Big Sky Conference

SUNDAY NOTEBOOK: SUU alone on top, ‘Cats continue to search for answers


After the dominoes across the Big Sky Conference fell on Saturday, Southern Utah found itself in an unusual position. The Thunderbirds are atop the league standings all alone.

Southern Utah entered Saturday’s game against Montana State on a six-game winning streak including five straight to start Big Sky play. SUU swarmed Montana State’s normally explosive offense, putting constant pressure on star quarterback Dakota Prukop as the Thunderbirds earned a 34-23 win in Bozeman on Saturday.

SUU running back Levi Te'o sprints to the endzone for a touchdown

SUU running back Levi Te’o sprints to the endzone for a touchdown

SUU’s seventh straight win is a program record for a single season. Northern Colorado rallied for a 35-32 win over No. 10 Portland State and Northern Arizona put a 52-30 whipping on No. 4 Eastern Washington. With two games to play, SUU is 6-0 in Big Sky play, a game ahead of the 5-1 Eagles and two games ahead of PSU, who is now tied with NAU and Montana at 4-2 in the league standings.

“We haven’t been here before,” SUU eighth-year head coach Ed Lamb said following the game despite not knowing the Eastern Washington score yet. “We are just trying to keep that 0-2 mentality. We were humiliated eight weeks ago. That’s fresh on everyone’s mind. We need to make sure to win humbly, move forward and get better.”

Southern Utah began last season’s 3-9 campaign with a four-game losing streak that thwarted the campaign a year after making the FCS playoffs for the first time. This season, SUU began 0-2 once again, a skid that included a 12-9 heartbreaking loss at FBS Utah State and a 55-10 humiliation at No. 9 South Dakota State.

The Thunderbirds have not lost since. SUU can sew up at least a share of the conference title with a win at Portland State next weekend. Southern Utah wraps up its season at home against NAU.

“What we do every Monday is we give a run down to the players of the conference and I’ve done that whether we are in the conference race or not, what’s going on in the conference, what’s going on around the country,” Lamb said. “The purpose behind that is to address it, leave it behind and move on to the next opponent.”

Following the game, the echo of the Southern Utah locker room could be heard outside the tunnel into the southern part of Bobcat Stadium as the Thunderbirds celebrated one of the premier wins in program history. The victory put the T-Birds into prime position for the league title . SUU joined the Big Sky in 2012 and have never won the Big Sky crown.

“(The locker room) was awesome but I think it’s tempered by the fact that there is more work to do,” Lamb said. “This is one challenge of many. There’s a lot of pride and happiness there but we have a big task. We have to get back this week ready to work.”

SUU defensive end James Cowser hurries MSU quarterback Dakota Prukop

SUU defensive end James Cowser hurries MSU quarterback Dakota Prukop

The final statistics showed just one sack and two quarterback hurries for the Southern Utah defense. But the Montana State offensive line was called for holding three times against the pass rush, Prukop was flagged for intentional grounding twice and the Bobcats threw three interceptions because of the pressure. Prukop was so flustered on one play that he scrambled for nearly 10 seconds before incurring a 28-yard loss to back MSU up to the goal line.

The Southern Utah pass rush features senior defensive end James Cowser, a player rated as one of the top five defensive ends in college football. Cowser notched a first-quarter sack to break the Big Sky and FCS records for tackles for loss in a career with 73.5. He broke the record of former Idaho State standout and All-Pro NFL player Jared Allen.

“How do you hate a comparison to the great Jared Allen? You have to appreciate that, but I’m a different player,” Cowser said. “I would love to be half the player he’s been. It’s fun to see someone who has had so much success and think there’s a chance to do that.”

For most of the afternoon, Cowser battled with Montana State senior left tackle John Weidenaar, himself an NFL hopeful. The 6-foot-8, 292-pound Weidenaar started his 47th straight game on Saturday, including three starts battling Cowser, himself a four-year starter.

“He’s a beast,” Cowser said. “I’ve gone against him for four years now. I wasn’t sure if it was him so I asked about it. We played since freshman year. He’s a big dog, he battles, he hits hard and he’s consistent. It was fun to go against him all game.

“It’s fun to gage how you are doing and how you can get better. Different people expose you at times. That’s how you get to the next level.”

MSU quarterback Dakota Prukop drops back against SUU

MSU quarterback Dakota Prukop drops back against SUU

Cowser’s sack is his eight of the season and his second in his career against Weidenaar and Montana State. Cowser now has 37.5 sacks in his career. His next sack will tie him with Allen for the all-time Big Sky mark.

“It was a fun matchup, a formidable opponent, and he’s a good player,” Weidenaar said. “He has good speed around the edge. He’s a good player.”

While Southern Utah continues climbing to new heights, the Bobcats continue to search for answers. In the first half, Montana State’s defense looked like a completely different unit that the one that has give up yards and points in bunches all season. The Bobcats held Southern Utah to seven first-half points but the Thunderbirds came out and scored 19 points in the third quarter thanks to a receiving corps that caught the passes it dropped in the first half and a running game that found wide open lanes on interior rushes.

“Everything we were running was right and it was working in the first half,” MSU senior captain defensive tackle Taylor Sheridan said. “I can’t say we came out flat because I thought everyone was really uplifted and everyone was playing hard. I’m not sure. I wish I knew because then we could’ve changed. I don’t know. I wish it didn’t happen.”

