Southern Utah University’s football team (1-6, 0-3) will try and get first conference win of the season against No. 22/23 University of California, Davis (3-4, 1-2). Kickoff is set for 6:05 p.m. on Saturday Oct.19 at Eccles Coliseum.
Las Vegas betting odds opened with the Thunderbirds as a 14 point underdog.
SUU head coach Demario Warren played running back at UC Davis from 2005-07. Warren beat his alma mater in Davis 47-27 when they last met in 2017.
Aggie QB Jake Maier was just a sophomore then, and has developed into one of the best quarterbacks in school history. Maier is 157 yards short of 10,000 yards passing for his career. He’ll be the second Aggie to reach that milestone.
The T-Bird defense will have to account for Maier’s passing ability. They played a solid game against No. 4/5 Weber State in Ogden last week. Weber could barely muster seven points in the first half before finding a rhythm in the second.
Weber emerged with a 29-14 victory, but it was an encouraging sign for the defense. It’s been an up and down campaign on that side of the ball this season. The T-Birds sit No. 118 out of 124 teams in FCS in points allowed, giving up 39.4 PPG.
Still, they held Weber to 137 passing yards and are No. 31 in the nation in passing yards allowed. They have the best secondary in the conference in terms of yards allowed, but part of the reason why opponents don’t pass is because of the success they have on the ground.
The Thunderbirds are allowing 214 yards per game, No. 101 in FCS and last in the conference. Sophomore running back Ulonzo Gilliam Jr has six touchdowns this season on the ground to go along with 607 yards for UC Davis.
UC Davis head coach Dan Hawkins will have to choose between playing to the team’s strength and passing often, or trying to exploit one of SUU’s weaknesses in the ground game.
Maier is second nationally with 2,243 passing yards on the season, but has been loose with the ball. No Big Sky QB has thrown more interceptions than Maier (nine), but no player has thrown as many passes as him either (302 attempts). If the pass rush can make Maier throw before he’s ready, the secondary could force some turnovers.
Davis’ offensive line has only given up eight sacks on the season, fourth best in the Big Sky.
Chris Helbig leads the T-Birds with 164 completions for 1,703 yards and nine touchdowns, but has thrown eight interceptions on the year. Four came last week against Weber, and UC Davis isn’t as potent defensively as the Wildcats.
The Aggies are near the middle of the pack in most defensive categories, so SUU’s best chance might be in a shootout. Maier and Helbig dueling would also be an incredible show for the fans.
It feels like nothing has broken the T-Birds’ way this season. Missed field goals, muffed punts and penalties have held the team back all season long. They’re due for a few good bounces and some big plays on special teams.
With three of the next five at home, Saturday’s contest represents a potential turning point in the season for SUU. A win against a ranked opponent could finally give them some momentum that they could carry into the rest of Big Sky play.
There’s still a chance the team could break even and finish .500 on the season, but at this point the T-Birds should be content to compete in games. Every opponent other than Stephen F. Austin and Cal Poly has looked stronger, faster and more disciplined than the T-Birds.
They’ve played from behind all season long. The Thunderbirds need to find a way to change their fortune and it starts with each player carrying out their individual assignments. No genie is going to snap its fingers and make them better. They have to be accountable individually to succeed as a unit, and that hasn’t happened often enough this season.
Maier will exploit every soft spot in the defense, but that doesn’t mean SUU can’t tighten things up and continue to improve.
The season will only feel longer with a loss to UC Davis, and Warren and his squad are running out of time to turn things around. This is a make or break contest for SUU.
Kickoff is set for 6:05 p.m. at Eccles Coliseum. The game will be broadcast on PlutoTV as well as watchbigsky.com.
Story by: Connor Sanders
Photo by: Mitchell Quartz