Sep 28, 2011

Cody forced a fumble against UND

  Don't label it an upset

T-Birds head into UND game with ton of confidence following rout

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As the Southern Utah football team took the field Saturday to face UNLV at Sam Boyd Stadium in Las Vegas, the feeling was one of excitement mixed with a bit of uncertainty.

The T-Birds were facing a Mountain West Conference school for the fourth time in as many seasons under Ed Lamb, but the program hadn't enjoyed a lot of success against Football Bowl Subdivision schools.

In fact, SUU had been just 1-13 all-time against the big boys, the only win coming against Sun Belt school Arkansas State in 1997.

With a huge contingent of T-Bird fans making the trip down I-15 - sports information director Neil Gardner told me at Tuesday's practice the number was somewhere between 3,000 and 5,000 people - they watched SUU roll over UNLV for win No. 2 against a FBS program.

And don't you dare call what happened Saturday night an upset. It was a flat-out old-fashioned beating in back of the woodshed.

When Appalachian State beat Michigan at the Big House in 2007, that was an upset. A classic one at that.

Now let's find our center and clarify some things. UNLV came in to Saturday night's game having defeated Hawaii 40-20 in its home opener the week prior. The defense forced four fumbles and held Hawaii to just six yards rushing.

But for every good thing the Rebels did to earn that win, they did exactly the opposite on both sides of the ball against the T-Birds to turn a 10-10 halftime tie into an absolute embarassment.

Not for the T-Bird fans, mind you. They drank in every blissful second of what happened.

It all started with one colossal mistake by the Rebel offense.

SUU quarterback Brad Sorensen was clearly ineffective in the opening half. He threw a pair of interceptions, and UNLV was taking advantage.

With the score at 7-0 late in the first quarter, the Rebels drove to the T-Bird 1 and had first-and-goal. Then the inexplicable happened.

Instead of running the ball, quarterback Caleb Herring changed the play to a pass. As Herring dropped back, he fired the ball in receiver Phillip Payne's direction, but Payne never saw it because he was stuck on the play being a run.

Payne was flagged for offensive pass interference on the play. It put the ball back at the SUU 16, and Cody Larsen forced a fumble that he recovered three plays later to kill the drive.

Instead of a two-touchdown lead for UNLV, the gaffe gave SUU a world of confidence that it could compete.

And boy, did they ever. Especially the defense.

Three interceptions were returned for touchdowns by the T-Birds, one shy of the NCAA record. Nick Witzmann, Blake Fenn and Erron Vonner did the honors. They also forced two fumbles to complete a five-turnover night.

While Witzmann's return gave SUU its first lead of the night at 10-7 early in the second quarter, Fenn's return was an even greater catalyst, mainly because it was a carbon copy to Witzmann's pick-six. Herring tried to lob a screen pass, but multiple SUU defenders were there.

Once Fenn grabbed the ball, all he had to do was follow his blockers down the sideline. The play put SUU in firm control.

And adding salt in the wound for UNLV, head coach Bobby Hauck first pulled Herring after the Fenn pick-six, then brought him back in again to throw another one to Vonner - on a badly overthrown ball - that he returned 74 yards with the help of a perfectly-timed block along the way.

It led to a mass exodus of the UNLV faithful with eight minutes left and SUU up huge at 41-10.

No such thing happened on the SUU side. When the final seconds ticked away, players went from one end of Sam Boyd Stadium to the other slapping hands and greeting fans, drinking in every bit of the moment and embracing what they had accomplished. They were treated almost like Super Bowl winners.

It's back to reality now as North Dakota comes calling at Eccles Coliseum on Saturday.

"The context for us is everything that's happened to this point in the season - good and bad - prepares us for this week," head coach Ed Lamb said.

After an amazing Saturday night in Las Vegas, the good things continue to be a lot more prominent.

E-mail Tom Zulewski at Follow him on Twitter @Tomzsports and search the hash tag #suufb on game day.

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