For the third time in six Mountain West football games this season, the Aggies had to sweat it out in the fourth quarter.
Just like the other two nailbitiers, Utah State found a way to close out a crucial victory.
Memorable performances from linebackers Eric Munoz and Kevin Meitzenheimer, plus record-breaking kicker Dominik Eberle, helped propel USU to a 26-21 win over Wyoming last Saturday at Maverik Stadium. It was the third time during the 2019 campaign the Aggies have reigned supreme against a bowl eligible opponent (Nevada and San Diego State being the other two teams).
“I think anybody that understands how we thought about Wyoming during the week, it was very obvious that they are a very good team,” USU head coach Gary Andersen said during Monday’s press conference. “They have been built the right way. It was awesome to get a victory. I thought the kids played extremely hard, they were prepared, they worked hard throughout the week and battled through the momentum swings of the game, which we’re always going to have.”
The Aggies (6-4, 5-1 MW) dominated the Cowboys (6-4, 3-3) for large stretches of the game, especially during the middle two quarters. Case in point: USU racked up 384 yards of total offense to Wyoming’s 128 during that timespan.
And yet, the Aggies were unable to slam the door because they settled for field goals four times, missed a 50-yard FS, failed to convert on a fourth-and-1 run from the Wyoming 3-yard line, had a sublime touchdown pass from Jordan Love to Deven Thompkins called behind due to a penalty and tossed a pick-six to Cowboy all-conference linebacker Logan Wilson. Additionally, the hosts only converted on 4 of 16 third downs during the contest.
Nevertheless, USU played well enough in all three phases of the game to overcome its myriad of missed opportunities. In the process, the Aggies retained “Bridger’s Rifle,” which is awarded to the victor in this rivalry, and achieved bowl eligibility for the eighth time in the last nine years.
“We have six wins,” Andersen said. “Are we satisfied with just that? Absolutely not. But I’m the first guy to stand up and say that’s a great accomplishment. ... If you lose sight of that, you’re not fired up about that accomplishment, then boy, oh, boy that’s a pretty bad place to live for a football team.”
It was another encouraging performance for the Aggies offensively as they bounced back in a big way after only picking up one first down and gaining 30 yards in the opening quarter. Two of Love’s first six passes resulted in interceptions, but he caught fire in the middle two quarters and completed 18 of 29 passes for 282 yards and a pair of touchdowns — a 80-yarder to Siaosi Mariner and a 35-yarder to a wide open Gerold Bright.
Love threw an absolute missile to Mariner that resulted in USU’s longest play from scrimmage this season. Mariner finished with four receptions for a career-high 123 yards and eclipsed the century mark for the second straight game and third time this season.
Unfortunately for the Aggies, Love took a hard hit in the third quarter on a scramble inside Wyoming’s 5-yard line and exited the game shortly thereafter. Henry Colombi piloted USU’s offense the rest of the way and completed 3 of 6 passes for 35 yards. Colombi carried the ball three times for 14 yards before wisely taking a sack late in the fourth quarter.
Will Love be ready to play in this Saturday’s pivotal showdown with Boise State on Merlin Olsen Field?
“I really don’t have anything on that yet,” Andersen said Monday. “There is nothing to really tell at this point, so we’ll see.”
The Aggies didn’t have a lot of success rushing the ball against the Cowboys, but did well enough to keep the visitors honest. USU became only the fourth team to gain more than 100 yards against Wyoming this season as it finished with 105 yards on 44 attempts. To be fair, the Aggies lost four yards kneeling on the ball in victory formation, plus lost a whopping 23 yards on an errant snap that likely prevented them from scoring a touchdown.
Meanwhile, USU’s patchwork defense pieced together one of its best efforts of the season, bar none. Wyoming only managed 4.3 yards per play, failed to gain more than 33 yards on 11 of its 14 possessions and only converted of 5 of 14 third downs. The Cowboys turned the ball over four times after committing a measly five turnovers in their first nine games this season.
Simply put, the Aggies displayed a lot of grit and tenacity against one of the most physical teams in the Mountain West.
“We stepped up to the challenge and tried to play as hard as we could, as fast as we could and as smart as we could,” said Meitzenheimer, who recorded 12 tackles, including 1.5 for a loss. “The physicality was definitely there.”
Meitzenheimer and Munoz, his best friend, played lights out for the Aggies and made four of the most memorable plays in the contest. Munoz had a pair of interceptions — he returned the first one 51 yards to the Wyoming’s 2-yard line, and his second pick sealed the win — while Meitzenheimer stymied the Cowboys on a fourth-and-1 run at the USU 3-yard line and delivered a bone-crushing hit that nearly resulted in a safety.
Munoz, a walk-on playing for his third collegiate program, racked up 13 tackles in his first career start. For his efforts, the junior was selected as the Mountain West co-Defensive Player of the Week and the America First Credit Union USU Student-Athlete of the Week.
“We feed off each other a lot,” Meitzenheimer said. “That just goes to show how we are off the field. We feed off each other no matter where we’re at, whether it’s in weight room, treatments or eating. We feed off each other, so that really shows the work we put in during the week, also. We watch a lot of film. We were able to make those plays that we needed to make.”
Another Aggie who sparkled defensively was safety Troy Lefeged Jr., who finished with a career-high 12 tackles, including 2.0 for a loss. The junior college transfer also forced and recovered a fumble in the first quarter to prevent the Cowboys from taking advantage of Love’s first INT. Wyoming was in the red zone before Lefeged Jr. made his timely play.
Another defensive play that loomed large for the Aggies was Tipa Galeai’s third-down sack that pushed the Cowboys out of field goal range. Galeai returned from the injury that forced his to miss USU’s previous game and wreaked a lot of havoc as a pass rusher.
Notwithstanding the heroics of their defense, the Aggies wouldn’t have prevailed if it wasn’t for another clutch performance by Eberle. One week after booting a game-winning 30-yard field as time expired against Fresno State, the senior connected on field goals of 47, 44, 26 and 23 yards.
Eberle broke a pair of records last weekend, to boot. No. 62 is now the USU and Mountain West record-holder with 61 career field goals. Of Eberle’s 18 field goals this season — he is 18 of 21 — 14 of them split the uprights in Mountain West play.
“When you win and break those records, and when you win and achieve something like that, that’s what makes the feeling even better,” said Eberle, who has yet to miss any of his 154 career extra points. “It’s not a selfish goal, it’s a team goal. ... That’s the best kind of feeling in the world, when you can help contribute to whatever the team set out as a goal back in January.”
• In addition to Munoz, junior slot receiver Taylor Compton made his first career start for the Aggies. The former Logan High standout caught a career-high three passes for a career-best 38 yards.
• Love moved into third place in the USU career record books in passing touchdowns (53) and total offense (8,253).
• Cornerback Cam Haney broke up his ninth pass of the season, which ranks tied for fourth in the conference.
• The Aggies have won eight straight MW games at Maverik Stadium.
• USU beat Wyoming for the 40th time and now leads the all-time series, 40-26-4. It’s the program’s most wins over any opponent.
MW WEEKLY AWARDS
Boise State quarterback Jaylon Henderson was named the conference’s Offensive POTW after completing 15 passes for 292 yards and a trio of TDs in his team’s 42-9 drubbing of visiting New Mexico. It was the senior’s first career start.
Air Force defensive lineman Jake Ksiazek was tabbed the league’s co-Defensive POTW after contributing with 3.0 sacks, two forced fumbles and one fumble recovery in his team’s 38-21 come-from-behind win at Colorado State. The senior registered the most sacks in a single game by any Falcon since 2016.