CEDAR CITY — The Southern Utah University Thunderbird football team claimed its first ever Big Sky Conference Championship Saturday at the Eccles Coliseum, defeating rival Northern Arizona 49–41, claiming the Big Sky Championship Trophy and the Hinton-Burdick Grand Canyon Trophy.
“I have so many mixed emotions,” SUU head coach Ed Lamb said after the game. “I just told the players there’s so many people outside the locker room and I don’t want to turn this into an Oscar speech, but from each of the families of the players and coaches that have made the sacrifice, the administrators at this university that saw this vision before I was hired when they decided to go Division I and the people of Cedar City that supported it and made it possible.”
SUU defensive end James Cowser said after a somewhat difficult season last year, this one feels that much sweeter.
“It’s good for us that we stuck together for a 3–9 season, we stuck together through a rough offseason and it’s just paid off,” he said.
Sveral former Region 9 football stars had major impacts on the contest.
After an NAU field goal to start the game, the T-Birds scored their first touchdown when QB Ammon Olsen hit wide receiver (and former Dixie Flyer) Mike Sharp from 21 yards out to put SUU up 7-3.
The Lumberjacks put a touchdown on the board early in the second quarter, and then again with 50 seconds left on the clock to go up 17–7.
With just six seconds left in the second quarter Olsen hit Steven Wroblewski for a touchdown, but the Lumberjacks responded on their next six-second drive with a 49-yard Hail Mary touchdown pass after a T-Bird penalty.
The T-Birds would put three touchdowns on the board in the third quarter, the first of which came on former Hurricane Tiger Jarom Healey’s run from 4 yards out. NAU responded on the next drive with a touchdown of their own as Corbin Jountti ran it in from one yard out.
With 2:57 left in the third quarter, Olsen hit Sharp again, this time on a long 70-yard pass play to pull SUU closer, and then they took the lead on the next possession when Olsen hit Sharp for a third time to go up 35–31.
NAU hit a field goal to start the fourth quarter, but the Thunderbirds would counter with a touchdown catch by fomer Desert Hills star Ty Rutledge and a 70-yard touchdown run by Healey to seal the contest. Rutledge, who made an impressive grab to haul in the TD, said he was just happy to be in that position.
“If Ammon put it anywhere else I don’t think I could have caught it,” he said. “I didn’t care if it was me that made a big play or if it was someone else, the most important thing was that the team won.”
The Lumberjacks scored one more TD before the contest concluded and had a chance at one more hail mary, but weren’t able to get it leaving the final score at 49–41.
Olsen finished with 430 yards through the air and five touchdown throws. Three of those TDs went to Sharp, who had 169 yards receiving. Wroblewski had a big game as well, pulling in nine passes for 93 yards and a touchdown.
Sharp has had huge games the last two times out, but said that anyone in the receiving corps is capable of pulling in those numbers.
“I think any one of our receivers can make those plays,” he said. “I’ve just been fortunate to be in the right place at the right time and Ammon’s given me a chance every time to make a play.”
Healey had five carries for 85 yards and two touchdowns.
NAU’s freshman QB Case Cookus had a big game for the Lumberjacks, finishing with 350 yards passing and four TD throws.
The Thunderbirds have clinched an automatic berth into the FCS playoffs with the victory, and will find out when and where their next game will be Sunday morning on the FCS Selection Show. The FCS Selection Show is scheduled for 9 a.m. MST and came be watched on ESPNU.
Lamb said the team will be watching the selection show and begin preparations as soon as possible.
“We have to be prepared for whatever comes out of it,” he said. “We can’t spend any time second-guessing the committee, whatever they decide is what the challenge is in front of us and we have to be happy for the opportunity to play.”
Stats: SUU 49, NAU 41
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