Thunderbird Football Hosts Sacramento State

October 01, 2012
By SUU Strategic Communication

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Zak Browining had 15 tackles against Montana State last week
Zak Browining had 15 tackles against Montana State last week
Courtesy: Greg Stauffer

Quickly: Southern Utah University hosts Sacramento State Saturday in the Thunderbirds' third home game as well as their third Big Sky Conference contest of the 2012 season.

Southern Utah (2-3/1-1 Big Sky) is coming off a 24-17 loss to No. 2 Montana State last weekend in the Thunderbirds' Homecoming game. SUU rallied from a 10-point second-half deficit to tie the game at 17-17 but missed opportunities to take the lead late in the game and wound up losing their first-ever Big Sky home game to the highly-regarded Bobcats.

Sacramento State (3-2/1-1 Big Sky) broke open a close game in the second half to take a 54-31 win at Idaho State last week. The Hornets took a 27-23 edge into halftime, then dominated the second half in picking up their first conference win of the season.

Both teams are 0-1 at home and 1-0 on the road in conference play. The Thunderbirds won their Big Sky opener at Portland State, 49-42, before falling at home to Montana State, while the Hornets lost at home to North Dakota, 35-13, before picking up last week's win at Idaho State.

The Game: Sacramento State (3-2/1-1 Big Sky) at Southern Utah (2-3/1-1), Saturday at 1:05 p.m. (MDT), Eccles Coliseum (8,500, Hellas MatrixTurf), Cedar City, Utah.

The Series: The two teams have split a dozen games right down the middle, 6-6. SUU holds a 4-2 edge in games played in Cedar City, however. The Thunderbirds snapped a three-game losing streak against CSUS with a 35-14 win over the then-No. 12 Hornets in Cedar City in last season's home-opener. Prior to that win, the last time the 'Birds had come out on top of the Hornets was back in 1993, when SUU pulled out a 23-17 victory in Sacramento, Calif. The SUU/CSUS series began in 1986 when the T-Birds joined the Hornets in the Western Football Conference. The teams then met every year as members of the WFC and subsequently the American West Conference, until CSUS left the AWC to join the Big Sky in 1996.

Video Highlights: Video highlights of the Thunderbirds' home and road games will be available to accredited media outlets via SUU's FTP site. For information on obtaining those highlights contact SUU Director of Athletic Media Relations Neil Gardner.

Radio: All of Southern Utah's 2012 football games are available over the Thunderbird Sports Network. SUU flagship station KSUU (91.1 FM) will carry every game live as well as on the worldwide web at Art Challis is entering his 38th season as the Thunderbirds' football voice. Matt Roan, a former all-conference center for the Thunderbirds, will provide color commentary.

On The Internet: Video web-streaming coverage of all of Southern Utah's remaining games, both home and away, will be available on Big Sky TV, at Audio of SUU games is available at the Thunderbirds' website at or at

Live Stats: Live stats of SUU's home games may be found on the Thunderbird website at Real-time live stats of SUU's home games are also available to working media, contact the athletic media relations office for access.

Thunderbird Practice Schedule: The players are off on Mondays. Daily practices Tuesday through Thursday are scheduled to begin at 4:30 p.m. and end between 5:30 and 6:00 p.m.

Media Availability: Players and coaches are available for interviews on Tuesdays following practice, at approximately 6:00 p.m. SUU Head Coach Ed Lamb participates in the Big Sky teleconference each Wednesday and media representatives are encouraged to take advantage of this opportunity. His regularly scheduled time is 10:16 a.m. (Mountain). To contact a player or coach on another day or time, or to arrange telephone interviews, contact Neil Gardner at or 435-586-7753.

