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LARAMIE – The Mountain West Conference took the ball, and the Cowboys went home.

On Aug. 10, 2020, the MWC announced the indefinite postponement of the fall sports seasons and championships due to the coronavirus pandemic.

After watching on television from the couch as the ACC, American, Big 12, Conference USA, SEC and Sun Belt played football, the other four FBS conferences developed a serious case of FOMO (fear of missing out).

Shortly after the Big Ten and Pac-12 announced plans to return to the field, the MWC approved a plan on Sept. 24 to begin the season Oct. 24. A day later, the Mid-American Conference became the last FBS conference to attempt to play through the COVID-19 health crisis.

Wyoming plowed through its abbreviated conference-only schedule and adhered to the strict social distancing and coronavirus testing protocols, but the 2-4 campaign was about as enjoyable as a swab up the nose.

Ball State won the MAC and recorded the program’s first bowl win during a 7-1 finish. But the Cardinals couldn’t share the championship glory with their fans due to the conference’s policy prohibiting public attendance of games in 2020.

This season there is joy in Mudville. And Laramie and Muncie, Indiana.

The Cowboys will host Ball State in a battle of 2-0 teams with conference championship aspirations Saturday at War Memorial Stadium (2 p.m., streaming on Stadium).

“I am enjoying it,” UW head coach Craig Bohl said of the return to a more traditional season. “As a coaching staff and as a coach, you want to have a chance to go out and coach your guys and for them to be able to exercise their skill that they work so hard at. It’s hard to dial it back.

“A year ago at this time, I don’t think we even made the decision to play yet. We were one of the conferences that chose not to play. It’s been great to have fans back in the stands. We certainly have been following the protocols and everything else. It’s been great to celebrate college football.”

‘Serious mental health issues’

There was nothing that could have prepared UW athletics director Tom Burman for dealing with the crisis of keeping the department afloat and 420 student-athletes safe during a worldwide pandemic.

“Personally, 2020 was rough. It was scary. Financially, very scary,” Burman reflected. “Then we had some serious mental health issues. Young people really struggled, staff struggled. I struggled. It was a hard year. The hardest part was in the summer when I had to tell the teams that were here training in August that they weren’t playing. They had no idea why they were meeting with me. I think they thought it was going to be an update and then I said, ‘It’s over. You’re not playing.’

“At that point, I really believed it was over. I had no reason to believe we were going to come back in the fall. My best bet was the spring.”

UW’s athletic department voluntarily took permanent across-the-board pay cuts for all employees making over $40,000 to help mitigate the financial fallout from the pandemic. Burman trimmed 10% ($30,000) from his own salary. The department is also down about 15 full-time employees from the pre-pandemic staffing levels.

The lack of travel by the teams also helped Burman limit the deficit to under $4 million during the 2020 fiscal year, which pales in comparison to the deficits many other schools are facing.

UConn, which the Cowboys play next Saturday, ran a $43.5 million deficit for the 2020 fiscal year after not playing football, according to the Hartford Courant. Ohio State projected a $107 million deficit before the Big Ten reversed its decision to not play football in 2020.

“We were able to somewhat salvage a season,” Burman said. “I look back on it and think that was probably the right thing to do. But who knows? At least for us, we were kind of engaged in fall sports.”

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Seeing 27,007 people fully engaged in UW’s opener against Montana State at War Memorial Stadium allowed Burman to exhale after most fans were told not to hold their breath for a MWC football season a year ago.

“It helps financially, it helps morale and it was a whole bunch of fun,” Burman said of nearly drawing a sellout for the Cowboys’ narrow 19-16 win over the FCS Bobcats. “My phone, trust me, I heard from many of our fans. They didn’t like the way we played. But you know what? There’s 50 percent of 130 Division I teams that got losses.”

‘I’ll take the stress any day’

Wyoming’s players weren’t sure what to do after being sent home last August.

Left tackle Alonzo Velazquez decided to get shoulder surgery, which prevented him from being able to play when the MWC flip-flopped on its decision.

Right guard Logan Harris, a Torrington native, was elk hunting this time last year.

Defensive back Keyon Blankenbaker was working for FedEx in Kansas City.

“I’d rather study film for sure,” Blankenbaker said. “But FedEx, moving those boxes, got a little workout in for me, too.”

When the Cowboys did return, many of the players were not in football shape and quarantines added to the lack of depth entering the opener at Nevada.

Then starting quarterback Sean Chambers was lost with a fractured leg three plays into the season. Levi Williams suffered an injury to his shoulder the next week against Hawaii, which severely limited UW’s passing game.

Despite having a strong running attack and a top-20 defense, the Pokes limped into the offseason with a losing record and without the Bronze Boot

“We thought we had a really good team. We didn’t show our potential and had a really hard time,” said defensive end Garrett Crall, one of the players who decided to take advantage of a second chance to play his senior season. “So I’m thankful for that this year. We’re having fun being around each other and constantly working to get better. But we haven’t even come close to reaching what we can do on both sides of the ball as a team. So I’m super excited about that.

“I’m just glad to be here now because nobody wants to go back to last year.”

Ball State, which returns 16 super seniors, is expected to be the Cowboys’ toughest test during non-conference play.

UW’s dramatic victories to start the season – particularly losing a 42-16 lead and then rallying for a 50-43 win last week at Northern Illinois – have Bohl stressed out again.

But this time about football instead of wondering what the future holds for his program.

“I’ll take the stress any day,” Bohl said. “It has been super just to see our players perform.”

Follow UW beat writer Ryan Thorburn on Twitter @By_RyanThorburn

This article originally ran on trib.com.

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