For all those questioning the Utah State defense, how about that performance on Saturday afternoon with the game on the line at Maverik Stadium?

And how about that new linebacker?

Yeah, No. 38. His name is Eric Munoz and Aggie football fans better get familiar with it.

And new may be a bit of a stretch. He was on the team a year ago, and Munoz is a junior.

The walk-on saw action in just his ninth game at USU on Saturday, which just happened to be his first start. Boy did he seize the moment.

Munoz made play after play last Saturday against Wyoming. However, the biggest came with less than a minute to play, and the Cowboys driving.

Munoz picked off his second pass of the day, and that certainly sealed USU’s 26-21 win.

“It was a gimme,” Munoz said of the interception to ice the game for the Aggies. “It was coming right to me. I just had to drop down on it and let the clock roll.”

The hearty fans that stuck it out to the end made plenty of noise as that final minute did roll off the clock, making the Aggies bowl eligible and still in the hunt for the Mountain Division title in the Mountain West.

“Eric was awesome tonight,” USU head coach Gary Andersen said. “He patiently waited for his opportunity. … We told him to keep battling. He has not looked back, great for him.”

And great for the Aggies.

It hasn’t been easy for the linebacker from Belvidere, Illinois. This is his third stop and he was starting to question himself a bit. Having approached the coaching staff about more playing time, Munoz got a shot late in the game at Fresno State. No. 38 made three solo stops and must have turned a few heads.

On the Monday following the Fresno State road win, Munoz was with the starting defensive unit where he remained.

“I haven’t played much this season,” Munoz said.

I have a feeling that’s going to change. Munoz led the Aggies with 13 tackles and two interceptions and was named the co-Mountain West Defensive Player of the Week on Monday. He returned the first pick 51 yards to the Cowboy 2-yard line. USU ended up settling for a field goal.

“Honestly, I was getting tired,” Munoz said of his 51-yard INT return. “I was pretty close, so I tried to bulldoze (over Wyoming quarterback Tyler Vander Waal).”

After listening to this Aggie talk after the game, you get the feeling you can trust everything he says. He hushed the media gathering with some heartfelt thoughts on his long road to starting his first game at the Division I level.

The 6-foot, 230-pound linebacker shed a few tears as he explained his story.

“This has been a long time coming, to be honest,” Munoz said as he choked up some tears. “I’ve had to sit behind some guys, came here and walked on. God blessed me with this opportunity and my parents have been behind me the whole time.”

Munoz explained how tough it has been financially and physically to transfer three times. He praised fellow starting linebacker Kevin Meitzenheimer for believing in him and giving him encouragement.

“Lining up next to him (Meitzenheimer) has been the most fun I’ve had,” Munoz said as he choked up again. “I just knew I had to make the most of this opportunity. ... God gave me this opportunity and I prepared myself as much as I could to make some plays.”

The linebacker explained he has a strong faith in God and also plays with a “chip on my shoulder.”

“I had to persevere and have faith in God; God has been there for me,” Munoz said.” I work hard.”

He committed to New Mexico State at one time after playing at a junior college in California, but got the opportunity to work out at USU. He jumped at it, but found out there were no scholarships left. He still felt good about Cache Valley and said: “This school is known for walk-ons doing well.”

Munoz is certainly proof of that.

Coming into the game, Wyoming had just five turnovers for the season. USU came up with four, including three interceptions — the other by safety Shaq Bond. Obviously, Munoz was a big part of that.

“We had a good game plan,” Munoz said. “We were put in position to make plays.”

Munoz was carrying the “Bridger Rifle” around after the game and into the press conference. The winner of the USU-Wyoming game gets the old rifle for the next year to display.

What did that rifle mean to Munoz?

“It means a lot,” Munoz said. “In the most humble way possible, I was right. My parents were right. They believed in me when I rolled the dice.”

Oh, and he is still a walk-on. I have a strong feeling that will be changing soon as well.

Shawn Harrison is the sports editor at The Herald Journal. He can be reached at sharrison@hjnews.com or 435-792-7233.

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