We’re showing them tonight who’s the boss. —SUU freshman Layton Call
OGDEN — Though Southern Utah and Weber State have only recently begun to play each other every year in football — starting in 2012 when the Thunderbirds joined the Big Sky Conference — there are signs that a health rivalry is beginning to blossom.
Intense games. Back-and-forth results. Hard hits. Some chippiness. Fun trash-talking and wildly supportive fans. Respectful bitterness.
Now whether it’s considered a full-blown rivalry a la BYU and Utah or a we-like-beating-you-but-do-not-think-about-you casual relationship depends on who you ask.
For some, this rivalry is becoming as intense and important as the Holy War.
Take the 100-plus SUU fans who traveled in cars and buses to watch Saturday night’s Beehive Bowl game at Weber State, for example.
“We drove three and a half hours to be here because absolutely it’s a rivalry, for sure,” said SUU student Tanner Greenhall, adding that he texted trash-talking messages to his uncle, a Weber State employee, all week leading up to the game.
“We’re showing them tonight who’s the boss,” said SUU freshman Layton Call, who joked about how his school's mascot preys upon big cats. “I just can’t take the purple.”
For others, though, it’s as personal and one-sided as a text conversation between two acquaintances that includes the phrase, “Sorry, new phone. Who’s this?”
“(Weber State students) don’t really say much,” Wildcat sophomore Hailey Norman admitted. “I don’t think we really care.”
Brodie Poll, a WSU undergrad, said Montana is still the school they like to beat the most, although he believes SUU-Weber will “eventually” enjoy a more spirited rivalry. He admitted to being “a little bitter” that SUU is getting in his school's way of winning a Big Sky title.
Asked if SUU-Weber is a rivalry, one person who's been associated with the Ogden university for decades jokingly said, "Only in their minds." Though that was a joke, some at Southern Utah felt disrespected about not being able to play Weber State more often and that it took so long to get into the same conference.
Weber State athletic director Jerry Bovee acknowledged that Idaho State — about 150 miles closer to Ogden than Cedar City — is another school that’s been considered a longtime rival. Having been at WSU for nine years, Bovee pointed out that his school played an active role in helping to get SUU into the Big Sky Conference. They see the value of having an instate partner/rival.
SUU’s success on the football field — four straight wins in Ogden, including Saturday’s 26-13 upset of the 16th-ranked Wildcats — is definitely catching Weber State's attention.
WSU cornerback Taron Johnson said SUU’s 44-0 win in Ogden two years ago was all he needed to be convinced that this is a real rivalry.
“I hated them after that,” he told The Spectrum.
“I think the rivalry is important,” Weber State coach Jay Hill was quoted as saying by the Cedar City paper. “For the rivalry to take off in the state, it’s important to us, it’s important to me and I know it is to Coach (Demarrio) Warren. We want those in college football. Really, though, rivalries are formed by the fans. As the fans come out and support this thing, it will just get bigger and bigger.”
For what it's worth, a poll on the official Weber State football Twitter account showed that SUU has indeed risen to full-fledged No. 1 rivalry status.
The fact that SUU has now beaten Weber State four of six times as a conference foe might intensify feelings within the Ogden community.
“It’s a rivalry, yeah,” Bovee said. “It probably started off more on their side, I would say, but you know what, they’ve been competitive. They’ve beaten us, and so I think it’s amped up, and you can tell from the crowd. They travel well.”
The trip was worthwhile for SUU faithful, and the T-Birds’ victory has been a year in the making.
Last season, Weber State trailed 36-14 with 8:54 remaining in the fourth quarter at Cedar City. The Wildcats converted a fourth-down play, and the comeback was on. WSU rallied to score the final 23 points to pull off the upset.
It was a painful loss for SUU, but the T-Birds chose to learn from it.
“I’ve never experienced anything like that,” SUU’s coach told reporters at the Big Sky Kickoff. “We embraced it and I think it really helped our team move forward. I think a lot of guys will be successful in life after that because of that game.”
Over the offseason, SUU adopted a “Leave No Doubt” mantra. They also made T-shirts with that phrase and “8:54” on them.
