Football reaches the halfway point of their 2023 campaign

The Southern Utah University football team has just passed the midway point of their 2023 season. SUU currently holds a record of 2-4, and they are 1-1 in United Athletic Conference play.

Two Power Five teams began the year
The Thunderbirds started off with two tough opponents. For their first game of the year, they headed to Tempe to take on Arizona State University. The Thunderbirds trailed 21-7 at the half, but the second half was a different story. After a two-and-a-half hour delay, SUU came out hot. Nearing the end of the third quarter, they scored a touchdown and cut the Sun Devils’ lead to seven. After an ASU field goal and a SUU three-and-out, safety George Ramirez returned a blocked punt all the way back for a touchdown. This special-teams play wasn’t enough to get the win for the Thunderbirds, and they fell 24-21.

Next up were the Brigham Young University Cougars. This game had the most spectators of any SUU game this year with 60,834 in attendance. Southern Utah fell behind early and trailed 27-3 at the half. Two second-half touchdowns for the Thunderbirds was not enough, and ultimately, BYU came away with a 41-16 victory.

A close loss and a big win
It didn’t get any easier for SUU after competing against two Power Five opponents. They then headed to take on Football Championship Subdivision No. 16-ranked University of California-Davis. It was a defensively dominated first half. Southern Utah was unable to get anything on the scoreboard, while UC Davic converted two field goals. UC Davis had an early touchdown to go up 13-0, and from there, they went back and forth in scoring touchdowns. That put the score at 20-14 late in the fourth. The Thunderbirds allowed UC Davis to extend their lead with a field goal with just under three minutes left to go. A late touchdown pass from quarterback Justin Miller was not enough, and the Aggies held on to a 23-21 win. 

Still winless on the year, the Thunderbirds needed to turn things around. SUU’s homecoming weekend saw Western Illinois University come to town, packing Eccles Coliseum with a total of 6,504 spectators. After a tight first half, the teams headed into the locker room tied at 17. It was all SUU after that. Three second-half touchdowns, one of which was a pick-six, sealed the deal for the Thunderbirds, and they won 37-17. 

Two more close games
Trying to build off their first win of the year, the Thunderbirds hosted FCS No. 25-ranked Central Arkansas University. The Bears had a strong first half, leading 20-7 going into the break. Three second-half touchdowns by SUU gave them a chance at winning the game. After completing their third touchdown of the half, the Thunderbirds trailed 29-27, needing to complete the two-point conversion. The attempt fell short, and Southern Utah dropped to 1-4 on the season. 

SUU was then back on the road, taking on Tarleton State University. It did not look good early for the Thunderbirds, as they had a disastrous first half. Although Tarleton State took advantage of the bad half and led 20-0, SUU kept the theme of being a second-half team alive. They came out in the third quarter and scored two touchdowns, narrowing down the lead to 20-14. Tarleton and SUU traded scores, but Tarleton was unable to convert their final extra point attempt. This led to a 26-21 lead for the Texans. On a third-and-four, Tarleton attempted to run the ball. It was hit out by safety Tre Gola-Callard and recovered by Josh Lopez, who took it 23 yards for a Thunderbird touchdown. That play completed the comeback, and SUU won 27-26 headed into their bye week.

Stat leaders
Through the first six games of the season, Southern Utah has averaged 24.83 points per game. 

Passing: Miller leads the Thunderbirds, having completed 122 of 213 passes for 1,424 yards. He has thrown 14 touchdowns and six interceptions.

Rushing: Running back Braedon Wissler has totaled a team-best 264 yards on the ground for SUU. Junior running back Targhee Lambson has rushed for four touchdowns to lead the team. 

Receiving: Wide receivers Isaiah Wooden and Zach Mitchell have each tallied 32 catches for 416 yards and four touchdowns. Receiver Timothy Patrick has added four receiving touchdowns of his own. 

The defense for the Thunderbirds has come up big so far. That unit is currently averaging 26.67 points allowed per game.

Tackles: Redshirt sophomore Gola-Callard has totaled 44 tackles to lead the team on the season. He also leads in solo tackles with a recorded 26.

Sacks/tackles for loss: Reese’s Senior Year Bowl watchlist athlete Robert Horsey leads the team in both sacks with 3.5 and tackles for loss with 7.5.

Secondary: Senior cornerback Cody Coleman has intercepted two passes on the season, good for best on the Thunderbirds. SUU’s other senior cornerback, AJ Felton, has broken up a team-leading six passes. 

Punting: Junior punter Alyas Virgil has attempted 27 punts on the season with an average of 42.37 yards. His long for the season is 76 yards.

Kicking: Kicker Tyler Graham has made two of five field goals so far. He has also successfully hit 17 of his attempted 19 extra points. 

Remaining schedule
— Home against Austin Peay State University on Oct. 21 at 6:00 p.m.
— Home against Abilene Christian University on Oct. 28 at 1:00 p.m.
— Home against  Lincoln University CA on Nov. 4 at 1:00 p.m.
Away at Stephen F. Austin University on Nov. 11 at 3:00 p.m. MDT.
— Away at Utah Tech University on Nov. 18 at 7:00 p.m.

Each remaining game can be streamed through ESPN+.

Author: Brig Pyfer
Photographer: Anden Garfield
Editor: Anden Garfield