The return of Southern Utah University football is nearly here, and it will be the team’s last season as part of the Big Sky Conference. The Thunderbirds open their season with a return to the gridiron Saturday, August 28, at San Jose State.
After the COVID-19 pandemic cancelled the fall 2020 football season, the Big Sky held a six-game season in the spring of 2021 instead. This means that the Thunderbirds haven’t played a fall football game since 2019, nearly two years ago.
That six game schedule saw SUU go 1-5 against Big Sky opponents, with their only win being an away game at Cal Poly. The big storyline though, was that three of SUU’s losses came on last-second efforts by the opposing teams. A touchdown on the final play of the game, a game-winning field goal with five seconds left, and a touchdown with seven seconds remaining meant that three of SUU’s five losses were by a combined four points.
“As an offense, in every single one of those close losses, if we had gotten one more first down or finished through the red zone, we would have never been in that situation for the most part,” Offensive Coordinator Matt Wade. “We want to play all four quarters, finish drives and play with championship effort.”
With the season kicking off later this week, the Thunderbirds have plenty to work with this season on both sides of the ball.
The Thunderbirds weren’t bad offensively last season, as they put up 30 or more points in three of their six spring games. What really hampered this team was its inability to run the football, ranking dead last in the Big Sky, averaging only 93.8 yards per game.
Dayne Christiansen led the Thunderbirds in rushing yards last year, and figures to be their lead back this year. He was able to put up 240 yards across 35 rushes, a healthy 6.9 yards per attempt. Perhaps with more touches, Christiansen can make a bigger impact on the ground.
SUU did most of its damage through the air, with quarterback Justin Miller completing 65% of his passes en route to 1,713 yards and 15 touchdowns. The redshirt sophomore is returning to lead the offense again this year, and appears poised for a big season in his second year in this offense.
Brandon Schenks had a bit of a breakout season over the spring, where he led the Big Sky in receiving touchdowns with six. Part of what makes Schenks so exciting is his ability to gain yards after the catch, as evidenced by his 21.6 yards per reception. Coach Wade also named senior receiver Lance Lawson as a player to look out for this fall.
“[Lawson] has had a phenomenal camp. He is a slot and do-it-all receiver for us. He was kind of banged up going into last year, but he’s been healthy and practicing well. He’s been making big plays for us.”
When Braxton Jones is manning the left tackle spot, the offensive line is always going to be solid. Jones, the returning All-American, has garnered interest as an NFL prospect over the last year due to his impressive size and power in the run game. As a unit, the offensive line only gave up five sacks across their six spring games, the best in the Big Sky. Their play will be key in improving thel ground game, as well as giving Miller enough time to get the ball to his playmakers.
SUU’s defense found itself in the middle of the pack in the Big Sky in just about every category. One area they excelled in was getting to the quarterback, where they were second in the conference with 19 sacks. The Thunderbirds were led by star linebacker La’a Kaho’ohanohano-Davis, who was able to put up seven sacks over only six games. The returning All-American also led the team with 57 tackles.
Coming off the edge will be returning starter Francis Bemiy. The junior defensive end has a knack for living in the opponent’s backfield, which helped him garner a nomination to Phil Steele’s preseason All-Conference Big Sky First Team. Holding down the interior of the defensive line will be defensive tackle Aaron Romero, a player who defensive coordinator Robert Bala named as one to watch out for.
The defensive backs will be led by corner LJ Davis and safety AJ Stanley. The redshirt juniors return this year after playing major roles in the secondary last season. Davis led the team in pass breakups, while Stanley was a force in the run game, coming in third on the team in tackles.
A big part of this year’s defense will be their ability to close out games, an area they really struggled with in the spring. Coach Bala is putting an emphasis on finishing, hoping to be able to see improvement from a lot of the returning players.
“A big emphasis for us is finishing. Finishing plays, finishing drives and finishing games. With the confidence these guys have built from year one to year two, and all the teaching points they have been getting through camp, it now comes down to being able to do it in a high-pressure situation.”
SUU will take on San Jose State on Saturday, August 28, for their first game of the new season. Kickoff is at 8 p.m. and the game can be watched on CBS Sports Network or listened to on KSUB 590 AM.
Story By: Christian Esparza
Photo courtesy of: SUU Athletics