CEDAR CITY — The Thunderbirds have heard this story before, but this time they’re looking for a more storybook ending.
After winning the Big Sky Championship game last Saturday 49-41 over Northern Arizona, Southern Utah University was selected to the FCS playoffs again — where the T-birds will battle Sam Houston State for the second time in three years.
“I’m thrilled to play them,” SUU head coach Ed Lamb said. “They’re a good, quality team, and (it’s) an excellent opportunity for SUU. We were embarrassed last time we were there, so we’re all nervous. We don’t want that to happen again. They have our full attention.”
SUU, which leads the FCS in turnover margin, will need to stop the second-highest offensive producing team in the nation if it wants to move on this year.
Defensive leader and newly named Big Sky Defensive Player of the Year James Cowser knows that it won’t be easy.
“We know we’ve got a big task ahead,” Cowser said. “Two years ago, we got destroyed by Sam Houston State. They made our defense look absolutely terrible. Watching them on film, they look just as explosive this year. I think experience helps. I think, having been there, it’s not as shocking (as it was then). I think this time we are ready to play football. We’re not just happy to be there.”
SUU won the Big Sky Championship a week ago against Northern Arizona to put them in the playoffs, but a tough draw waited as the Thunderbirds were placed in the matchup against the No. 6 team in the country.
“One of the things about last week was an actual finality,” Lamb said. “We had talked all year long about the championship being an ultimate goal, but not something to focus on week-to-week. It was one game at a time. This week, I just got done telling the players that we have to realize that we’re in a tournament, and it’s made of brackets. The idea is to advance through the tournament and the end game is the National Championship game. That stated, now it’s over, and it’s time to focus on Sam Houston.”
This game could potentially become a shootout as both teams are very balanced in passing and running the ball. SHSU averages 264.5 rushing yards per game, 280.1 passing yards per game, and 43.8 points per game. SUU averages 270.1 passing yards per game, 166.7 rushing yards per game, and 35.1 points per game.
“They have different coaches since (2013), but a lot of the same team makeup though, and a lot of the same players,” Lamb said. “They run the ball first and they’re very good at it. Their throwing numbers are really amazing. When you watch on video, they run the heck out of the ball and then they throw a few play-action passes, but by the end of the game, they’ve got a lot of passing yards. They’re a very explosive offense.”
From the defensive side of the ball, SUU looks better. SHSU allows 24.5 points per game on average while SUU only allows 18.9 points per game. The T-birds have forced 10 more turnovers than the Bearkats and also have turned the ball over six times fewer than their upcoming opponent.
“They’re a big run team,” defensive coordinator Demario Warren said. “Their running back is averaging 8.2 yards a carry. We’ve got a big task ahead for us, but I like what we do. I like our guys, so we will have a chance to matchup well with them.”
SUU’s second ever playoff game kicks off at 1 p.m. on ESPN 3. For other viewing or listening options, visit suutbirds.com.
“We’re looking forward to going into Sam Houston and playing our best,” defensive back Miles Killebrew said.
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