MISSOULA, Mont., Oct. 13 - Southern Utah outscored Montana 17-3 in the second half to overcome a 17-13 halftime deficit and upset the Grizzlies 30-20 Saturday afternoon. With the win the Thunderbirds improved to 3-4 overall and 2-2 in Big Sky play while Montana dipped to 3-4 and 1-3 in conference games.
The Thunderbirds got great play from the defense, solid play from the offense and big plays from special teams, blocking a pair of field goals and successfully running a fake punt in the fourth quarter to sustain a drive.
"I thought the difference was on defense. SUU Coach Ed Lamb said. "I thought we moved the ball pretty well in both halves. ... I knew we could move the ball going into the game, how much we score has a lot to do with field position and making the right play at the right time. For the first time I thought our defense won enough physical match-ups that we made Montana do the same thing. Montana happened to have some better field position in the first half, by my recollection, and they happened to have some bigger plays and some broken tackles in the first half, it just didn't happen again in the second half and I thought that was the difference in the game. We made them work for everything that they got and they made us work for everything that we got, so consequently it turned into a very close game, definitely closer than the 10 point difference."
Brad Sorensen completed 30 of 53 passes for 294 yards and two touchdowns but it was his two-yard designed quarterback draw in the third period that lifted the Thunderbirds to a 20-17 lead, and although Montana came back to tie the game on a 42-yard Chris Linder field goal in the fourth period, the Grizzlies never led again.
SUU dodged a huge bullet later in the fourth period when Brian Wilson fumbled - his first of the season and just the second the Thunderbirds have lost all year - and Montana recovered on the SUU 38 yard line, but the Thunderbird defense rose to the occasion, holding the Grizzlies to just a field goal.
Southern Utah then put together a 13-play, 64-yard drive that led to a 38-yard Colton Cook field goal that staked them to a 23-20 lead. Punter Brock Miller had a huge play midway through the drive, taking a fake punt 22 yards on fourth and two around the left end to sustain the momentum.
"We were looking for [the fake punt] all game," Lamb said. "Montana's coaches did a nice job of changing things up throughout the season with different punt return looks, but the common denominator is the either bring a lot of rush or they block a lot of people. We could see they were trying to block our guys and get returns set up so we felt that the fact they were so far off the ball they had to put their eyes on our coverage guys instead of putting their eyes on the punter, so we felt like if we needed it, in a situation, it would be there for us and from there of course it's the players doing a great job executing it."
SUU held the Grizzlies on fourth and four, taking the ball on downs with 1:14 to play, then put the game away when Miles Crawford-Harris took a Sorensen handoff 34 yards around the right end, breaking one tackle then running untouched into the end zone for his first rushing TD and a 30-20 lead.
The two teams went back and forth with the scoring in the first half. Montana grabbed a 7-0 lead with 3:36 to play in the first quarter when Trent McKinney hit Clay Pierson in the flat for the first score of the game.
Southern Utah was opportunistic in pulling within 7-6, getting the ball after Randall Nygren recoverd a muffed punt at the Montana seven yard line, setting up a 7-yard Sorensen-to-Fatu Moala TD pass. SUU's PAT attempt failed, however, leaving the Thunderbirds in a 7-6 hole.
Chris Lider gave the Grizzlies a 10-6 lead with a 43-yard field goal early in the second period, but the Thunderbirds again took advantage of a short field as Stephen Shaw shanked a 15-yard punt to set SUU up on the UM 43 yard line. SUU's short scoring drive was capped when Sorensen hit Henna Brown over the middle for a 20-yard touchdown and a 13-10 T-Bird lead with 6:06 to play in the half.
Montana got the ball back and put together the longest drive of the game, however, an 82-yard effort that the Grizzlies capped with a two-yard McKinney run after a conversion on fourth-and-two at the SUU four yard line.
Montana's defense shut down the Thunderbirds on their ensuing possession, then again drove the length of the field as time was winding down, but the T-Birds blocked a 34-yard field goal attempt as time expired in the half.
NOTES: Fatu Moala caught 11 passes for 104 yards, both career-highs, and a touchdown. ... For the first time all season Wilson did not lead the team in rushing as he finished with 12 yards on seven carries; Crawford-Harris led the team with 64 yards on eight carries. ... SUU played most of the game without starting strong safety and second-leading tackler Miles Killebrew, who was ejected with 4:57 remaining in the first period after a high hit on McKinney. ... SUU caught a big break early in the third period when Griff McNabb apparently fumbled and lost it at the end of a long pass play. The fumble didn't stand, however, as the Grizzlies were flagged for a personal foul facemask call, giving SUU the ball at the Grizzly 13 yard line and leading to Sorensen's go-ahead touchdown run. ... freshman linebacker Zak Browning led SUU with 18 tackles while fellow frosh LB Mike Needham had a career-high 12 and senior defensive tackle Cody Larsen had 11 tackles, 10 solo, career-highs for all three players.... Freshman safety Michael Byrd, who was playing for Killebrew, picked off his first career interception on the final play of the game.