Southern Utah is the defending Big Sky Conference champion, but for many around Missoula the Thunderbirds still feel like a bit of an unknown.
The teams have only met twice since the Thunderbirds joined the league during the great expansion of 2012, and Montana didn't face SUU during the program's title run last year. They haven't played in Missoula since the aforementioned 2012 campaign.
The Missoulian chatted with Ryan Miller, Southern Utah beat writer for The Spectrum & Daily News newspaper in Cedar City, Utah, to get a little deeper look into Montana's opponent for this Saturday.
The Missoulian's questions are in bold with Ryan's replies to follow:
1. The Thunderbirds turned a huge chunk of their defense into NFL players in the offseason, but SUU hasn’t exactly fallen off the pace defensively this year. Who’s stepped into those play-making roles?
James Cowser, Miles Killebrew and LeShaun Sims got all the attention last season, but that defense was pretty stacked across the board, and most of the guys are back. Linebackers Mike Needham and Taylor Nelson have been excellent so far this year and safety Tyler Collet has shown he is a playmaker in the secondary.
The defensive line is the strength of the defense, especially in the interior with Robert Torgerson, Fesi Vaa'ivaka and Anu Poleo.
2. Despite being defending Big Sky champs, your story earlier this week makes it sound like the T-birds still don’t feel respected around the league. Are they playing with a chip on their shoulders?
Yeah, they are. They didn’t get picked to finish high in the preseason polls, and they have heard the discussions about how the unbalanced schedule was a key factor in them winning the conference championship last season. And it’s kind of just how the team and the community in Cedar City are as a whole. It's just an underdog mentality. Even if SUU ends up winning multiple titles in a row, I still think that would be there.
3. What’s been your take on (former defensive coordinator) Demario Warren’s time as head coach so far?
Warren spent eight seasons coaching under Ed Lamb, so naturally, he hasn’t changed much right out of the gate -- which I think shows Warren is a smart man. What Lamb was doing obviously worked, so why change it. The culture of the team is the same and the schemes are very similar to what they were last season.
I think he’s proven to be a master motivator in his first eight months. Players simply want to play for him. And he can also flat out coach. I don’t think he gets enough credit for developing Sims and Killebrew into NFL players.
4. What has made the Southern Utah defense so dangerous during Warren’s time with the program?
I think it comes down to simplicity. Warren took over as defensive coordinator in 2014 and the T-birds gave up the most yards in the conference, the third most points and ranked near the bottom in most defensive statistics -- and that was with Cowser, Killebrew and Sims. Last season, Warren uncomplicated the defense, allowing the players to simply react and it obviously paid off. It’s the same this year.
5. Two Thunderbirds topped 100 yards rushing last week against Portland State. What’s the differences in the way the team uses Malik Brown and Raysean Pringle?
Pringle is a little faster and Brown has a bit more power, but they both have breakaway speed and both are used in between the tackles. Brown is the workhorse in the backfield and will get the majority of the carries. Pringle is used, not necessarily as a change of pace back, but a back that can at least provide Brown a breather. Pringle is also more active in the passing game and will even line up as a receiver is some packages.
6. We all know SUU players are often a few years older than your typical college student because of LDS missions, but what's the story on 30-year-old, 350-pound DT Sefesi Vaa'ivaka?
Ah, good ol’ Fesi.
He never intended to play college football coming out of high school, in fact, he didn’t go to college at all. It wasn’t until later in life that he felt the need to go back to school and he chose Southern Utah because his brother was a student there. Upon seeing him, the SUU coaches asked him to try out. Vaa'ivaka figured he was big enough to take a hit (a massive understatement) and it could help pay for classes, so he went for it.
7. Crunch time: What’s your prediction for this Saturday?
The Thunderbird secondary is improving, but I’m not sure if they have the depth needed to contain the Montana passing attack. So I have Brady Gustafson having a big day and Montana winning a close one.
Follow Ryan Miller on Twitter at @millerjryan for another perspective on Saturday's game.
Montana kicks off with Southern Utah at 2:30 p.m. at Washington-Grizzly Stadium. The game broadcast can be seen locally on Cowles Montana Media affiliates (ABC/FOX).