Suddenly, the Big Sky Conference’s best-kept secret isn’t such a secret anymore.
In a game televised throughout the Intermountain West on Root Sports, the Southern Utah University football team went into one of the conference’s toughest road venues in frigid Bozeman, Montana, and came away with a convincing 34-23 win over Montana State.
The T-Birds, now 7-2 and riding a school-record seven-game winning streak, rose to No. 15 in this week’s Football Championship Subdivision coaches’ poll and No. 18 in the FCS STATS poll. More importantly, they opened up a one-game lead over Eastern Washington for the top spot in the Big Sky Conference standings.
Now, everyone who follows Big Sky football from Washington to North Dakota knows who the T-Birds are.
Such things were once merely pipe dreams in Cedar City, where SUU brings in the least revenue of any Big Sky athletic program.
But money doesn’t matter when your team is loaded with high-end talent, particularly on the defensive side of the ball.
Defensive lineman James Cowser, a former Fremont High School standout, set a new Big Sky Conference and FCS record for tackles-for-loss. The former record holder? None other than Jared Allen, who continues to have a stellar NFL career after his time at Idaho State.
Cowser’s defensive line coach, Tooele High graduate Ryan Hunt, knows a thing or two about how good Allen is, having faced him during his own career as a starting offensive lineman at SUU.
How much do you think the other in-state schools wish they hadn’t missed out on Cowser, projected by experts as a mid-round pick in this spring’s NFL Draft? Utah probably doesn’t need the help, but BYU and Utah State wouldn’t mind having the FCS All-American in their front seven.
And then there’s hard-hitting safety Miles Killebrew, a future NFL prospect in his own right. It seems that every time there’s a big hit to be made, No. 28 is right in the middle of it. The fact that the Las Vegas native was passed over by UNLV just goes to show why the Rebels continue to languish in mid-major mediocrity — or worse, given the beatdown they received on their home field against SUU a few years back.
Cornerback LeShaun Sims is another one that UNLV let get away, allowing him to head 180 miles north on Interstate 15. Sims nearly had an interception late in Saturday’s game, and has been a key element of a defense that leads the FCS in turnover margin. Both Sims and Killebrew are pegged as likely late-round NFL draft picks.
Most FCS teams are lucky to have one NFL prospect on their roster. The T-Birds have three on the same side of the ball. That bodes well for their conference title hopes, as well as for their hopes of advancing beyond the opening round of the postseason for the first time.
The T-Birds face Portland State in their final road game of the regular season Saturday. A win over the Vikings would clinch a share of the conference title.
SUU wraps up the regular season Nov. 20 at home against Northern Arizona.
Darren Vaughan is a veteran sports writer from Moab, Utah. Seeing SUU football on something other than public-access television made him feel like his alma mater has hit the big time — or maybe not. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.