"If they're basing it off what you've done on the football field, I think we've done more than almost everybody in the country." —SUU coach Demario Warren
CEDAR CITY — Southern Utah sent a statement to the NCAA's FCS playoff selection committee on Saturday, soundly defeating Northern Arizona 48-20 to clinch the T-Birds' second Big Sky title in three years.
Southern Utah and Weber State finished the regular season with 7-1 records in Big Sky play (and 9-2 overall) to lay claim to a share of the league championship, but the T-Birds earned the conference's automatic bid to the FCS playoffs by virtue of their October win over the Wildcats. Weber State beat Idaho State 35-7 Saturday to cap its regular season.
The 24-team FCS playoff bracket will be unveiled at 9 a.m. MST on ESPNU.
"Like I've told you before, you (could) compare us to any other team in the top 10," SUU coach Demario Warren said. "If they're basing it off what you've done on the football field, I think we've done more than almost everybody in the country."
Southern Utah dominated in all three facets of the game in beating Northern Arizona, which went into the day tied with SUU and Weber State atop the Big Sky standings.
Special teams in particular played a crucial role for the T-Birds in the dominant win, played in front of a record crowd of 10,842.
After Southern Utah tied the game at 6-6 on a 41-yard Manny Berz field goal with 13:48 to play until halftime, the T-Birds' Logan Baker recovered a Northern Arizona fumble on the ensuing kickoff, setting up the SUU offense at the Lumberjack 15.
Quarterback Patrick Tyler scored on a 1-yard run four plays later for the T-Birds' first touchdown.
On the ensuing kickoff, Keita Calhoun's squib kick bounced off a Northern Arizona player, and SUU's Kyle Tuailili pounced on the ball at the T-Bird 36. Jay Green broke off a 37-yard run on the next play, and, after a 4-yard pass, Tyler scored on a 23-yard touchdown run to put the T-Birds ahead by 14.
"We got to go up 20-6 without (Northern Arizona quarterback) Case Cookus touching the field," Warren said. "That's good, because that quarterback is really good."
The T-Birds increased their lead to 27-6 later in the second quarter when Green scored from 3 yards out to cap a 10-play, 48-yard drive. Northern Arizona added its first touchdown of the game on a Cory Young 1-yard touchdown run with 48 seconds until halftime.
The Lumberjacks had a chance to cut further into the SUU lead on their first drive of the second half, which they started at the T-Bird 37 after Southern Utah lost 21 yards on a third-down play. But SUU's defense stood tall, forcing Northern Arizona into a 41-yard field goal attempt, which Griffin Roehler missed wide left.
Special teams then came up big again for SUU after the T-Birds failed to gain 10 yards on three downs following the missed field goal. On fourth down, punter Rashaan Miller successfully converted a slow-developing fake, running for 22 yards on a third-and-12.
Five plays later, Green scored from 1 yard out to increase the Southern Utah lead to 33-13, though the PAT was blocked. That score started a 21-0 run for the T-Birds, who built a 48-13 lead with 10:32 to play.
The T-Birds' run game was a big factor, as Southern Utah dominated time of possession (35:25 to 24:28) while rushing for 204 yards and six touchdowns. Green led the way with 134 rushing yards and three touchdowns. Tyler rushed for 31 yards and two touchdowns while also throwing for 238 yards, and wide receiver Isaiah Diego-Williams added a 4-yard touchdown run.
Northern Arizona entered the contest allowing just 162.5 passing yards per game, 10th nationally, but SUU threw for 66 yards on its first drive alone, setting up a short Berz field goal.
"To be able to establish the pass early in the game, I believe that helped out the run game as well. That was a plus," Tyler said.
SUU's defense also held the Northern Arizona offense nearly two touchdowns under its scoring average, and that's after the Lumberjacks scored a touchdown with 6:41 remaining and the game well in hand. Cookus threw for 246 yards and one touchdown, though SUU allowed the Lumberjacks to convert only four of 14 third downs.
The T-Birds also defeated Northern Arizona to claim their first Big Sky title in 2015. That game, though, was closer, as Southern Utah won a 49-41 barnburner.
“That one was a turning point in our school history in our program, but this one feels great because we have a whole new type of group,” senior linebacker Mike Needham said. “We came in with 47 freshmen, we didn’t really know what to expect, but with the leaders that we have we were able to get it done. That’s a great feeling.”