Big Sky Teleconference: The Big Sky Conference holds a weekly coaches teleconference, beginning at 10:00 a.m. (Mountain). For information on accessing the teleconferences, contact SUU Director of Athletic Media Relations Neil Gardner. The complete schedule follows:

            10:00 a.m. - Rob Ash, Montana State

            10:08 a.m. - Chris Mussman, North Dakota

            10:16 a.m. - Ed Lamb, Southern Utah

            10:24 a.m. - Jody Sears, Weber State

            10:32 a.m. - Mike Kramer, Idaho State

            10:40 a.m. - Mick Delaney, Montana

            10:48 a.m. - Earnest Collins, Jr., Northern Colorado

            10:56 a.m. - Jerome Souers, Northern Arizona

            11:04 a.m. - Nigel Burton, Portland State

            11:12 a.m. - Marshall Sperbeck, Sacramento State

            11:20 a.m. - Beau Baldwin, Eastern Washington

            11:28 a.m. - Tim Walsh, Cal Poly

            11:36 a.m. - Bob Biggs, UC Davis

Thunderbird Club Luncheons: The Thunderbird Club's weekly no-host luncheon is held Mondays at noon at the Cedar City Crystal Inn. The public is invited to attend the luncheons where Southern Utah's in-season coaches talk about their upcoming contests and review the past week's action.

Next Up/Remaining Schedule:

The Thunderbirds travel to Montana for a conference match-up with the Grizzlies next weekend before returning home for their final two home games of the season on back-to-back weekends. SUU hosts Weber State on Oct. 20, then Eastern Washington visits Cedar City on Oct. 27.

The regular season wraps up with road games at North Dakota (Nov. 3) and Northern Arizona (Nov. 10). Should SUU qualify for the FCS playoffs, the Thunderbirds would have a bye week between the NAU game and the FCS first round.

The Coaches

A 2010 Eddie Robinson Award nominee, SUU's Ed Lamb (BYU, 1996) has a record of 23-26 in his fifth season as the Thunderbird head coach and his fifth season as a head coach overall. Last year Lamb guided the Thunderbirds to their second straight winning season and their first win over an FBS-level opponent (UNLV) since 1997.  He led the team to a Great West Conference championship in 2010 when the Thunderbirds went undefeated in GWC play and finished the season with a 6-5 overall mark. Prior to taking over at SUU, Lamb spent three seasons at the University of San Diego where he coordinated the special teams and recruiting and was the Toreros' defensive backs coach. Prior to his time at USD Lamb spent two seasons as defensive coordinator at Idaho. He also served a season at BYU as a linebackers coach and four seasons at the University of Redlands, three as defensive coordinator and one as defensive line coach. Coach Lamb is 1-0 vs. Sacramento State.

Marshall Sperbeck (Nevada, 1984) takes a record of 27-34 at CSUS into Saturday's game. Prior to taking over the Hornet program, Coach Sperbeck had a successful career in the junior college ranks, guiding Foothill College to a 109-53 mark over 15 seasons. Coach Sperbeck is 0-1 vs. the Thunderbirds.

Affiliations: Southern Utah is beginning its first season in the Big Sky Conference following eight years as a member of the Great West Conference. Sacramento State is also a member of the Big Sky.

Captains: This year's captains are seniors Brad Sorensen (QB) and Cody Larsen (DT).

Killebrew Named National Co-Freshman of the Week: SUU free safety Miles Killebrew was named national co-Freshman of the Week by The Sports Network for his performance in the Thunderbirds' 49-42 win at Portland State. Killebrew tallied 15 tackles in the game, including 11 solo stops. It was the highest tackles total by an SUU freshman since the 2002 season when Steve Smith tallied 21 at Arkansas State and the most by any T-Bird since 2009. One of Killebrew's tackles went for a loss and he also broke up a pass against the Vikings.

SUU In The FCS National Ranks: 

SUU has eight players ranked among the FCS top-50 in 12 statistical categories this week, while the team figures among the top-50 programs in seven major categories and among the top-30 in four.

Defense: Defensive tackle Cody Larsen ranks 19th in the FCS in sacks with 0.8 per game and 16th in tackles for loss with an average of 1.60 per game while DE James Cowser is eighth in TFLs with 1.7 per game. LeShaun Sims is in 19th in interceptions with an average of 0.5 per game, while linebacker Zac Browning ranks 12th in total tackles with an average of 11.3 per game.

