We’re looking to win instead of being happy to be there. —Southern Utah defensive end James Cowser
CEDAR CITY — Southern Utah, fresh off its first Big Sky title, finds itself in a similar position as it was two years ago as the Thunderbirds prepare for Sam Houston State in the opening round of the FCS playoffs Saturday.
The Thunderbirds (8-3) enter this year’s playoff with the same amount of wins as they did heading into their first playoff appearance in 2013, with the same opening round opponent, same venue and will face the same seed in the second round if they advance past the Bearkats. The comparisons go on from there.
There are a few differences though. SUU’s offense has become more of a juggernaut, averaging 15 points per game more than it did two years ago.
“I think this year we have a better team,” wide receiver Mike Sharp said. Sharp co-started at quarterback two years ago, but didn’t start in SUU’s last playoff game and switched over to receiver when Ammon Olsen transferred from BYU and took over at quarterback.
In addition, the T-Bird defense has also improved, holding teams to a Big Sky-best 19 points per game this season. Defensive end James Cowser, Big Sky’s Defensive Player of the Year, anchored the group, but linebacker Mike Needham, cornerback LeShaun Sims and safety Miles Killebrew each received first-team conference honors as well.
“We were a younger team back then across a lot of areas,” Cowser said, of the changes from two years ago. “This time, we’ve got a lot more senior leadership, people who have been through tough times. When things got rough — we’ve been there before — we know how to react.”
The T-Birds also understand that a conference title and recent playoff appearance don’t make them less of an underdog in the FCS landscape, and it’s a mentality they’re perfectly fine with.
Though some sports booking agencies actually place SUU as slight favorites on the road this week, the T-Birds were too small of a school to win a bid for a home playoff game.
“I think our team understood going into (last week’s) game that a win would give us an outright championship and playoff bid, but certainly not a seed or a home game,” said head coach Ed Lamb, noting losses to fellow FCS playoff teams South Dakota State and Portland State for putting his team in that situation.
“That’s one of the things I think is a motivating factor for us. It’s a special place to win at Southern Utah and not have the biggest stadium or seating capacity where we maybe could outbid schools with winning traditions. That’s something that our players understand very clearly and we’re not disappointed at all being on the road.”
Do the T-Birds embrace that chip on their shoulder?
“Of course,” Killebrew said. “You get less respect, you get less expectancy to win, you’re almost looked down on for having limited resources. You’re just not expected to win.' We expect to win every Saturday, no matter who we’re playing.”
Sam Houston State, on the other hand, remains the constant it has been for the past several years. The Bearkats (8-3) average nearly 44 points and 545 offensive yards per game and have plenty of offensive weapons. SUU knows that all too well losing 51-20 back in 2013.
The Bearkats also have controlled Big Sky opponents in recent playoff action, going 6-0 against the conference since 2011.
“They’re super athletic and they’re super detailed,” Cowser said. “Any little mistake becomes a bigger mistake just based on what they’re capable of athletically.”
The hope for the T-Birds is that previous experience against the Bearkats will prepare them for what they’ll see Saturday. However, SUU's biggest difference may be the desire to get past the opening round.
Cowser said the T-Birds were content with just being in the field back in 2013, but that’s not the case this time around.
“We’re looking to win instead of being happy to be there," he said.