MISSOULA — Southern Utah’s Brad Sorensen was sacked seven times, had his helmet bounced off the Washington-Grizzly Stadium turf by Caleb Kidder and threw 23 incomplete passes Saturday.
“I don’t think I’ll be able to move tomorrow,” the Thunderbirds’ senior quarterback said. “I’m pretty sore right now.”
Translation: You should see the other guy.
Sorensen threw for two touchdowns and ran for another in Southern Utah’s 30-20 win over the Montana Grizzlies in front of 25,684 subdued fans. It was a landmark loss for the Griz, who before Saturday had never dropped two straight home games since their stadium opened in 1986.
It was a perfect storm of unproductive offense and special teams snafus that did them in. Montana led 17-13 at halftime but garnered just five first downs from there.
“We just had a ton of mistakes in different areas,” said Mick Delaney, the Grizzlies’ first-year head coach. “I thought our defense played very, very well today. The defense played well enough to win — but we have to win all three phases of the game.”
The Grizzly defense hassled Sorensen throughout and came up with a huge turnover with 9:24 left in the final quarter. Brock Coyle jarred the ball loose from running back Brian Wilson and John Kanongata’a recovered for UM at Southern Utah’s 38-yard line.
Down 20-17 Montana soon tied the game, but the possession was symptomatic. Peter Nguyen rushed for 14 yards on first down and then — nothing. Two more Nguyen runs went nowhere and Trent McKinney sailed a bomb out of the end zone.
Chris Lider came on and kicked a 42-yard field goal. There was 7:55 left and Southern Utah answered.
Sorensen, who threw for 294 yards, hit Fatu Moala for 12 yards on third-and-8 and then took off on a 14-yard scramble on the ensuing drive. It was at midfield, on third-and-3, that Sorensen was bulldogged by Kidder.
The quarterback got up woozily, and Southern Utah’s punt unit came on.
Brock Miller took the snap and ran 22 yards down to the UM 29. Colton Cook hit a 38-yard field goal to make it 23-20, Southern Utah, with 2:12 left.
“That was certainly, if there is such a thing, a momentum-changer,” Delaney said of the fake punt. “We stopped them; it was punt to us, and us maybe having a chance to go down and hit the field goal.”
The T-Birds kept the ball instead. It was one of many miscues for the Griz, who had two Lider field goal attempts blocked, saw Nguyen muff a punt to set up Southern Utah’s first TD and set up SUU on another short field via a 15-yard Stephen Shaw punt.
Just as puzzling was an offense that had 272 yards by halftime and then stalled.
“I’m not exactly sure what it was,” Delaney said. “We had I think five or six – not three-and-outs, but no production or very little production. A couple first downs here and there. We just seemed to break down in an area, either in protection, or the catch maybe, or the run. There are a lot of things I’m sure.”
Nguyen’s muff came after McKinney had hit Clay Pierson for 6 yards and a TD — Pierson’s first catch — at 3:36 of the first quarter, and the defense sacked Sorensen on back-to-back plays. Suddenly the Thunderbirds had the ball back on UM’s 7-yard line, and Sorensen hit Moala for the TD.
The visitors went ahead 13-10 at 6:06 of the second quarter on a 20-yard pass from Sorensen to Henna Brown; it came after Shaw’s shank set them up at UM’s 43.
“He’s a very good quarterback; he threw the ball well,” Delaney said of Sorensen. “But at the same time, really they had two touchdowns on offense when you look at the whole thing. Defensively we had great pressure.”
Montana jumped back in front with an 82-yard drive, keyed by Nguyen’s 39-yard burst and capped by McKinney’s 2-yard touchdown run with 2:06 left in the first half. A chance to move the lead to 20-13 ended when SUU’s Mike Needham came in and blocked Lider’s 34-yard field goal on the final play of the first half.
T-Birds’ safety Michael Byrd knocked down another Lider kick early in the fourth quarter.
“I thought really the difference was on defense,” said Southern Utah coach Ed Lamb. “I thought we moved the ball pretty well in both halves, but for the first time I thought our defense won enough physical matchups that Montana — who had some bigger plays and broken tackles in the first half, didn’t have that happen in the second half.”
It’s been a puzzling trend for the Griz, who stumbled out of halftime of their last home game, a 41-31 loss to Northern Arizona. After Cook made it 23-20, Montana turned it over on downs — a third-down pass dropped by Greg Hardy — with 1:14 remaining. On the next play Myles Crawford-Harris went 33 yards for a clinching TD.
Playoff hopes fading, the Griz will have to regroup for a road game at North Dakota on Saturday.
“It hurts to lose and I don’t care what you’re playing — tiddly winks, golf, football or whatever,” Delaney said.
“I honestly believe in this football team, I love this football team, and we’ll come back to work tomorrow and try to figure out a way to beat North Dakota.”