Against the Southern Utah football team, what opponents like UC Davis see is what they get.
In running back Raysean Martin, the Thunderbirds have a 5-foot-11, 185-pound freshman from Oakland who has found his stride and stands at 311 yards rushing with five touchdowns.
In junior quarterback Aaron Cantu, SUU has an East Los Angeles College transfer that has completed 70 percent of his passes, good for seven scores.
In tight end Anthony Norris (11 catches, three TDs) and wideout Fatu Moala (26 grabs for 303 yards), the T-Birds have two reliable receivers for Cantu.
Mix in outstanding special teams and these Thunderbirds are a possession-happy squad that — even if the offense stalls — can pin their foes deep in their own territory.
Southern Utah (4-1) presents the next challenge for UCD (1-4) as the Aggies invade Cedar City, Utah, on Saturday. Both squads have an opportunity to run their Big Sky Conference records to 2-0.
“They are well-coached in all three phases of the game,” first-year UCD coach Ron Gould said of his next opponent. “The corners do a tremendous job in coverages … they don’t give up the big play. They run with power. They have 85 different ways to run and they don’t turn the ball over (five interceptions, one fumble lost).”
But in carding their impressive start, the T-Birds have had to scramble.
In wins over South Alabama (22-21), Sacramento State (24-21 in OT) and last week against Northern Colorado (27-21), SUU had to come from behind.
Special teams — especially place kicker Colton Cook and punter Brock Miller — have kept the Thunderbirds in games and the inches-at-a-time offense has given Southern Utah a handsome 34:40-25:20 time-of-possession advantage. The T-Birds also have converted 40 percent of their third-down tries.
“Number one, you have to give credit to the defensive front and our secondary for rallying to contain,” veteran SUU coach Ed Lamb said, adding that the attitude of Cantu “has allowed him to grow” and his daily demeanor has lifted the whole team.
Despite UCD holding a 10-6 all-time series advantage, it was thrashed, 34-3, in the two squads’ last meeting in Cedar City in 2011. Also, Southern Utah has a three-game win streak against the Ags.
But Lamb said what has happened in the past means nothing Saturday.
“When Bob Biggs was there, Davis was … the most fundamentally sound team in conference,” Lamb told the Big Sky media on Wednesday. “With coach Gould, nothing has changed. From what I’ve seen, Davis can sting you.
“They are very difficult to predict. It’s a good multiple system … they play hard and they’re smart guys.”
With UCD running back Gabe Manzanares coming off a 208-yard rushing performance in last week’s 30-13 win over visiting Idaho State, the City College of San Francisco transfer and his front line could be hard-pressed to keep the chains moving.
Southern Utah has allowed less than 100 yards a game on the ground — only 3.6 yards per carry.
However, Lamb hinted that Manzanares could be emerging as something special …
“He’s the quintessential UCD back,” the T-Birds coach continued. “We always respect the effort they bring. I was super-impressed with (Manzanares’) break-out game.”
Lamb says senior Aggie QB Randy Wright (201 yards, two TDs against ISU) was terrific off the bench and consistently baffled the Bengals with his fade-route throws and his new-found mobility (he rushed for 11 yards for a key first down).
Despite Wright’s relief effort of Jimmy Laughrea last Saturday, Gould indicated that competition for this week’s starting nod continues in practice.
That said, Lamb has his guys working practice schemes for either.
“Both are good QBs,” Lamb told the press. “We have to be prepared for both, but I was impressed with how Wright ran the offense.”
In the 34-3 loss in 2011, Wright was 14-for-23 for 150 yards and was sacked three times. As a freshman, Wright led the 2010 Aggies to a 17-13 Homecoming win over SUU — completing 25-of-34 for 260 yards and a touchdown.
Defensive end James Cowser, a 6-foot-4, 245-pound force from Davis High (the one in Fruit Heights, Utah) will be someone to stay away from. Cowser has three sacks and 32 tackles. Linebacker Zak Browning has accounted for 43 stops and has forced a couple of fumbles.
Both are sophomores and Lamb believes both have their best football ahead.
Notes: The T-Birds have their only back-to-back home games of the season (Portland State invades next week). … At 4-1, Southern Utah is off to its best Division I start in history. … Laughrea, the sophomore transfer from Boise State, hasn’t faced the Thunderbirds. … SUU has seven players ranked in 12 of the top 50 Football Championship Subdivision categories, including punter Miller (19th with a 43.1 average) and Cook (13th in field goals per game). … Five Big Sky teams have made it into the most recent NCAA coaches poll: Montana State (No. 7), Eastern Washington (No. 9), Montana (12), Northern Arizona (19) and Cal Poly (19). Portland State received votes. North Dakota State is a unanimous No. 1. UCD has Montana, Montana State and Cal Poly (along with Sacramento State, North Dakota and Northern Colorado) remaining on its schedule after Saturday. … The Thunderbirds’ only loss is 48-10 at Washington State on Sept. 14.
— Reach Bruce Gallaudet at email@example.com or 530-747-8047.