Offense: Quarterback Brad Sorensen ranks among the top 50 in five categories: he is 11th in points responsible for with 16.4 ppg, 17th in total passing yards with 1,218, 15th in completions per game with 23.0, 25th in passing yards per game at 243.6 and 38th in total offense with 236.2 ypg. Wide receiver Mitch Jessop ranks 37th in receiving yards per game, with 77.0.

Special Teams:Brock Miller ranks 15th in punting with an average of 42.8 ypp while Colton Cook is tied for 26th in field goals per game with 1.2 and Josh Smith is just out of the top-50 in kickoff return average, in 54th, at 23.0 ypr.

Team: In the team categories, SUU is third in turnover margin at plus-1.8, 23rd in sacks with 2.6 per game, 24th in tackles for loss at 7.0 per game and 26th in net punting at 37.3 ypp. The team is also 31st in passing offense at 243.6 ypg, 34th in kickoff returns with an average of 22.7 ypr and 41st in scoring at 29.0 ppg.

In a couple of more obscure categories the Thunderbirds are tied for second in turnovers gained with 17 and tied for 22nd in interceptions with six (along with Sacramento St.).

Young Defense: 

First-year players have done well for the Thunderbirds so far this season, particularly on the defensive side of the ball. They young defenders have dominated the SUU stat sheet in three of the five games and had significant impact on all five contests so far.

A look at SUU's season statistics shows the top seven tacklers are first-year starters, and four of those are freshmen, including linebacker Zak Browning, who leads the team with 45 tackles as a true freshman. Miles Killebrew, a redshirt freshman linebacker, is second with 43 tackles, while redshirt freshman defensive end James Cowser is fifth with 30 tackles and leads the team with 8.5 tackles for loss. Cornerback LeShaun Sims, another redshirt freshman, is tied for seventh on the team with 19 tackles and leads the squad with two interceptions despite missing a game. Browning, Killebrew, Sims and true freshman CB J.T. Anderson are also tied for the team lead in passes broken up with two each.

The three first-year starters who aren't freshmen are senior linebackers Rickey Clark and Namari Flentroy, who are third and fourth on the team with 39 and 35 stops, respectively, and junior cornerback Tyree Mills, who is sixth with 25 tackles.

Six of the top-seven tacklers at Utah State were either starting or playing in their first games, and three of those six were 1-2-3 at Cal as well. Flentroy co-led the team at USU with 13 tackles and one fumble recovery, then was tied for second at Cal with eight tackles. Browning followed up a 12-tackle effort at USU with eight tackles at Cal, including six solo stops and a half-TFL and he also forced a fumble, while Killebrew led the team with 11 tackles, six solo, at Cal following a nine-tackle effort at USU. Clark had 13 tackles at USU and was tied for fifth on the team at Cal with four stops, along with Cowser (who also had an interception, a sack and two TFLs). Junior safety Tommy Collet, Jr., who was a part-time starter last year, was fourth on the list at USU with 10 stops but he missed the next three games before returning against Montana State.

At Portland State the top six SUU tacklers were all first-year starters: Killebrew with a career-high 15, Clark with 12, Browning and Cowser with 10, sophomore DE Austin Anderson with six and J.T. Anderson and Sims, who were tied with Mills with four. Cowser recovered a fumble and threw in 1.5 TFLs with help from Killebrew on one, while Browning and J.T. Anderson each broke up two passes and Killebrew and Clark each broke up one.

Against Montana State it was basically the same cast of characters, as Browning led the way with 15 tackles, followed by Clark, Cowser and Flentroy with five and Killebrew and true freshman LB Mike Needham with four.

Killebrew's 15 tackles at Portland State and Browning's 15 vs. Montana State are the most by a Thunderbird since the 2009 season when Akeem Anifowoshe had 15 in the penultimate game of the season, against Eastern Washington. They are also the most by a true freshman at SUU since 2002 when Steve Smith had 22 at Arkansas State.

