CEDAR CITY, Utah, Sept. 29 - Brian Flotkoetter caught a three-yard touchdown pass from DeNarius McGhee with 2:59 to play to give No. 2 Montana State a 24-17 lead over Southern Utah, then Steven Bethley intercepted a pass in the end zone as time expired to thwart SUU's last-gasp effort, giving the Bobcats the win and spoiling the Thunderbirds' homecoming game Saturday afternoon.
MSU improved to 5-0 and 2-0 in Big Sky games with the win while the Thunderbirds dipped to 2-3, 1-1 in conference play.
After falling behind 17-7 in the third quarter the Thunderbirds battled back to tie the game at 17-17 on a career-long 49-yard field goal by Colton Cook with 8:29 to play. SUU then missed a golden opportunity to take the lead when J.T. Anderson forced and recovered a fumble at the MSU 32 on the Bobcats' ensuing possession.
The Montana State defense stymied the Thunderbirds after the fumble, however, holding them to no yards and forcing another 49-yard Cook field goal attempt. This time the kick sailed wide right, leaving the game tied. It was one of three Bobcat turnovers the Thunderbirds weren't able to capitalize on and Thunderbird Coach Ed Lamb pointed to that as a key to the game.
That inability was "the difference in the game," Lamb noted. "We didn't take advantage of good field position and should have gotten field goals at least out of those [turnovers], it was a major problem."
In addition to the turnover on Anderson's fumble recovery, SUU got the ball at the SUU 44 yard line in the first quarter but was forced to punt and got the ball at the MSU 32 on a Tyree Mills interception late in the second period and missed a 47 yard field goal. The only turnover the team capitalized on was a fumble recovery by Shad Ennis after Kouri Jones sacked McGhee late in the third period that led to an 8-yard Sorensen-to-Jessop TD pass early in the fourth.
Montana State was able to capitalize on the momentum shift after the Thunderbirds failed to capitalize on Anderson's play, driving 67 yards in 12 plays and taking the lead on Flotkoetter's TD catch.
Southern Utah executed the two-minute offense on its final possession, however, using 14 plays and driving to the MSU 27 before Sorensen's pass for Mitch Jessop was tipped high in the air in the end zone and Bethley came down with it to preserve the win.
"Brad threw it up and gave me a chance to go get it, I could feel the coverage coming down and more than anything it was just a jump ball," Jessop said. "They were expecting it, which makes it a little hard to complete a pass like that. He did a good job throwing it up where it was available."
"I thought for sure Mitch was going to come down with it," Sorensen said. "He comes down with [most of] the balls that are thrown his way, so we put the ball in the best guy's hands for it but unfortunately we didn't get any points."
Sorensen wound up completing 25-of-47 passes for 250 yards and two scores but he was sacked four times and he threw a pair of interceptions. McGhee completed 18-of-28 passes for 211 yards and two TDs but was also sacked four times and threw an interception.
Jessop had six receptions for 97 yards while Griff McNabb had six receptions for 70 yards, both career-highs.
Zak Browning led the SUU defense with 15 tackles and Jody Owens had a team-high 12 for MSU.
"I'm proud of the way the defense prepared this week and I thought the results showed on the field," Lamb said. "I hope that [the team is] discouraged by the loss but encouraged by the improvement in their team defensive play. I like how our defense took the football away and continued to cause fumbles and I liked how our offense protected the ball, at least in terms of the way they carried the football, if not the interceptions. I think what the game came down to was we did not put points on the board with short fields after turnovers, we need to do a better job of that."