoming: sophomore running back Xazavian Valladay and senior strong safety Alijah Halliburton. The bowl game was Valladay’s seventh game with more than 100 rushing yards this season and Halliburton’s final game.
“It’s my last game and it was such a big game to end the decade,” Halliburton said. “I’m excited for the Wyoming program for the years to come.”
More than 36,000 college football fans attended at this year’s Arizona Bowl, according to Eric Rhodes, vice president of communications for the Arizona Bowl. Rhodes estimates approximately $100,000,000 has been spent by fans in the local community since the bowl’s inception five years ago.
“We wanted to have a bowl game that was sustainable as a part of something that benefits Tucson,” Rhodes said. “Not just the sports community, but Tucson as a whole.”
This is the first year the Arizona Bowl was played on New Year’s Eve, which Rhodes said will now be the official date for future Arizona Bowl games. This is also the first year of the bowl’s New Year’s Eve after-party, featuring an NYC-style celebration on the north side of Congress with a countdown to midnight, followed by a “Taco Drop” to ring in the new year.
David Slutes, entertainment and booking director for Hotel Congress, said the Arizona Bowl unequivocally helps the downtown Tucson economy. Slutes did admit he had his doubts at first on whether the after-party was going to be a success.
“We were pretty unsure of how it was going to turn out, but we were all very pleased with the results,” Slutes said. “Really, this event could have gone either way in my mind. It was really ambitious.”
Slutes noted how many Wyoming fans were present, enjoying the nightlife days before and after last week’s game.
“There was a ton of Wyoming fans...they were everywhere,” Slutes said. “(Wyoming) really brought it. Many of them bought tickets to our events as well.”
Finding sponsors and partnerships wasn’t always easy when the bowl started in 2015, according to Rhodes.
“We had to prove ourselves the first couple of years, but it has really come to fruition,” he said. “I rarely run into a closed door in Tucson. Everybody will at least sit down and hear what we’re about.”
Rhodes also pointed out the Arizona Bowl is the only bowl game in the country that donates the majority of the net-profit made to 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations through their grant program. Past recipients include Ronald McDonald House, Boys and Girls Club of Southern Arizona, Track Ranch and numerous others.
“It’s kind of a matching program,” Rhodes said. “If you’re asking for $5,000, we ask that you have $5,000 to match those funds you’re requesting.”
Nova Home Loans, the bowl’s sponsor, also donates $40,000 to be split between three charities that fans choose during the half-time show. This year’s winner was Youth on Their Own, a local non-profit dedicated to helping homeless teenagers graduate high school. The charity received $25,000 after winning the fan vote. The two runners up were Boys and Girls Club of Tucson and Trak Ranch (Therapeutic Ranch for Animals and Kids).
“People get to vote on Facebook for which three charities they would like to see at half-time. Then the fans get to vote...first place receives $25,000, second place receives $10,000 and third receives $5,000” said Rachel Pollack, Development and marketing coordinator for Youth on Their Own. “We’re really happy to have won.”