The Vets Can Play Too: After watching the youth movement on defense in the first two games a handful of proven veterans were the stars of the win over New Mexico Highlands. Junior MLB Chad Hansen (an all-conference performer last year), in his first start of the season, was second on the team (along with Cowser) with seven tackles, including a sack, two TFLs and a PBU, while senior DT Cody Larsen dominated the line of scrimmage, getting into the backfield for 4.5 TFLs, including 2.5 sacks, while forcing two fumbles, recovering another and tallying a quarterback hurry. Although Cowser was the only underclassman among the team's top six tacklers, the younger T-Birds again had in impact vs. NMH, as Sims had four solo tackles and an interception, Killebrew had four tackles and a 49-yard fumble return for a touchdown (the sixth-longest in SUU history), and Austin Anderson got in on a sack and recovered two fumbles, one of which he returned nine yards for a touchdown.

Good Vibrations: SUU struggled to move the ball at Utah State, particularly on the ground, but senior tailback Brian Wilson has been effective in the last four games. At Cal he carried 17 times for 74 yards and scored a touchdown on a pass reception. Although he didn't get into the end zone vs. Highlands, he had his best overall day as an offensive player, logging 140 rushing yards on 19 carries, adding another 48 yards on four receptions, and finishing with 215 all-purpose yards after returning one kickoff 27 yards. It was the team's first 100-yard rushing performance since Austin Minefee ripped off 131 yards vs. UC Davis in the ninth game of the season last year and the highest all-purpose total since Minefee also had 140, against Northern Arizona in the fifth game of the 2010 season. Wilson led the team with 64 yards on 19 carries at Portland State and also caught three passes for 18 yards, including a 16 yard TD reception. He was the rushing leader again vs. Montana State, with 15 carries for 76 yards, and he caught three passes for 14 yards, including a six-yard touchdown catch.

Benchmark Stat: SUU has won eight consecutive games in which it rushed for 100 yards.

Passing Game: After struggling to pass the ball at Utah State SUU has improved in that area in the subsequent games. The team finished with a season-high 311 yards through the air at Portland State, with four touchdown passes, but the turnaround began at Cal, particularly in the second half. Senior QB Brad Sorensen completed 31-of-45 passes at Cal, tying the eighth-highest completion total in SUU history, for 292 yards and four touchdowns. The TD passes went to Fatu Moala - who had a career-high nine receptions for 85 yards - Henna Brown, Cameron Morgan and Wilson. Against New Mexico Highlands Sorensen was hot and cold in the first half, completing 17-of-27 passes for 163 yards and two touchdowns - both to Moala - but also throwing two interceptions - which were both returned for scores. The Thunderbirds opted to run the ball much of the second half, throwing just eight times with three completions for 49 yards, including one touchdown pass, again to Moala. Once again Moala led the team, with eight receptions for 74 yards and all three TDs. Mitch Jessop had three receptions for 50 yards against NMH. At PSU Sorensen completed 27-of-36 attempts at Portland State, with nine of them going to sophomore WR Mitch Jessop, who finished with two TDs (the first of his career) and a career-high 153 receiving yards. TD passes also went to Easton Pedersen and Wilson at PSU. Sorensen completed 25-of-47 passes for 250 yards and two touchdowns - to Wilson and Jessop - against Montana State, but he did throw two interceptions, including one on a Hail Mary to Jessop in the corner of the end zone as time expired in the game.

Pick Me Firsts: SUU has six interceptions so far this season and five of the six were the interceptor's first career pick. Junior SS Tommy Collet, Jr. notched the first interception of his SUU career at Utah State, redshirt freshman DE James Cowser picked off the first pass of his career at Cal, redshirt freshman CB LeShaun Sims had his first against NM Highlands, junior linebacker Randall Nygren had his first at Portland State and junior cornerback Tyree Mills notched his first vs. Montana State. The sixth interception this season went to Sims, who got the second of his career at PSU. SUU's six interceptions are tied for the 22nd-most in the FCS this season.

