Southern Utah University’s football team (1-3) faces California Polytechnic State University (1-2) for their annual homecoming game on Saturday, Sept. 28. The contest will be the first of Big Sky conference play for both teams and the second home game for the T-Birds.
The Thunderbirds fell 38-24 in San Luis Obispo against the Mustangs last season. Las Vegas betting odds opened up the contest with Cal Poly as 3.5 favorites to win on the road.
SUU is coming off a 43-7 loss at South Dakota State University. Cal Poly are coming off a bye week, but lost 45-7 at Oregon State in their last contest.
Non-conference play has been tough for the T-Birds. They fell to FBS opponent UNLV in the season opener, current FCS No. 7 Northern Iowa in Week 2 and No. 3 South Dakota State last week. The season’s toughest challenges are behind them, and the T-Birds now have a chance to prove they’ve learned from those losses.
Chris Helbig leads the offense with 850 yards and two touchdowns. Back up Tyler Skidmore has played well in a couple of relief appearances. Skidmore has thrown for 191 yards and two touchdowns in 2019.
James Felila leads the runshing attack with 52 carries for 161 yards and two touchdowns. Thomas Duckett has 29 carries for 105 yards and one score.
Lance Lawson has emerged as the team’s most explosive offensive asset. Lawson has hauled in 37 catches for 326 yards and two touchdowns. The 5’ 7” sophomore is a menace in open space and has become a focal point of Head Coach Demario Warren’s offense.
Nela Otukolo (27 tackles), Alex Sims (21) and Nathaniel Vaughn (19) have established themselves as the core of the defense. Vaughn, Carlton Johnson and Khalid Taylor all have one interception on the season.
The run defense will be tested against Cal Poly’s triple option rushing attack. The Mustangs are No. 15 in FCS in rushing yards per game with 251per contest. Southern Utah are No. 85 in rush defense and have given up almost 200 yards on the ground per game.
The Mustangs haven’t attempted more than 15 passes in a game this season. They put 52 points and 607 yards of total offense up on San Diego in their opener. 386 of those yards came on the ground.
Quarterback Jalen Hamler is a good runner and can flash some passing skill. Hamler has thrown for 515 yards and four touchdowns on just 35 passes. His decision making on offense will be key.
Fullback Duy Tran-Sampson is averaging more than 100 yards per game on the ground. Cal Poly have an assortment of athletic slotbacks they can deploy against the T-Bird defense.
Keys to the game:
1. Eliminate Special Teams mistakes .
Nothing takes the air out of a game like a blocked punt or a missed field goal. SUU have struggled in both of those departments, having three missed field goals against South Dakota State and a host of punting errors throughout non-conference play.
Leaving points on the board on special teams will make things unnecessarily difficult for the rest of the team. The offense has to scrape another drive together, and the defense has to spend even more time on the field.
That could be devastating when facing a team whose punishing run style tires defenses out like Cal Poly. The Mustangs have faced tough opponents in Oregon State and Weber State the last two weeks, but their performance against San Diego was very impressive.
2. Connect with Lawson, Duckett and Isaiah Diego-Williams.
Cal Poly’s defense is giving up an average of 40 points per game, No. 110 out of 124 FCS teams. SUU is giving up 42.8 PPG, No. 116. This is going to be a high scoring affair.
Felila is a bruising back, but the big play options for the T-Bird offense need to get involved early on. Cal Poly surrender big plays in the passing game, and don’t really have the athletes to contain things on the edge.
Lawson can create big plays off bubble screens, slants and short routes, while Diego-Williams stretches things out over the top. Duckett can capitalize off the tackles and through passes out of the backfield.
Limiting big plays will be key as well, but some inevitable defensive mistakes can be wiped away by long passes. Return man Judd Cockett will play an important role as well.
3. Remember and execute defensive assignments.
Cal Poly’s triple option is entirely based around taking what the defense gives. If the full back can get six yards, they’ll take that everytime. SUU’s defensive front needs to keep the ball out of Tran-Sampson’s hands.
If they slow down the middle of the field, then Hamler will make plays with the slot backs on the outside. The outside linebackers and corners will be tested. The offense is designed to wear defenses down. Losing focus on one play can lead to a long pass over the top.
Hamler can make plays in the passing game, but hasn’t really had to make more than a few throws per game. Stopping the run and keying on defensive assignments will make life much harder for the Cal Poly offense.
SUU kicks of the homecoming game at 6:05 p.m. against Cal Poly at Eccles Coliseum. The game will be broadcast on PlutoTV and watchbigsky.com.
Story by: Connor Sanders
Photo courtesy of SUU Athletics