Southern Utah’s defense faces big test against Eastern Washington

(STATS) – Big Sky offenses know that when they line up against Southern Utah, they’re going to be in for a physical game and have to be especially careful protecting the ball.

Notorious for forcing turnovers, coach Demario Warren’s defense is the reason the Thunderbirds are right in the thick of the Big Sky race.

Fresh off its best defensive showing of the season, Southern Utah now faces its biggest test Saturday when it hosts one of the FCS’ most explosive offenses in eighth-ranked Eastern Washington, which also happens to be one of the most turnover-prone.

Warren took over the reins at Southern Utah (4-2, 2-1) in 2016 after spending the previous two seasons as the team’s defensive coordinator, and under his guidance the Thunderbirds have had a nose for the football. A year ago, only James Madison and Coastal Carolina had more interceptions than Southern Utah’s 20, and its 32 forced turnovers were tied for the most. It had the same number of picks and one fewer takeaway in 2015.

“They don’t beat themselves – they don’t turn the ball over and on defense they cause turnovers,” Eastern Washington coach Aaron Best said. “They make you try to beat them, because they are not going to themselves out of position.”

The Thunderbirds aren’t quite generating turnovers at the same clip as the past two seasons – 12 through six games – but the swarming defense is creating headaches for opposing offenses.

They’re 11th in the FCS with 8.2 tackles for loss per game and junior linebacker Chinedu Ahanonu has nine for loss – fourth-most in Big Sky.

On the road at then-No. 18 Weber State last Saturday, Southern Utah did not allow an offensive touchdown while the defense was responsible for one of its own as Chance Bearnson scored on a 13-yard interception return in the Thunderbird’s 32-16 upset. It yielded a season-low 250 yards and stopped the Wildcats on 12 of 14 3rd down attempts.

In its four wins, Southern Utah has permitted an average of 16.3 points, and since being blitzed by Oregon in the season opener, it is surrendering an average of just 212 passing yards. That’s the kind of number Eastern Washington fans are used to seeing Gage Gubrud put up in a half.

A top-three finisher for the 2016 STATS FCS Walter Payton Award, the star quarterback leads the subdivision in total offense this season with 2,515 yards to go with 25 total touchdowns. Gubrud’s favorite target with 52 receptions is Nic Sblendorio, but he is just one of several receivers SUU has to worry about as EWU likes to spread the ball around with 11 players catching a touchdown pass.

“They like to attack you,” Warren said. “They like to stretch you sideline to sideline and attack you deep so you got to cover the whole football field.”

Since totaling 23 points in opening with losses to Texas Tech and No. 2 North Dakota State, Eastern Washington averaged nearly 50 points and more than 600 yards in winning its next four games. Despite putting up those ridiculous numbers, the Eagles have been playing with fire all season, regularly coughing up the ball.

Turning the ball over typically spells certain doom, but EWU has managed to overcome its 17 giveaways – two fewer than it had in 14 games last season. Only seven FCS teams have more turnovers than the Eagles and none have a winning record, as they’ve combined for a .205 winning percentage.

“We try to get turnovers each and every week, and obviously you don’t like to go against an offense that scores 40 points a game,” Warren said. “It’ll be a challenge and even though they’re turning the ball over they’re putting some points on the board. We just got to execute each and every play. I don’t think there is anything we can take advantage of, we just hope we can contain them a little bit and slow them down on offense.”

The Eagles’ sloppiness nearly came back to bite them last weekend against Montana State, as they had three turnovers – including fumbles on back-to-back possessions in the fourth quarter. Their defense, however, stepped up and forced turnovers on the Bobcats’ final two possessions – one just outside the red zone – to hang on for a 31-19 win.

“We withstood a few storms and made things interesting,” Best said.

While turnovers have been a concern for Best, so is a trip to Cedar City. Southern Utah knocked off then-No. 21 Northern Iowa at Eccles Coliseum a month ago and has won 11 of 12 at home since the start of 2015.

“The elevation is different there, it’s a little higher up,” Best said. “That’s something that we can’t replicate here in Cheney. You have to hold serve at home and they’ve done a great job of doing that.”