This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2015, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
Cedar City • For all the hard work put in by the Southern Utah Thunderbirds, the reward was realized in two converted turnovers and one wild on-field celebration.
Ty Rutledge caught a 27-yard touchdown pass from Ammon Olsen and Jarom Healey added a 70-yard run for what proved to be the clinching score in the fourth quarter as the T-Birds held off Northern Arizona 49-41 and claimed their first Big Sky championship before 9,022 happy fans at Eccles Coliseum. SUU finished the regular season with a 7-1 Big Sky record, 8-3 overall.
It was the first victory by the home team in the last six years of the rivalry between the T-Birds and Lumberjacks, and it was a gratifying feeling for coach Ed Lamb.
"To work for something like this and see it pay off is incredibly rewarding," Lamb said. "I'm so happy for the players. I get to coach them for one more game, and I'm really happy about that."
The second quarter saw the Lumberjacks (5-3, 7-4) find their offensive legs behind freshman quarterback Case Cookus, who threw three first-half touchdowns. None were bigger than the final play of the half.
After a 4-yard TD pass from Cookus to Abe Thompson with 50 seconds left, the T-Birds engineered a 75-yard drive that finished with a 13-yard touchdown from Olsen to tight end Steven Wroblewski that cut the gap to 17-14.
But six seconds proved to be enough time for the Lumberjacks to do the improbable when Taylor Pili was whistled for a personal foul to give them an untimed down.
Cookus threw a 49-yard Hail Mary that was tipped into the arms of Hunter Burton to put NAU up 24-14 at the break and deflate the energy of the big crowd.
"We felt like as a team, we lost composure, let the pressure get to us," Lamb said. "For many games, we've been the ones willing to push the tempo, but we faced a team tonight that was willing to do that. The team that hung together the most and made the fewest mistakes won."
SUU forced four turnovers two interceptions by Cookus and two fumble recoveries and gave up the ball only once.
The T-Birds set the stage for a wild second half of offense when Healey scored on a 4-yard run to pull SUU back within three at 24-21. The Lumberjacks restored a 10-point edge on a 1-yard run by Corbin Jountti, but when Dixie High grad Mike Sharp caught two touchdowns from Olsen (of 70 and 9 yards) less than a minute apart later in the third quarter, SUU took the lead for good.
"We were quiet and intense at halftime," defensive end James Cowser said. "Coach (Demario) Warren told us 'this isn't who we are. We're a team that fights together. Either buy in or get out.' "
As the rest of the second half showed, the T-Birds were all in. After a 51-yard field goal from Ryan Hawkins cut the SUU lead to 35-34 a minute into the fourth quarter, the first of the game-changing plays came as Hawkins mishandled a snap on a punt and was tackled at the NAU 27. Rutledge made a leaping catch from Olsen on the very next play.
Matt Holley recovered an Emmanuel Butler fumble on the next Lumberjack possession and Healey found a hole on third down and bulldozed his way into the end zone with 1:57 left.
It proved to be just enough after Cookus threw his fourth touchdown pass of the game to Dezjon Walker from 20 yard out with 10 seconds left. The Lumberjacks recovered the onside kick, but Tyler Collet made sure there wouldn't be a second helping of Hail Mary heroics when he intercepted a Cookus pass at the T-Bird 3 to seal the win and allow the fans to storm the field in a flag-waving celebration.
Big Sky Standings
W L PF PA W L PF PA
S. Utah 7 1 312 134 8 3 386 208
Portland St. 6 2 273 215 9 2 394 239
Montana 6 2 273 180 7 4 351 266
N. Arizona 5 3 344 273 7 4 432 383
E. Wash. 5 3 249 286 6 5 381 435
Weber St. 5 3 194 189 6 5 247 270
N. Dakota 4 3 210 197 6 4 264 262
Cal Poly 3 4 290 257 4 6 351 345
N. Colorado 3 5 214 298 6 5 330 378
Montana St. 3 5 303 301 5 6 461 377
UC Davis 2 6 184 271 2 9 245 376
Idaho St. 1 7 179 318 2 9 242 450
Sacramento St. 1 7 161 267 2 9 216 368
N. Colorado 40, Abilene Christian 36
Montana 54, Montana St. 35
Weber St. 35, Idaho St. 14
S. Utah 49, N. Arizona 41
Portland St. 34, E. Washington 31
UC Davis 35, Sacramento St. 21
North Dakota at Cal Poly, late