The fourth quarter was much more laden with drama than the Aggies would have preferred, but they will definitely take the end result.
Missed opportunities prevented Utah State from coasting to its eighth straight Mountain West victory at home, but the Aggies made enough plays to hold off Wyoming, 26-21, in front of an announced crowd of 16,364 Saturday at Maverik Stadium. With the clutch win, USU achieved bowl eligibility for the eighth time in the last nine years and won its third game by six points or fewer this season.
“Oh, what a game,” USU head coach Gary Andersen said. “I’m so proud of these kids. They’ve battled these last couple of weeks, and just like every conference game, the kids just seem to have to find a way to do something (big at the end). And sometimes they make it harder than it has to be, but at the end of the day they find a way to get it done, and they did it again tonight. They’re a great group of kids and I’m blessed to be around them.”
After a rough start offensively, the Aggies (6-4, 5-1 MW) kicked it into high gear in the second and third quarters, outgaining the Cowboys (6-4, 3-3) by a whopping 384-128 margin during that timespan. And yet, USU was unable to slam the door because it settled for field goals four times, missed a 50-yard field goal, had a couple of crucial penalties, failed to convert on a fourth-and-1 run from the Wyoming 3-yard line and went 4 of 16 on third downs.
Additionally, Aggie quarterback Jordan Love took a hard hit in the third quarter and exited the game shortly thereafter. Backup signal caller Henry Colombi played the final 17-plus minutes of game time and did some good things, albeit the hosts only managed eight total yards in the fourth quarter.
“Can’t talk about that,” Andersen said when asked about pulling Love from the contest.
Nevertheless, the Aggies refused to fold and put together one of their best defensive performances of the season, despite being riddled with injuries on that side of the ball. USU’s defense came up with four takeaways — two on interceptions by walk-on linebacker Eric Munoz — and limited Wyoming to 343 yards of total offense and 4.3 yards per play. The Cowboys only turned the ball over five times during their first nine games of the season.
“Defensively, I think we had a good (game) plan in,” said Munoz, who also racked up a game- and career-high 13 tackles in his first career start. “Coach (Justin) Ena does a really good job of putting us in positions to make plays. I think you could see that tonight across the board. As a linebacking corps, losing Woody (All-American David Woodward) was tough. That’s a big piece of our defense, but I think this week especially, given the opportunity to step up, myself and the other linebackers spent a lot of time in the film room, and so you could kind of see that on the field. ... Obviously, we had some mistakes that we could clean up, but I think as a whole we did pretty well.”
Fellow linebacker Kevin Meitzenheimer, Munoz’s best friend on the team, also put together the best performance of his collegiate career as he recorded 12 tackles, including 2.0 for a loss, and forced and recovered a fumble. A bone-crushing hit by the junior in the third quarter nearly resulted in a safety.
Both of USU’s starting safeties, Troy Lefeged Jr. and Shaq Bond, also came up huge for the hosts. Lefeged Jr. contributed with 12 tackles and one sack, while Bond displayed great concentration on his team-leading third INT of the year.
Meanwhile, USU’s defensive line played very well collectively against the run and via the pass rush. USU limited a strong Wyoming rushing attack to 3.7 yards an attempt, plus made quarterback Tyler Vander Waal run for his life at times. Tipa Galeai had a critical third-down sack for the Aggies, who were credited with five QB hurries. Galeai’s sack pushed the Cowboys out of field goal range in the second half.
“I would think so,” Andersen said when asked if this was the D-line’s best performance of the season.
“The best thing that probably happened to them is I didn’t spend one minute with the defensive linemen this week, so it was probably a good thing for them,” Andersen quipped. “Away they go and they played their tails off. ... We had a lot of kids rolling through (our D-line rotation) again, and they’re unselfish. They’re not sitting here saying, ‘Oh, I only get to play 30 reps.’ ... They’re excited and understood our rotation of why we rotate the way we do, and I think that gave them the energy at the end there to get the pass rush they needed.”
And while the USU stonewalled Wyoming’s offense for large chunks of the contest, the Cowboys did march 75 yards in eight plays midway through the fourth quarter to pare their deficit to 26-21. Vander Waal capped off the drive with a 5-yard touchdown run.
