The teams combined for seven turnovers, with SUU throwing two interceptions and NMHU throwing one and losing four fumbles. SUU didn't turn the ball over in the second half, however, and three of the four Cowboy fumbles came after halftime.
The Thunderbird defense came up big, forcing the turnovers - Namari Flentroy forced both fubles that led to touchdowns - holding the Cowboys to minus-20 rushing yards and getting scores from end Austin Anderson and free safety Myles Killebrew. Anderson returned a fumble nine yards for a touchdown late in the second quarter to stake the Thunderbirds to a 21-6 lead, while Killebrew's 49-yard return with 6:27 to go gave SUU the 45-23 lead.
"When guys make big plays like that they tend to make more big plays," SUU Coach Ed Lamb said. "The become more aware of balls in the air and balls not being carried securely. The defense gets a ball-hawk mentality sometimes it feeds off of itself."
Flentroy finished with eight tackles to lead or co-lead the team for the second time in three games, while Chad Hansen and James Cowser each had seven stops. Cody Larsen was in on six tackles and all but one of them went for losses as he finished with 4.5 tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks for the Thunderbirds. Larsen also forced two fumbles, while Flentroy, Hansen and Cowser each had a sack as well.
New Mexico Highlands got the first and last scores of the first half on interception returns by Abdul Kennah, who stepped in front of a Brad Sorensen screen pass with 10:00 to play in the second quarter and took it 31 yards for a score. Then, with 40 seconds to go Sorensen scrambled out of trouble at the 46-yard line and heaved a long pass downfield but Kennah grabbed the ball in front of Moala at the 10 and returned it all the way to bring Highlands to within 21-20 at halftime.
"Those are typically kinda dangerous, those interceptions that happen way down the field. Our offense is trained to cover interceptions in a certain manner, but when it happens way down the field it's hard for the offense to decide which sideline he's going to take it to, but he brought it up the middle of the field and did a really good job of it. He's got a nice feel for running in the open field."
Lavell Ika ran two yards for a touchdown and Colton Cook hit a 29-yard field goal in the third period to give SUU a 31-20 lead before Zach Tapia hit a 20-yard field goal early in the fourth quarter to make it a 31-23 game.
The Cowboys had to settle for the field goal despite having the ball first-and-goal from the two-yard line, and that goal line stand was the turning point in the game, Lamb said.
"Until [the goal line stand] it was a game that was well contested," he pointed out. "I thought New Mexico Highlands had a chance to win until ... we got the ball back and increased our lead."
The first score to increase the lead came when Sorensen hit Moala from five yards out to give the Thunderbirds a 38-23 advantage with nine minutes to play, then Killebrew put the icing on the cake with his return.
"Credit New Mexico Highlands for how hard they played," SUU Coach Ed Lamb said after the game. "They had a ton of great athletes out there tonight, they hung in the game, and even though our defense only gave up one touchdown tonight it wound up being a close game."
Wilson, who entered the season third on the team's depth chart, had his second straight strong outing, finishing with 188 all-purpose yards, including 48 on the receiving end.
"Brian's carrying the ball extremely well," Lamb pointed out. "He's got a lot of confidence, he's protecting the football well. "
"The line's blocking great," Wilson said. "When you get holes every play it's not hard to find yards. AS long as they keep pushing and giving me holes I'm going to keep having good games."
Sorensen overcame the two interceptions to finish 2-of-35 for 212 yards and the three touchdown tosses to Moala.
-- SUU --