OGDEN — If this is any indication of things to come for Southern Utah University, then the Thunderbirds are going to thoroughly enjoy joining the Big Sky Conference next year.
Austin Minefee, SUU's versatile senior running back, ran for 88 yards and two touchdowns, caught six passes for 86 yards and another TD, and added 112 yards on three kickoff returns.
But perhaps most importantly, he came up with a crucial end-zone tackle on a bizarre safety following an interception that helped turn thingas in the T-birds' favor as Southern Utah rallied for a 35-28 victory over Weber State on Saturday at Stewart Stadium.
Southern Utah, which officially becomes a member of the Big Sky next July, squared its season record at 4-4 with the rousing road victory — just the third time in 14 tries that the Thunderbirds have come away from Ogden with a win — while the Wildcats fell to 3-4 with their first home-field loss of the year.
"I think it was just an overall mood of being tired of losing," Minefee said of the T-birds' second-half comeback, when they rallied from an 11-point deficit. "There wasn't a lot said. Everybody was looking around and it was pretty silent. Then our defensive coaches came in and said, 'It's not our game to lose. We're tired of losing.' So we there was just an overall feeling that we had to come back and battle.
"There was no tomorrow for us, especially because we start playing these guys every year beginning next season."
Turns out the SUU coaching staff was right, thanks to a spirited second-half comeback and some strange plays that occurred after halftime.
"These guys picked me up at halftime," SUU coach Ed Lamb said. "There was never a doubt in their minds that they were going to win. ... No doubt about it, it was an outstanding effort by our guys in the second half. And that's what it takes to beat a great team like Weber State.
"One of the things we're going to find out is what the competition's like week after week in this conference, playing in this type of venue with a great crowd."
WSU coach Ron McBride looked mighty frustrated in the postgame interview room, especially after his team squandered a double-digit lead and, for the second straight week, committed double-digit penalties.
"Give them credit," McBride said of the Thunderbirds. "They made the plays they had to make to win the game, and we didn't. ... Southern Utah came in here to play, and they don't do a lot of stupid stuff to give the game away.
They did a better job of coaching their team than we did with our team. ...
They came in here and outplayed us.
"I think we're a better team, and you should never lose a game at home. It's unacceptable."
Weber State led 21-17 late in the third quarter when SUU quarterback Brad Sorensen, forced to scramble after a bad snap, rifled a long pass toward the WSU end zone. Wildcat junior cornerback Jarret Gooden went up and picked off Sorensen's pass, tried to return it out of the end zone, and wound up getting pulled down from behind by Minefee.
After the officials conferred for a minute, the play was ruled a safety, trimming Weber's lead to 21-19 and feeding the Thunderbirds' new-found momentum.
"I was relieved, so relieved, man," Sorensen said of the ruling on the play.
"That was a big play."
"It was the finest interception you've ever thrown," Lamb jokingly told his junior quarterback, who threw for 201 yards and a touchdown and ran for another score.
On Weber State's next possession, the T-birds' Kaden Carli blocked the Wildcats' punt and Mi Tagliaferri returned it 18 yards to the WSU 2.
Minefee scored on the next play, and suddenly Southern Utah — which had trailed 14-3 at halftime and again by a 21-10 margin in the third quarter — had taken a 27-21 lead.
Weber State continued to self-destruct when, two possessions later, quarterback Mike Hoke was sacked by SUU's Tyler Osborne, who forced the fumble, recovered the loose ball and returned it to the WSU 4. "It feels great, it feels amazing," said Osborne, who played his prep football at neighboring Weber High School and sounded as if he'd felt snubbed by Weber State. "Coach Mac, after the game, he didn't even look at me. ... It felt great to see him walk past me."
It took the T-birds five plays to get in the end zone, this time on Minefee's 1-yard plunge, Sorensen's two-point conversion pass to East Pedersen put Southern Utah on top of a stunned Weber State squad 35-21 midway through the fourth period.
The Wildcats battled back, pulling within a touchdown when Hoke's passes to Xavian Johnson and Shaydon Kehano set up a 6-yard scoring scamper by Josh Booker.
But after a time-consuming drive by Southern Utah, punter Lewis Tate put one out of bounds at the WSU 4 with just 1:24 remaining, and the Wildcats' comeback bid died deep in their own territory.
"I always felt like we were in control," said Hoke, who threw for 288 yards and a touchdown and ran for another TD. "We just never made the plays as an offensive unit.
"About all I can say is we've got to be even more hungry now because if we lose one of these next games, then there's no (FCS) playoff hopes," Hoke said. "We have to win out now to go to the playoffs."
After an exchange of punts took up most of the first period, the T-birds put together a drive just before the two teams switched ends. Sorensen showed off his passing arm and also scrambled 17 yards for a first down, and senior running back Austin Minefee shook loose on a 28-yard reception that put SUU in field goal range. From there, the Thunderbirds eventually settled for three points on a 39-yard field goal by sophomore kicker Colton Cook.
Weber State responded by going on a 14-play, 88-yard scoring drive of its own. Hoke hit passes to Booker, Kehano and Tyrell Francisco to pick up first downs along with way, and a third-down pass interference penalty certainly helped the Wildcats' cause, too. WSU finally lit the scoreboard when Hoke found Erik Walker in the far corner of the end zone for a 5-yard TD toss and a 7-3 lead with just 2:39 remaining before halftime.
But Weber State wasn't done yet. After stopping Southern Utah on its next possession, the Wildcats rode Hoke's passing arm to quickly go 60 yards in just a minute for their second score, a 3-yard keeper by Hoke with just seven seconds left in the half that gave them a 14-3 lead at intermission.10 comments on this story
Southern Utah took the second-half kickoff and, thanks to Minefee's 45-yard return, promptly put together a 53-yard touchdown drive, the big plays coming on Sorensen's passes to Daryl Brown and Fatu Moala. Sorensen went the final two yards himself for the TD that pulled the T-birds within 14-10.
Weber State answered with a 76-yard scoring drive of its own, with big gainers coming on a 42-yard run by Booker and an 18-yard pass from Hoke to Brian Jankowski. Freshman running back Troy Hinds took it five yards for the touchdown that gave the Wildcats a 21-10 lead.
Then it was the Thunderbirds' turn, as Sorensen soon found Minefee speeding down the west sideline for a 25-yard touchdown pass that again pulled SUU within four points, 21-17, setting the stage for a wild fourth quarter.