If It's Close, It's A Score: Southern Utah has been very effective in the Red Zone this season, scoring 15 of 16 times the team has advanced the ball to the opponent's 20 yard line, or 94 percent of the time. The Thunderbirds have scored 12 touchdowns once reaching the Red Zone and have converted three scores via field goal. The only blemish on the Red Zone record came in the season-opener at Utah State when the Thunderbirds drove to the Aggie nine yard line but threw an interception on the final play of the game. Since that play SUU has converted 14 consecutive drives into the Red Zone into points, including 12 touchdowns.

Turnovers and Penalties: SUU has won the turnover and the penalty battle in each game. The Thunderbirds have turned the ball over eight times so far (seven interceptions, one fumble), while opponents have given it back 17 times, with SUU the beneficiary of 11 fumbles and six interceptions. As far as penalties go, SUU has been whistled 32 times for 287 yards while opponents have drawn 55 flags for 502 yards.

Left-footed kickers: 

For the second year in a row, Southern Utah's kickers are both left-footed. Both specialists have been solid. Brock Miller got off to a good start, punting nine times for 411 yards at Utah State - including a career-long 72-yarder on his first boot of the game - and pinning the Aggies inside the 20-yard line four times, and he has been solid ever since, kicking 33 times for 1,413 yards to rank 15th in the country with his 42.82 yards per punt average. He has pinned the opponent inside the 20 yard line 14 times, with two touchbacks and seven boots of 50 yards or more.

Placekicker Colton Cook had been perfect heading into the Montana State game, but faced with three long field goal attempts he was successful on just one, a career-long 49 yard effort. He missed from 47 yards and another 49 yarder, but he did hit both his PATs and is now 6-of-8 on field goals and 17-of-17 on extra points.

Hornet Notes:

Sacramento State has one of the Big Sky Conference's signature wins this season, a 30-28 victory at Colorado back on Sept. 8. It was the Hornets' second win in as many years on the road at a Pac-12 opponent, as in their second game of the season last year they upset Oregon State, 29-28, in overtime.

CSUS opened the season with a 49-19 loss at New Mexico State, then claimed the win at Colorado before opening its home slate with a 28-17 non-conference win over Northern Colorado. The Hornets then lost a 35-13 home decision to North Dakota in their Big Sky opener before going on the road and dominating the second half in a 54-31 win at Idaho State last week.

The Hornets have been particularly effective on the offensive side of the ball this season. They have averaged 453 yards of total offense per game, including 249 through the air and 204 on the ground. Defensively they have allowed opponents to rack up some yards as well, allowing 319 passing yards and 125 rushing yards per game.

Quarterback Garrett Safron (6-1, 195, So) has completed 100 of 162 passes for 1,172 yards and 10 touchdowns with six interceptions. His favorite target has been junior WR Morris Norrise (5-11, 180), who has 28 receptions for 337 yards and two touchdowns, while WR DeAndre Carter (5-9, 185, So) has 13 receptions for 190 yards and four TDs and running back Ezekiel Graham (5-9, 170, Jr) has caught 13 passes for 144 yards and a score.

Graham leads the team in rushing with an average of 101.2 yards per game after carrying 89 times for 506 yards and two TDs, while AJ Ellis (5-11, 200, Sr) has carried 23 times for 265 yards and two more scores.

On the defensive side of the ball CSUS is led by linebacker Todd Davis (6-1, 230, Jr) with 50 tackles, including a team-high five tackles for loss. Safety Ryan McMahon (6-0, 200, Sr) is second on the team with 45 tackles, a sack and one of the team's six interceptions, while cornerback Osagie Odiase (6-1, 180, Jr) has 33 tackles, a sack and team-highs of two interceptions and five passes broken up. Three players, LB Henry Fernandez (5-11, 215, Jr), and defensive linemen Avery White (6-1, 245, Sr) and Trent Eskew (6-3, 245, Jr) share the team lead with a pair of sacks each.