Wyoming got the ball back two more times, but USU’s defense held firm. The Cowboys advanced the pigskin into Aggie territory with less than one minute remaining before Munoz slammed the door with his second INT.
“It felt good,” Munoz said of his game-sealing pick. “Honestly, seeing the ball was kind of surreal when it’s coming right in your hands, because it’s such a gimme. It was kind of right to me, so it just felt good to drop down on it and let the clock roll.”
The junior’s first interception, which took place early in the fourth quarter, should have sealed the win for the Aggies. Munoz stepped in front of a Vander Waal pass and returned it 51 yards to the Wyoming 2-yard line. However, an errant snap on first down on the Aggies’ ensuing possession moved the ball 24 yards backward, and they eventually had to settle for a 23-yard Dominik Eberle field goal, which gave the hosts a 26-14 lead.
Eberle was also successful on field goal attempts of 47, 44 and 26 yards. The senior, who had a 50-yarder go wide right, is now 18 of 21 on the season. No. 62 broke the Mountain West career field goal record in the second quarter and now has 61 during his time in Logan.
“Yeah, he’s a very, very powerful weapon,” Andersen said of Eberle. “And they’re a three-headed monster when they jog out there together — snapped, holder, kicker, and Dom’s the one that winds up there and he has ice in his veins. ... That kid is a fantastic player and I think he’s going to have an opportunity to kick for a long time, just because he’s so cool and he’s so in the moment. And I’m really glad he’s one our team.”
Neither offense was able to really establish any momentum in the first quarter, especially USU. The Aggies only managed 30 total yards and one first down on three possessions in the quarter.
The Cowboys did sustain one drive in the first quarter, but was stymied on a fourth-and-1 run at the Aggie 2-yard-line. Meitzenheimer completely blew up the play, giving the hosts a much-needed shot of momentum.
The momentum didn’t last long, though, because Wyoming had a pick-six on the first play of the second quarter. Love’s pass to tight end Carson Terrell was a little off the mark and was deflected into the hands of Wyoming linebacker Logan Wilson, who returned it 10 yards to the house. It was the senior’s fourth defensive TD of his career.
To Love’s credit, he bounced back from his terrible first quarter — the junior was picked off on two of his first six attempts — by absolutely picking the Cowboys apart in the second stanza. No. 10 completed 13 of 17 passes in the quarter for 225 yards and two touchdowns. USU amassed 278 yards of total offense during the second stanza.
The Aggies pulled even at 7-7 at the 11:35 mark of the second quarter when Love fired a dart to wide receiver Siaosi Mariner down the west sidelines, and the Utah graduate transfer outran the Wyoming secondary for a 80-yard TD — his team-leading scoring catch of the season. It was the fourth career pass of 80 or more yards by Love, which is a new program record. It was also USU’s longest play from scrimmage during the 2019 campaign.
“It’s just a blessing,” Mariner said of making the play that turned the tide in USU’s favor. “I have coaches that believe in me and put me in that position, me and my teammates in those positions to help the team win a game. And I owe it all to the coaches because they took a chance on me during the summer that they didn’t have to take, and they put me in a position to help the team win games.”
The Aggies then took their first lead of the contest at 14-7 a few minutes later when Love found a wide open Gerold Bright for a 35-yard catch and run to paydirt.
Wyoming knotted things up at 14-all with 5:34 remaining in the first half on Vander Waal’s 11-yard scoring scramble. The Cowboys took advantage of back-to-back 15-yard penalties on the Aggies on that possession.
Eberle booted a pair of field goals during the final 2:04 of the second quarter to take a 20-14 advantage into the locker room. Bond’s INT helped set up the second FG. However, a trio of costly penalties likely prevented the Aggies from scoring even more points — the third of which was a ineligible receiver infraction that negated a beautiful deep touchdown strike from Love to Deven Thompkins.
USU was penalized eight times for 70 yards in the first half, but only whistled for one penalty after halftime. Meanwhile, six of Wyoming’s nine penalties were marked off in the second half.
Love ended up throwing for 282 yards on 18 of 29 passing. The junior now ranks third in program history in total offense (8,253 yards) and touchdown passes (53).
Thompkins and Nathan matched Mariner with a team-high four receptions. Bright led the Aggies with 56 hard-fought rushing yards on 17 carries.