Crunch Brad Sorensen’s completion percentages all you want and gnash your teeth about Dan Moore missing another game, but the number that looms largest Saturday is turnovers.
Southern Utah – the Montana Grizzlies’ opponent at 1:30 p.m. in Washington-Grizzly Stadium – leads the Big Sky in turnover margin while Montana has a league-high 16 giveaways.
The Grizzlies need to change that trend while not letting Sorensen, Southern Utah’s standout quarterback, get on track. At stake, among other things, is a possible victory streak. Get one of those and the Griz are still in the Football Championship Subdivision playoff race.
“We’ve yet to put together a string of two wins,” noted Griz defensive end Zack Wagenmann, the Big Sky’s sack leader. “It’s huge. Right now is pivotal for our season. To be in the position that we want at the end of the season, we have to win out; we have to win this game.”
It won’t be easy. Sorensen, a 6-foot-5 pocket passer, has 10, 300-yard passing games on his resume. He also has big targets in 6-2 Fatu Moala, 6-4 Mitch Jessop and 6-3 Easton Pederson.
“We’ve been watching film on him,” Wagenmann said of Sorensen. “He’s a really solid quarterback; I know that some scouts have come in here and said he’s on their draft board.
“He’s good; he does a good job of getting rid of the ball when there is pressure. It’s going to be a challenge trying to get to him and disrupt him.”
The Thunderbirds also have a solid running back or two, led by Brian Wilson, a 205-pounder that UM coach Mick Delaney compared to Griz great Chase Reynolds.
Wilson, running behind 5-7, 240-pound fullback Lavell Ika – “I can confirm that,” SUU coach Ed Lamb said of Ika’s dimensions – has 415 yards. But 14 of the 17 TDs Southern Utah has this season have come through the air. Wilson has just one touchdown rushing and three receiving.
Montana leads the Big Sky in sacks and its secondary came up with three picks last week.
“I think they’re a very good defense, probably one of the better ones we’ve played this season,” said Sorensen, the Big Sky’s preseason offensive player of the year. “I don’t think they blitz as much as say, Sacramento State. But you can just tell they’re very well-coached; they play good, assignment-sound football.
“We’ve got to be sure we’re on point with our reads and our throws.”
Defensively Southern Utah will have to contend with Montana’s running attack, which has been augmented of late by quarterback Trent McKinney. The Griz average 251 rushing yards a game and Lamb said he’ll have to put an extra man in the box to spy on McKinney.
The redshirt freshman QB has rushed for 201 yards and four TDs in UM’s three league games.
“And from a motivational standpoint, it’s making our team very aware of Montana’s strengths – their size and their physical nature,” Lamb added. “We’ve got to meet strength with strength. We’ve got to make sure our front seven and our safeties and corners, when called upon, are ready to play a physical brand of football.
“If they’re not, it’s game over.”
UM’s Peter Nguyen zipped past the injured Moore (ankle) for the team rushing lead; he has 440 yards, the fifth-best mark in the Big Sky. Jordan Canada had an off week at Northern Colorado, though he caught three passes for 43 yards before leaving with an injury. Delaney expects him back.
A lot of teams have run for a lot of yards on the T-Birds, despite the presence of 300-pound defensive tackle Cody Larsen. Behind the front line is middle linebacker Zak Browning and his four fumbles forced.
“They’re just a solid football team,” Delaney said the Thunderbirds. “They don’t make a lot of mistakes.”
Southern Utah also has a dangerous return man in Josh Smith and a solid kicker in Colton Cook. In other words, this is a pretty even matchup.
It’s a must-win for both sides, but Delaney – who joined Bobby Hauck’s staff in 2008 – is used to that.
“Somebody said this is a must game,” said the venerable, 69-year-old coach. “And I said, ‘Well, I’ve been here five years and they’ve all been must games.’
“Both our seasons are somewhat on the line, and thank goodness they’re coming into Washington-Grizzly Stadium. I just know that’s going to be a factor in the game, and I think special teams will be a factor. If we can get points in the special teams like we did last week – and not give up the return – that would be huge.”
Fritz Neighbor can be reached at 523-5247, at firstname.lastname@example.org, or @Fritz_Neighbor.