Logan • Utah State football coach Gary Andersen stressed all week that his team would need to match a tough Wyoming defense body blow for body blow Saturday if it was going to leave with the win. Linebacker Eric Munoz, making his first start as an Aggie, was listening.
A walk-on playing for his third program, Munoz had been in Andersen’s office a few weeks earlier asking what he could do to get some playing time. The coach didn’t know what to say then. But when Munoz learned he would get his first start in place of David Woodward, who remains one of the nation’s leading tacklers despite missing the last two games with a season-ending injury, he rallied to the cause.
Munoz led the Aggies with 13 tackles, two interceptions and a quarterback hurry. His second interception, in the final minute of the game, helped thwart a last-ditch charge by Wyoming and seal the 26-21 Mountain West Conference win for the Aggies in front of an announced 16,364 fans at Maverik Stadium.
The gravity of the moment caught up to Munoz at the post-game press conference, where he stood at the dais with the Bridger’s Rifle — the rivalry’s trophy — in hand and tears staining his cheeks.
“This has been a long time coming, to be honest with you,” he said. “This is the third school I’ve been to. Redshirt junior having to sit behind some guys and coming here out of a junior college and having to walk on was tough. But God blessed me with an opportunity.”
Munoz credited his best friend, fellow junior linebacker Kevin Metzenheimer, for having faith in him during the long wait and for making him feel comfortable on the line against Wyoming. Metzenheimer also had a breakout game with 12 tackles, including 1.5 for a loss. Junior safety Troy Lefeged added 12 tackles, including two for a loss, and a sack and a fumble forced and recovered.
The Cowboys entered with five turnovers on the season but committed four against USU. Andersen called it his defensive line’s best game of the season.
For all Andersen’s talk of hard-nose, physical, push-you-down-in-the-dirt-and-keep-you-there football prior to the game, though, it was the kicker who saved the day for the Aggies.
Dominik Eberle made consecutive field goal attempts of 47, 44 and 26 yards and another of 23 yards look easy. The kicks gave Eberle the all-time Mountain West Conference record for field goals made with 61, blowing past the previous high of 57 made by Utah’s Louie Sakoda (2005-08).
“He has ice in his veins,” Andersen said of Eberle, who kicked the game-winning field goal in the final seconds against Fresno State a week earlier. He added, “And I’m glad he’s on our team.”
Of more immediate importance to Utah State, Eberle’s sure foot allowed the Aggies (6-4, 5-1) to be bowl eligible and advanced them one step closer to winning the MWC title. Their biggest challenge to that will come next week when they host undefeated Boise State, the MWC Mountain Division leader.
Winning that game will be infinitely more difficult for the Aggies if they don’t have junior quarterback Jordan Love behind center. Love went 18 for 29 for 282 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions before taking a seat on the bench on the last possession of the third quarter. He did not return to the game and Andersen would not comment on why he was removed from play. His replacement, Henry Colombi, finished 3 for 6 for 35 yards.
Wide receiver Siaosi Mariner said he’s looking forward to playing Boise State, a team that recruited him out of high school.
Mariner is probably also eager to build upon his strong game Saturday. He had a career-high 123 yards, including an 80-yard touchdown in the second quarter. Mariner took a long Love pass and slipped past Wyoming free safety Braden Smith to tie the score at 7-7. The play was the longest of the season from the line of scrimmage for the Aggies and the 18th longest in school history. It was also Love’s fourth career TD pass of 80 yards or more, allowing him to surpass Jose Fuentes (1999-2002) for USU’s school record.
The score came just two plays after Wyoming (6-4, 3-3) lit up the scoreboard by capitalizing on Love’s second interception of the game. Logan Wilson snagged a pass deflected off an Aggies receiver’s hands and ran it back 10 yards into the end zone on the first play of the second quarter.
USU scored for the second time in as many possessions when Love found Gerold Bright wide open on the right sideline and, throwing off his hind foot, connected with the running back for a 35-yard touchdown. Wyoming answered right back, however, with a little help from a DJ Williams pass interference call. Flagged for tussling with the Pokes’ Isaiah Neyor, it cost USU 15 yards and allowed Tyler Vander Waal to run in from the 11-yard line on a quarterback keeper, tying the score 14-14 as the teams entered halftime.
• Dominik Eberle converted four of five field goals to take over as the Mountain West Conference’s all-time leader with 61 career makes.
• Jordan Love left the game at the end of the third quarter with the Aggies up 23-14 and remained on the bench.
• The Aggies secured their sixth win, making them bowl eligible for the eighth time in nine years.