Munoz, defense leads Utah State to 26-21 win over Wyoming

LOGAN – Utah State’s star player was on the sidelines. The offensive and defensive leaders for the season were no longer available.

A little-known walk-on linebacker filled the void.

Junior LB Eric Munoz totaled 13 tackles and two interceptions, one of which sealed the game in the final minute, as the Aggies defeated Wyoming 26-21 on Saturday evening on Merlin Olsen Field. Junior QB Jordan Love exited the contest during the third quarter with an injury. Prior to his departure, Love accrued 282 yards passing while completing 18 of 29 attempts with two touchdowns and two interceptions.

“It’s how it’s been all year long, no different. They’re excited to compete,” head coach Gary Andersen said. “When they’ve lost, they come back excited to compete. The morale in this team has been fantastic from day one… We’ve had an opportunity to play two very meaningful games in the month of November and won them both, so now we get the opportunity to play a third one.”

The teams exchanged punts and turnovers during a scoreless first quarter, before Wyoming’s Logan Wilson opened the second quarter by intercepting a pass from Love and returning it 10 yards for a touchdown. Facing a 7-0 deficit, the Aggie offense sprung to life as Love tossed an 80-yard TD to senior WR Siaosi Mariner, followed by a 35-yard TD to senior RB Gerold Bright to put USU up 14-7. The Cowboys responded with a 5-play, 61-yard drive capped off by an 11-yard TD run by QB Tyler Vander Waal.

USU’s offense continued to hum along through the remainder of the second quarter, but were unable to convert drives into touchdowns, settling for two field goals from senior K Dominik Eberle of 47 and 44 yards, respectively. The Aggies entered halftime with a 20-14 lead.

“Early on, we struggled a little bit,” Mariner said, “but if there’s one thing we do is face adversity week in and week out. I thought we did a good job playing through adversity, and we stepped up in a way to help this team win the game.”

Following the break, Utah State’s offense continued to amass yards but again fell short of the end zone. USU started the half with a 15-play, 83-yard drive which ended on fourth down on Wyoming’s 3-yard line. On the ensuing possession, the Aggies started on Wyoming’s 14-yard line after a 15-yard punt return and unnecessary roughing penalty on the Cowboys, but were forced to settle for a 26-yard field goal from Eberle. It would be Love’s final drive of the game. The Aggies’ star QB was removed from the game with an undisclosed injury, thrusting sophomore QB Henry Colombi onto the field.

“We didn’t flinch. We watch Henry (Colombi) come in every day and do it in practice,” Mariner said. “You do it in practice, you’re going to do it in the game. It’s going to translate… It sucks Jordan (Love) went down, obviously. That’s our guy, that’s our leader. But when Henry came in, we had his back. We had his support.”

With Love out, the Aggie defense picked up the intensity and stifled Wyoming’s offense to keep Utah State’s lead at a comfortable margin. Munoz, starting in place of the injured David Woodward, took the initiative, intercepting a pass from Vander Waal and returning it 51 yards to Wyoming’s 2-yard line. A botched snap on the first play of the drive resulted in a 23-yard loss, forcing the Aggies to settle for a 23-yard field goal from Eberle to stretch USU’s lead to 26-14. The Cowboys regrouped after the INT, going 75 yards in nine plays on the ensuing possession with Vander Waal trimming the lead to 26-21 with a 5-yard rushing TD.

From there, Munoz and the defense again clamped down. The Aggies forced a three-and-out on the Wyoming’s next possession. Then, on the Cowboys’ last gasp drive, Munoz intercepted his second pass of the game to seal the victory and ensure bowl eligibility for USU. Utah State has now won two straight games after dropping to 4-4 after a 42-14 loss to BYU.

“This has been a special team when you talk about morale,” coach Andersen said. “I don’t mean to rattle on about it, but they really have been. If you bring 54 new young kids into a program and have them all get absorbed into the system and the seniors lead the way they’ve led, and for our kids to go through the downs that they’ve gone through and the upside that they’ve gone through and have to battle through, they’ve been an unbelievable crew.”

Munoz, a junior college transfer who walked on at Utah State, may have been one of the most unlikely players to seal the game on Saturday. Sitting behind several other players on the depth chart, Munoz’ opportunity first came last week versus Fresno State, where his play in the fourth quarter earned him his first start as an Aggie on Saturday.

“It’s been a long time coming, to be honest with you,” Munoz said, fighting through tears after the game “This is the third school I’ve been to. Redshirt junior having to sit behind some guys is tough. Then coming here out of my junior college and having to walk on was tough. God blessed me with an opportunity. My parents were there with me the whole way… All 10 guys on defense were rooting for me and cheering for me and they were excited to see me out there. So I couldn’t let them down.”

Mariner led the Aggies with 123 receiving yards and one touchdown on four receptions. Sophomore WR Deven Thompkins added 51 yards on four receptions. Senior RB Gerold Bright went for 56 rushing yards on 17 carries, adding a further 44 yards on receiving on three catches. Defensively, juniors S Troy Lefeged Jr. and LB Kevin Meitzenheimer backed up Munoz’ efforts with 12 tackles each in the contest. Lefeged added two tackles-for-loss, one pass break-up and a force fumble, as well.

The win kept Bridger’s Rifle, the rivalry trophy between Utah State and Wyoming, in Logan for the second consecutive year. The Aggies are now also 6-4 and bowl eligible for the eighth time in nine seasons.

“Reaching bowl eligibility is a huge, huge accomplishment,” coach Andersen said. “Anyone who discounts that or discards that is completely, absolutely wrong. It’s a huge accomplishment to reach bowl eligibility. You get six wins, you get rewarded. So that’s a good thing, it makes it a good year. This team’s not sitting here saying ‘it’s a good year and we’re good and we’re ready to go and be done with it’ but they need to be recognized. That’s a huge accomplishment to get to this point. They’ll be excited to line up and go play again next week and they’ll be excited to line up and go play again the next week.”

The win moves the Aggies to 5-1 in Mountain West play and sets up a massive showdown next week in Logan versus Boise State.

“It’s definitely going to be a challenge for our defense. Boise’s a great team, but I think the way we’ve been playing defensively, we’ve connected a lot better,” Munoz said. “I think we’re learning to mesh well and trust each other. Guys are doing their job and believing that the guy next to them is going to do theirs.”

Kickoff versus the Broncos is currently set for Saturday at 8:30 pm MST.

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