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Southern Utah football: T-birds ride defense to cusp of playoff spot

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Aaron Vonnerof the Thunderbird football teams swings around a UC Davis oppenent during the T-Birds last home game on Saturday. Courtesy SUU Athletics

By Steve Luhm

The Salt Lake Tribune

First published Nov 21 2013 11:09AM
Updated Nov 21, 2013 11:37PM

Life without star quarterback Brad Sorensen has been different for Southern Utah.

Wildly successful.

But different.

A year after Sorensen left for the NFL — taking nearly every school passing record with him — the Thunderbirds find themselves on the threshold of a berth in the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs.

At 8-3, they have already tied the school record for victories. If 20th-ranked SUU defeats 10th-ranked Northern Arizona on Saturday at Eccles Coliseum, it will likely receive an at-large bid to the postseason.

"It’s not just coach-speak," said Southern Utah’s Ed Lamb, the architect of this improbable season. "But with NAU being as good as they are, it’s been difficult for me to think about anything but trying to stop them and trying to move the ball."

What would taking SUU to the playoffs mean to Lamb, who took over a program that was 0-11 in 2007 and had lost 18 straight games?

"I don’t know," he said. "It’s uncharted territory. But someday I’m looking forward to seeing how it would feel."

It wasn’t supposed to be this way — not this season.

When three-year starter Sorensen was drafted by the San Diego Chargers, everyone assumed the Thunderbirds’ chance of making a splash in the Big Sky Conference went with him.

But Lamb and his coaching staff had other ideas.

They saw last year’s freshman-dominated defense, which steadily improved as the season progressed and continued moving forward during spring practice and fall camp.

"It happened in steps," Lamb said. "… We made some mistakes last season because we played a lot of freshmen. But we kept saying, ‘Next year will be better.’ And that happened."

In a season-opening win, South Alabama managed 21 points against SUU — three less than the Jaguars scored a few weeks later against Tennessee.

"In every win," Lamb said, "the coaches gained more confidence in the players and the players gain more confidence in themselves."

Beyond a stout defense, the SUU coaches saw a chance to dominate on special teams, behind the play of kicker Colton Cook and punter Brock Miller.

Lamb believed if his Sorensen-less offense was simply efficient and mistake-free, the Thunderbirds had a blueprint for success in place.

Bingo.

• Southern Utah leads the Big Sky Comnference in scoring defense (19.7) and total defense (342.6). Six of its 11 opponents have rushed for less than 100 yards.

• Cook is 17 for 21 on field goals, including a 28-yarder on the last play of the game that gave SUU its 22-21 victory at South Alabama.

• Miller averages 43.4 yards per punt, which ranks him 14th in the country. He’s been a key to SUU’s ability to put its defense in long-field situations.

"The last three years, our best player was the quarterback," Lamb said. "We we had to reinvent ourselves and the way we did things. Our whole staff had to learn on the fly. We had to figure out our best formula for winning."

Mission accomplished.

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