First Look

FIRST LOOK: One-win Southern Utah next to visit Washington-Grizzly

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Montana got right against Idaho last week in the first of four games for the Grizzlies against some of the worst teams in the Big Sky Conference before they host Montana State to end the season.

The Griz should keep right on rolling this week as 1-7 Southern Utah comes to Washington-Grizzly Stadium.

The Thunderbirds are the worst team in the league, and their loss last week to Northern Colorado, one of the other presumed contenders for that dubious title, all but clinched that.

It’s been a hard fall for one of the most successful teams in the Big Sky Conference through the middle of the 2010s. The T-Birds joined the conference in 2012 and won conference titles in 2015 and 2017. SUU also made the playoffs in 2014 and finished with a winning record in 2016.

They haven’t built on the success of that second crown, and won’t get a chance to as they’re leaving the Big Sky for the WAC after the season. SUU has won six games total since that league title in 2017.

Head coach Demario Warren, who led SUU to that second conference title, played up the team as all in for their final ride in the conference.

Instead, their only win is against Tarleton State as they’ve failed to build on a spring season in which they went 1-5 but lost those five games by a combined 15 points.

QUICK HITS

Location: Cedar City, Utah

Nickname: Thunderbirds

Enrollment: 11,225

Founded: 1897

Stadium: Eccles Coliseum, which seats 8,500 and opened in 1967.

THE TEAM

THE COACH

Demario Warren (sixth season at SUU, 21-39 record)

Warren has been a lifer at Southern Utah, where he originally took a job as running backs coach in 2008 after wrapping up his playing career as a running back at UC Davis.

Southern Utah head coach Demario Warren in 2016/ by Brooks Nuanez

He quickly switched to defensive backs coach for the Thunderbirds and held that position until he was promoted to defensive coordinator in 2014.

Two years later, he was the youngest head coach in the Big Sky Conference, taking over for Ed Lamb when Lamb left for an assistant job at BYU.

Even though he’s in his sixth season with the Thunderbirds, Warren is still just 36.

His first season at the helm was a disappointment as the defending conference champions went just 6-5.

In his second year, though, Warren led SUU to a 9-3 season, a share of the Big Sky title and a first-round bye in the FCS playoffs, although the T-Birds lost in the second round to Weber State.

They’ve won just six games since then, cratering to a 1-10 finish in 2018, rebounding to 3-9 in 2019 and going 1-5 in the 2021 spring season.

THE OFFENSE – PLAYERS TO WATCH

QB Justin Miller, 6-3, 210, So.

Miller was very, very good in the spring season, throwing for 1,713 yards and 15 touchdowns in six games and being named a sophomore All-American by HERO Sports.

That was his first season starting for the Thunderbirds after transferring from Utah JUCO Snow College in 2018.

Miller is very accurate on short throws and was very efficient in the spring, completing 66% of his pass attempts.

He’s taken a bit of a hit there in the fall, completing 62% of his throws. More worrying for SUU fans are his nine interceptions, compared to four in the spring. He’s also been under 200 yards in half of SUU’s eight games. So he’s been less efficient, more turnover-prone and less explosive than the spring, a bad combo.

Miller does have 300-yard passing games in his last two outings, against Northern Arizona and Northern Colorado.

OT Braxton Jones, 6-7, 310, Jr.

These blurbs usually focus on skill position players because they stand out, both on stats and on film.

Well, nobody on Southern Utah’s roster stands out as much as the left tackle Jones, who’s 6-7, over 300 pounds and, correspondingly, maybe the best NFL prospect in the conference.

From Murray, Utah, Jones went from backing up Marquez Tucker to an all-Big Sky third-team offensive lineman in 2019.

He jumped another level in the spring of 2021, being named a first-team All-American.

With Jones protecting Miller’s blind side, Southern Utah has given up just 11 sacks in eight games in the fall, tied for third-best in the conference.

THE DEFENSE – PLAYERS TO WATCH

LB La’akea Kaho’ohanohano-Davis, 6-1, 215, Jr.

Just like Jones and Miller, LKD came out of relative obscurity in the spring season, going from 10 tackles and one sack in 2019 to 57 and seven in the spring of 2021.

Like Jones, he was named first-team All-America for that effort.

The redshirt junior from Kahului, Hawaii is carrying the SUU defense again in the fall. He’s been more of an all-around linebacker than a pure pass rusher, and his 67 tackles are 15 more than anyone else on the team. He’s tied for first with three sacks, and also has an interception.

DL Francis Bemiy, 6-4, 270, Jr.

If Bemiy isn’t getting into the backfield for Southern Utah, it’s likely no one is. His 10 tackles for loss has him in the top 10 in the conference in that stat, and are as many as the Thunderbirds’ next two players combined (linebackers Quaid Murray, 5.5, and LKD, 4.5).

He received a first-team all-conference nod in the spring after racking up four sacks in six games.

The junior linebacker will likely get a future professional shot in the CFL, given his talent and the fact that he grew up in Montreal.

About Andrew Houghton

Andrew Houghton grew up in Washington, DC. He graduated from the University of Montana journalism school in December 2015 and spent time working on the sports desk at the Daily Tribune News in Cartersville, Georgia, before moving back to Missoula and becoming a part of Skyline Sports in early 2018.

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