Southern Utah takes down Stephen F. Austin in nail-biter overtime win

CEDAR CITY — With 17 penalties and 161 total penalty yards, the referees threw their flags in almost every play. 

Despite the sloppy play, the Thunderbirds were able to pull off the win in a tight overtime game against Stephen F. Austin, with a final score of 45-38. 

“I just want to thank the crowd,” SUU head coach Demario Warren said. “We’ve had our struggles over the last year and a half now, and we really appreciate the crowd coming out. We tried to give the game away multiple times, but the one thing I can say about this group is that they are relentless. They are tough, mentally tough, physically tough and they are relentless. These guys keep coming back play after play, and again, we have to fix the penalties.”

SUU started the game off strong, marched the ball down the field on their first possession, but settled for a field goal. On SFA’s first drive, SUU’s Aaron Romero forced a fumble, which was recovered by the Thunderbirds.

With the fumble recovery, SUU started at the 15-yard line and ran the “Cedar Special,” a trick play in which quarterback Chris Heldig made the first touchdown reception of his career.

“It was pretty cool,” Heldig said. “It was all Lance, he threw a good ball. It was hard to catch because I was so open, but it was weird. I’ve never caught a touchdown like that before, so I didn’t know what to do.”

SUU running back James Felila rushes for the game-winning touchdown on fourth down in overtime, Southern Utah University vs. Stephen F. Austin, Cedar City, Utah, Sept. 14, 2019 | Photo by Jeff Richards, St. George News / Cedar City News

The Thunderbirds defense was consistently putting pressure on the SFA quarterback, especially at the beginning of the game, finishing the night with four sacks.

After another forced fumble that the Lumberjacks were able to recover in the second quarter, SUU held SFA to a field goal, with the score being 10-3 in favor of the Thunderbirds.

The Thunderbirds offense dialed up another trick play on their next drive, bringing out the double-pass play, with Helbig gaining another 24 yards receiving. SUU scored on the drive, moving the score to 17-3.

“Coach Walterscheid did a great job dialing those up,” Warren said. “Picked them in perfect spots and got the coverages we wanted. They do a great job of scouting the teams, making sure that we have a couple things to keep them on their heels, and to be honest, that opened up the rest of our offense. After that, they were able to run their offense, and everybody on defense was a little more hesitant.”

SUU’s defense came up big again on the next possession with a Khalid Taylor interception, but SFA followed that up with an interception of their own, running it back for a touchdown.

The very next possession, the Thunderbirds offense was stopped, and SFA took over. The Lumberjacks then made a five-minute drive down the field, which would be a crucial one.

On 3rd and 15, SUU got the stop, and it looked like SFA would have to settle for a field goal, but as the defense was coming off the field, an SUU defensive player was called for an unsportsmanlike penalty, giving the Lumberjacks a fresh set of downs.

SFA scored on that drive, tying the game at 17.

Once again, the story of the day was penalties. The Thunderbirds opened up the next drive with a big 65-yard gain, but there was a holding penalty on the play, erasing the big gain. SUU had to settle for a field goal, but Kekoa Sasaoka missed it short, and that marked the end of the half.

SUU quarterback Chris Helbig takes a snap, Southern Utah University vs. Stephen F. Austin, Cedar City, Utah, Sept. 14, 2019 | Photo by Jeff Richards, St. George News / Cedar City News

“I think we got off the field four times on third down and had a penalty after the play,” Warren said. “Everything that you do every single day carries over to the football game, and I don’t think we are disciplined enough day to day. It’s carrying over into games, and it’s almost costing us football games. We just can’t have it. Our team might do some dumb stuff, but they fight their butts off.”

The Lumberjacks started the scoring at the six minute mark in the second half, scoring a touchdown, and giving SFA the lead, 24-17.

The next scoring drive for the Thunderbirds came at the two and a half minute mark, with Heldig completing a 55-yard pass to Lance Lawson for the touchdown.

Lawson had a coming-out party, as the sophomore had 13 receptions for 131 yards, one yard shy of his total receiving yards from all of last season, and more than his total receiving yards from SUU’s first two games.

“You could tell he trusts me when we need a play,” Lawson said. “The long touchdown he threw to me, the play before that I actually dropped the ball, and then very next play he has that trust in me to come back. That just shows everything right there.”

Heldig also spoke to the connection he has with Lawson, who has proved himself as one of the top options for the Thunderbirds in the passing game, and the big touchdown play.

“Like Lance said, he drops a ball, and there’s no doubt in my mind that I’m going right back to him if he’s open,” Heldig said. “I trust Lance, I know he’s going to be open, and he’s made plays for us all year. We’ve built a great connection through spring and now. Its carried over into the fall, and I think that has shown quite a bit.”

Southern Utah University vs. Stephen F. Austin, Cedar City, Utah, Sept. 14, 2019 | Photo by Jeff Richards, St. George News / Cedar City News

SFA and SUU both scored two touchdowns before the end of regulation. With the score tied at 38-38, the game headed into overtime.

With 5,568 in attendance, the Thunderbirds fans erupted, and the energy in Eccles Coliseum started to build.

The first possession in overtime ended with a James Felila touchdown on an 11-yard run, putting SUU on top 45-38.

SFA’s next possession would be the decider, either SUU got the stop, or SFA tied the game, pushing it into a second overtime period.

The second overtime possession for SFA was be filled with penalties for both teams, with two penalties on each side, four total. The drive climaxed on a fourth and goal play from the nine-yard line, and Warren had one message for his team, “don’t jump offsides, and if we stop them, don’t do anything stupid after the play.”

SUU did just that, stopping the Lumberjacks on the nine-yard line, and winning the game by a final score of 45-38 as the SUU bench stormed the field to celebrate. 

Even with all of the penalties called, 271 total yards and 28 total penalties, Warren spoke highly of his defense.

“They got a confident bunch over there,” Warren said. “We struggled on defense immensely. Fisher got those guys riled up, probably a little too riled up right now, but they’re going to play hard. He’s been a great defensive coordinator since he’s been here, I really appreciate his help.”

Southern Utah University vs. Stephen F. Austin, Cedar City, Utah, Sept. 14, 2019 | Photo by Jeff Richards, St. George News / Cedar City News

SUU matched their win total from last year, just three games into the season, and Heldig felt like all their hard work had paid off.

“I’ve worked pretty hard since last year, since I got hurt. I’ve seen these guys do a 180, and start working hard. It was great to see, and it’s great that it finally paid off. There were a lot of guys this summer that were out on that field doing stuff when no one was watching, and I think that came to show today in overtime,” Heldig said. 

Lawson felt a sense of relief, “I feel like we just got a little relief off our chest with the first win of the season.”

When talking about the penalties, Warren said, “we’ve got a lot of running to do on Monday.” Both Heldig and Lawson laughed it off, but the start of practice next week will be taxing, as the Thunderbirds will surely be running some sprints as punishment for their 17 penalties.

SUU will be on the road next week in Brookings, South Dakota, as they will take on the Jackrabbits of South Dakota State. South Dakota State was ranked No. 4 in the preseason FCS poll, and will be a big test for the Thunderbirds.

“We prepared great, I thought this week was the best week of practice,” said Warren. “We’ve got a tough week to prepare for a really good South Dakota team on the road. We have to prepare for the next 5 days, 6 days before we fly out there.”

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