Southern Utah opened the second half with five-play drive highlighted by senior quarterback Ammon Olsen’s 36-yard completion to tight end Anthony Norris and capped by a frozen rope throw from Olsen to Mike Sharp for a 20-yard touchdown. The Bobcats responded with a powerful drive to retake a 17-13 lead but SUU would manufacture two more touchdowns before the quarter was over.

“We had a good locker room at halftime and the energy level, focus was good,” MSU head coach Rob Ash said. “I was very surprised. We will have to look at the tape for the Xs and Os answer to that. I would imagine they (Southern Utah) got sort of a wake up call at halftime in their locker room. Given our past defensive performance, I’m sure they expected to do better in the first half. Maybe it was a little bit of them raising their level but I thought we were ready to go in the third quarter.”

SUU runnning back Levi Te'o hits the hole against MSU defense

SUU runnning back Levi Te’o hits the hole against MSU defense

On SUU’s second possession of the second half, the T-Birds faced a fourth down with eight yards needed for a first down. Olsen was flushed from the pocket and was chased down from behind. He threw an underhand pass to senior running back Malik Brown a split second before his knee hit the ground. After a review, the play was upheld. Two plays later, Brown took an inside zone play and burst through the line for a 19-yard touchdown to give SUU a 20-17 lead. The Thunderbirds defense forced a punt and then notched an interception to set up Levi Te’o’s 26-yard touchdown to give SUU a 26-17 lead before the third quarter ended.

“That (Olsen pass) was a huge moment in the game, absolutely gigantic but if it was reviewed and that’s the way the play really unfolded, that’s why we have replay to get it right,” Ash said. “That was a gigantic play.”

Bobcats Jessie Clark, Mac Bignell and Tyrone Fa’anono each notched  sacks on Saturday but the 6-foot-3, 230-pound Olsen proved tough, durable and hard to bring down all afternoon. He took at least four huge hits from Sheridan only to get back up and continue to operate SUU’s up-tempo offense.

“I talked to that quarterback right after the game and I complimented him and told him, ‘Man, we were hoping you were going to break.’ That’s one of our favorite things as a defensive line is to see quarterbacks give up,” Sheridan said. “We put a ton of pressure on him. We smacked him around but he was ready. You feel some of those hits and you know you hurt him but he bounces back up. Usually, a quarterback will start short arming passes or get scared in the pocket and run but he was pretty resilient.”

On the first possession of the fourth quarter, a peculiar state of events transpired, eventually leading to some puzzling decision making by Montana State.

MSU tight ends Beau Sandland (85) and Austin Barth (15) celebrate a touchdown

MSU tight ends Beau Sandland (85) and Austin Barth (15) celebrate a touchdown

On MSU’s first possession of the final frame, the Bobcats elected o go for it on a fourth down from their own 28. The Bobcats converted before Prukop’s epic 28-yard loss on the next play that put MSU in a third down and 40 yards to go. The possession resulted in a punt.

On the next SUU possession, Khari Garcia and Tre’Von Strong went down with injuries on the same play. Strong, a true freshman cornerback from Billings, stood for a few moments after the play before collapsing on the field and leaving on a stretcher. Ash said Strong was catered to as a precaution more than anything and should make a full recovery.

Two plays after the scare, Brown scored a 31-yard touchdown to give SUU a commanding 34-17 lead.

Montana State’s final score came on a unique play in which Weidenaar found himself in the slot and tight end Beau Sandland lined up as an eligible tackle.

“Beau lined up at tackle and John lined up at tight end on the other side and then split out, on the line and covered up,” Ash said. “It’s just a trick formation and it worked. It’s nice something actually worked today.”

Prukop hit Sandland for a 28-yard touchdown pass out of the formation to bring the Bobcats within 11. MSU elected to go for two and missed the conversion. MSU then decided to onside kick.

“You have to get a two-pointer at some point and if you miss it, we knew we were down but you eventually have to get a two-point conversion there,” Ash said. “We were trying to get it early so we didn’t have to get it later.”

MSU wide receiver Mitch Herbert makes an over-the-shoulder catch on the sideline

MSU wide receiver Mitch Herbert makes an over-the-shoulder catch on the sideline

Regardless of the decision-making, the loss puts the Bobcats season past the brink and essentially closes the book on a campaign that began with much promise. The preseason Big Sky favorites are tied for ninth place in the Big Sky and will have to win its remaining two games at Idaho State and at home against rival Montana to keep alive a streak of winning seasons dating back to 2002.

“The mentality, one of our core values is resiliency and we have to come back, we have to win on the road for the first time this year and finish out the rest of the year after that,” Weidenaar said, the disappointment painted on his face.

“Winning football games, man,” Sheridan said when asked what’s next. “As far as I see it, I have two more and that’s two games I’m not going to lose. I’m going to do everything I can and our coaches will do everything we can and all the players will give everybody as much as we have. We have two games to win to go out on a high note, I guess.”

Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.

About Colter Nuanez

Colter Nuanez is the co-founder and senior writer for Skyline Sports. After spending six years in the newspaper industry with stops at the Missoulian, the Ellensburg Daily Record and the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, the former Washington Newspaper Association Sportswriter of the Year and University of Montana Journalism School graduate ('09) has cultivated a deep passion for sports journalism during his 13-year career covering the Big Sky Conference. In August of 2014, Colter and brother Brooks merged their passions of writing and art to found Skyline Sports.

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