CEDAR CITY — The Wildcats are winless no more.
Weber State made a critical stop on Southern Utah's last-minute, two-point conversion attempt and the Wildcats hung on for a 24-22 victory over the Thunderbirds on Saturday at Eccles Coliseum, giving WSU its elusive first win of the 2012 season.
"I'm so happy for the kids and how hard they have worked," said Weber State interim head coach Jody Sears, who also picked up the first head coaching win of his career — one day before celebrating his 45th birthday today. "We made some big stops when we needed to today, and it was a whole team effort. All season long, the team has kept working hard and has not given up."
Weber State improves to 1-7 on the season and 1-4 in Big Sky play, heading into its bye week on a positive note. Southern Utah slipped to 3-5 and 2-3 in its first year in the Big Sky Conference — with all three league losses coming at home. WSU improved to 15-4 all-time against Southern Utah with Saturday's win in their first-ever meeting as conference opponents.
Weber State kicker Shaun McClain tied his career-long with a 46-yard field goal that gave the Wildcats a 24-16 lead with 3:43 remaining.
But Southern Utah quickly drove downfield and scored on a touchdown pass from Brad Sorensen to Griff McNabb with 54 seconds remaining, cutting the deficit to 24-22. However, the Wildcats stopped the Thunderbirds on a potential game-tying, two-point conversion attempt when Trevor Pletcher sacked a scrambling Sorensen, and then WSU's David James recovered the subsequent on-side kick to seal the victory.
The Thunderbirds opened the scoring with a 46-yard field goal by Colton Cook in the first quarter, but the Wildcats put together two long scoring drives in the second quarter to take a 14-3 halftime lead — the first time they've led at the break all season long.
C.J. Tuckett's 3-yard scoring scamper capped a 15-play, 75-yard drive early in the second quarter. Then late in the first half, the Wildcats staged a 10-play, 71-yard drive, with quarterback Mike Hoke going the final three yards for the touchdown that made it 14-3.
Southern Utah opened the second half by driving deep into WSU territory before settling for Cook's 32-yard field goal.
But on Weber State's first play of the second half, Hoke hooked up with Xavian Johnson on a short pass that wound up going 75 yards for a touchdown that gave the Wildcats a 21-6 lead with 11:05 remaining on the third-quarter clock. It was Weber State's longest play of the season.
"It feels great and it's a lot of weight off our shoulders," Johnson said of Saturday's victory. "Everything finally clicked for us today on offense and defense, and we all did what we were supposed to do."
After falling behind 21-6, Southern Utah missed a prime opportunity when a personal foul penalty nullified a 6-yard touchdown run by Myles Crawford-Harris. The T-Birds again had to settle for another Cook field goal that made it 21-9.
But early the fourth quarter, Sorensen threw a 34-yard touchdown pass to Fatu Moala that trimmed Weber State's lead to 21-16 with 8:11 remaining in the game.
Hoke finished the day 16-of-28 passing for 206 yards and a touchdown, and he also rushed for 56 yards and another score. Tuckett finished with a season-high 90 rushing yards and a touchdown, and Johnson finished with six catches for 123 yards and his long TD. WSU's Tyler McNannay punted five times for an average of 51.6 yards per punt — fourth-best in school history.
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Sorensen completed 33-of-47 passes for 320 yards and two touchdowns, and he did not throw an interception. Crawford-Harris had nine catches for 65 yards and Moala had seven receptions for 95 yards.
"I thought our defense made some good adjustments at halftime, but the one-play, 75-yard drive — the score by Xavian Johnson — I thought put us too far behind," said SUU coach Ed Lamb, who also bemoaned his team's "terrible timing" on some of its costly penalties. "We couldn't quite catch up, didn't make the key plays down the stretch."