They didn’t want to forget.
They didn’t want to fall apart again.
“I was constantly reminded of it during the offseason,” SUU QB Patrick Tyler told The Spectrum. “It’s something that you can’t forget.”
Tyler won’t forget winning at Weber State, either. No doubts were left behind after he threw for three touchdowns and the T-Birds prevented the Wildcats from reaching the end zone on offense. It didn’t help the home team’s cause that senior quarterback Stefan Cantwell left the game early after getting his bell rung.
“We just knew coming out there was no way we wanted to lose this game,” Tyler said. “We knew how much it meant to Cedar City, how much it meant to Southern Utah, and it’s just great to get that win.”
Players squirted water bottles and ran onto the field after the clock hit zeros. After exchanging postgame well-wishes with Weber State, the T-Birds then headed over to celebrate in front of the rowdy visitors section. SUU linebacker Chinedu Ahanonu was among the players who proudly hoisted the trophy over his head on the field.
"I’ve never lost to Weber," the junior said, "so it was really special to go again and have a big win."
Fans cheered and waved SUU flags as players joined them in singing the school song, which evolved into a “Na-na-na-na, hey, hey, goodbye!” chorus to playfully rub it in to the disappointed hosts.
“It’s a huge win and the rivalry is hopefully alive and well,” Warren said after winning for the fourth time in five tries in this series as SUU’s head coach. “We got the trophy back. We felt bad for it. It was probably in an unfamiliar place and we got it back home where it can sit there and stay there for another year, so we’re excited about that.”
Ahanonu, who’s from West Jordan, was on an LDS mission during last year’s devastating loss, but he said players wanted to win for a lot of reasons and for a lot of people.
“This one’s really for the community, for the school and for all the guys that have gone before us,” Ahanonu said moments after proudly hoisting the trophy above his head following an excellent performance that included 13 tackles.
“I think it’s big. It’s an in-state game. Recruiting battles. There’s a lot of things that come into it. We feel like this was big for everyone that’s come before us really and just for our team and for each other. We played for each other today. The big thing was to play for the love of the guys with you instead of for the hate for the other team.”
Warren said he’s not worried about a post-rivalry letdown. SUU, now 4-2 overall and 2-1 in conference action, hosts Big Sky-leading and Top 10 Eastern Washington this Saturday.
There’s more to play for than ever now, including a spot in the playoffs. The T-Birds were denied that last year after losing to the Wildcats.
“We’re not worried just about Weber,” the coach said. “We’re worried about winning the Big Sky and making the playoffs. That’s what the whole mantra was about.”
Weber State didn’t just lose a football game, either, fallng to 4-2 overall and 2-1 in Big Sky play. The school is losing a student to its rival.
Norman, who’s from Brigham City, is transferring to the Cedar City college next semester to be closer to her boyfriend, SUU sophomore Landon Ross.
“Tonight I’m SUU,” the Weber State student admitted while sitting on her boyfriend’s lap.
They laughed when asked if the football success was the reason.
“Yeah,” Norman said, giggling.
“Only because of that,” Ross interjected, smiling. “Nothing else.”
Norman attended the T-Birds’ homecoming game a week ago, too.
“She’s SUU through and through,” Ross said.
That seems like a pretty good side to choose considering recent results, although it should be noted that Weber State still holds a 16-8 all-time edge. SUU players also mentioned how Saturday's game might influence on-the-fence recruits to head south.
Bovee didn't love this outcome, of course, but he does like that an in-state rivalry is building. SUU and Weber are the only teams in the state that are in the same conference, adding an extra incentive. Having two competitive and strong sports programs go at each other could help both universities make a splash in the crowded Utah sports scene, too.
"I think it’s good for Southern Utah and the communities down there, and our fans are embracing it as well," Bovee said. "It probably took us a little longer to get to the party just because in basketball we’re up here on the Wasatch Front and so we play BYU and we play Utah, we play Utah State, and those are games for us that we really want to win.
"But," he added, "it’s every bit as much a rivalry as anything else. Now is it at the level a Montana-Montana State are? No because that's years and years of just buildup. But could it get there? I do think it could."