The Thunderbirds flew into Illinois looking for a battle and they found one. Both Southern Utah and Western Illinois were coming off disappointing losses on the road against Power Five teams Saturday afternoon when they met in Macomb for the Leathernecks home opener.
The T-Birds started the game with the ball but after a quick three and out, the drive stalled giving the Leathernecks the ball on their own twenty-yard line. Three incomplete passes later, Western Illinois was forced to give the ball back to the Thunderbirds.
Southern Utah was unable to capitalize on decent field position as the Leathernecks dropped quarterback Justin Miller for a sack on the first play of the drive. Even after a short completion to Elijah Burns, Southern Utah would punt for the second time. After having his first punt pulled into the endzone for a touchback, Jake Gerardi was able to pin Western Illinois deep in their own territory with a coffin corner kick that was caught out of bounds at the four-yard line.
The Leathernecks were able to get some breathing room as Nose guard Rylen Sua-Filo jumped offsides on the first play of the drive. Sua-Filo would rectify the mistake quickly though coming up with a nine-yard sack to make it fourth and long. The Leathernecks short punt was returned by Ethan Bolingbroke inside the Western Illinois thirty-yard line to give Southern Utah their best starting position yet.
Isaiah Wooden got things going for the Thunderbirds as he took a jet sweep all the way down to the one-yard line. The powerful defensive line for the Leathernecks held the line of scrimmage though and Micah Petit came on to kick a short field goal giving Southern Utah the first lead of the game.
When the Leathernecks found themselves deep in their own territory they opted to try and fool the defense with a reverse. The fumbled exchange however, was recovered by Julian Sanderlin and put the T-Bird offense within striking distance at the five-yard line. Two plays later the Thunderbirds would extend the lead to ten with a touchdown run by Elijah Burns.
In the second quarter an early interception by Davin Wilson caused Western Illinois to make a change at quarterback bringing Clay Bruno into the game. Bruno would begin to carry the Leatherneck offense adding to the ground game as well as the air attack. Southern Utah Head Coach DeLane Fitzgerald commented that (Bruno) “Wasn’t someone we had seen on tape” adding “the young man looked good out there today”.
The assiduous Thunderbird Defense was up to the task however holing Western Illinois to a field goal on the only sustained drive of the first half. The Thunderbirds were able to take a lead into halftime despite having less than one-hundred yards of offense.
The defensive battle continued in the third quarter of the low scoring contest as neither team was able to reach the red zone until the final two minutes of the period. Western Illinois was poised to knot the game up when Southern Utah linebacker Aubrey Nellems forced a fumble that was picked up by fellow T-Bird Zach Strand. Following a short drive and a punt from the Thunderbirds the Leathernecks looked to have a drive going again moving the ball into Southern Utah territory to end the third quarter.
The first play of the final period however was a short pass that was intercepted by Tre Cain to give the T-birds the ball back on their own twenty-yard line. A methodical sixty-two-yard drive on the ground for the Thunderbirds ate nearly five and a half minutes of clock. Ultimately Southern Utah would turn the ball over on downs at the Leatherneck eighteen-yard line.
Western Illinois then started a drive of their own that moved almost sixty yards before the T-Birds defense would come up with a huge fourth down stop. Zach Strand and Payton Payne came up with the key play to end the drive dropping the quarterback for a three-yard sack.
The Thunderbirds got the ball back with five minutes left on the clock and turned to the running game. Southern Utah moved the ball just seven yards but would end up having to punt the ball back to Western Illinois with just over three minutes to play.
The Leathernecks would have their best drive of the game when they needed it most. The seventy-three-yard campaign was capped off by a seven-yard quarterback read play which Bruno took into the endzone. This drive tied the game at ten with just under a minute to play.
Southern Utah’s offense took over for their final drive of the game at the twenty-seven-yard line. After running the ball almost the entire fourth quarter the Thunderbirds looked to the air and quarterback Justin Miller found the speedy Isaiah Wooden for a seventy-three yard Touchdown pass. Coach Fitzgerald said of the play, “When the defensive backs have had to come down to make tackles the whole fourth quarter and then Wooden runs past at about a 4.4 it is pretty hard to adjust.” Coach then added “As good of a player as Isaiah Wooden is he is an even better person, he had a big impact on this game”
The Leathernecks would get the ball back at their own twenty-five-yard line with a little time left on the clock. The final thirty-two-yard drive would not be enough as the Thunderbirds would hold on for the seven-point victory.
The T-Birds would finish the game with three-hundred and thirty-four yards of total offense. The Southern Utah defense came up big several times in the game finishing with five takeaways. Coach Fitzgerald said of the defense “Our linebackers came up and made some big plays… we rotated four guys in on the corners and they all played really well today”
Western Illinois next game will be at home against Northern Iowa. The Thunderbirds will be back on their home turf next week for the homecoming and rivalry matchup with Utah Tech. That game will kick off next Saturday at 6 PM at Eccles Coliseum.
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Story and Photo Courtesy of SUU Athletics