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September 11, 2013

Ask The Insider: SUU Preview



WazzuWatch.com is taking an in-depth look at the Cougars' home opener this Saturday against Southern Utah and caught up with Carter Williams to get an insider's view at the Thunderbirds.

Williams, a recent graduate of Southern Utah University, is the former Sports Director at SUU News and upon his graduation continues to write for the publication as an SUU News blogger.

We dive into a comprehensive Q&A to discuss what to expect under center, the offensive philosophy, who to look out for on defense and much more below.

WazzuWatch.com: Southern Utah QB Aaron Cantu, a junior college transfer from East Los Angeles College, led the NJCAA in passing last season with 3,358 yards and 32 touchdowns. He was able to participate in spring football and has looked rather comfortable in the offense thus far, coming off an efficient 15-of-16 for 136 yards and four touchdowns. What can the Cougars expect to see out of Cantu and how can the defense expect the Thunderbirds to attack the Cougars' blitz-happy multiple defense?

Carter Williams: I think that's going to be an interesting aspect to Saturday's game. I watched Washington State's game Saturday and was impressed with how the Cougars baffled USC's quarterbacks with its defensive package. Wazzu kept the Trojans on their toes almost all game long and forced both Cody Kessler and Max Wittek into making poor decisions-a combined 54.9 NCAA passer rating in the game.

Meanwhile, Cantu has been very efficient in his first two games as a T-Bird and certainly has done well as a game manager. He enters this game 28-of-40 for 319 yards and five touchdowns on the season, but more importantly, hasn't turned the ball over yet. That equates into a 178.2 NCAA passer rating, which is a big reason SUU is 2-0 to start the season with an FBS win in there.

But what I've liked most from Cantu early on is his ability to make quick decisions and his ability to make good decisions. The best example of this came on a fourth quarter drive at South Alabama where he brought SUU within 2 points on a pair of great passes, including a touchdown pass in the back of the end zone. He makes quick reads and has a rather quick release, which makes blitzing on him sort of a challenge.

We've yet to really see Cantu unleash the deep ball like I've seen in Spring ball and in his highlight reel from ELAC, but I imagine that day will come rather soon as Cantu gets more familiar with the playbook and his receivers.

From what I've seen from the T-Bird offense thus far, Wazzu should expect short passes, screens and draws, which also has the ability neutralize an aggressive defense. But if Wazzu makes defensive mistakes, Cantu will be quick to make them pay for it. Also, don't be surprised if SUU tries to establish the rush early with Malik Brown or Raysean Martin.

Cantu did struggle in the third quarter of that season opener at South Alabama and early into the fourth. There was a stretch where the T-Birds went 3-and-out four times in a row, but again, he did correct the issue offensively without turning the ball over.

I should also add Cantu has pretty big shoes to fill on campus because he's the first T-Bird QB after Brad Sorensen, who started three years, racked up more than 9,000 yards (3,000+ yards all three seasons) and 60 touchdowns in his college career. Sorensen also became SUU's first ever NFL draft pick earlier this year and now is now backing up Phillip Rivers in San Diego.

WW: Coming into the season it looked like the Thunderbirds were going to go with a committee approach via the running game. However, Raysean Martin looks to be distancing himself in that department after rushing for 107 yards in SUU's 22-21 victory over South Alabama. Is Martin going to receive the majority of the carries and how much does the offense predicate themselves on running the football?

CW: Martin's 107-yard game actually came at South Alabama. He didn't have too many carries last week against Ft. Lewis, presumably to be fresh for this week's matchup. SUU went more with Malik Brown, who dropped 58 yards on 12 carries and one touchdown in the big win over Ft. Lewis. However, of the several running backs SUU has used in the first two games this season, it certainly looks like Martin and Brown are the frontrunners for playing time. It's actually a welcoming sign for the T-Birds because the SUU rushing game was stagnant through the first two games last season.

SUU Head Coach Ed Lamb loves to run the ball and mix up the offense to make it less predictable. With Brown and Martin, he definitely has been allowed to do that thus far. Both are explosive and have the potential to find the gap and make the big run. In fact, in SUU's game-winning drive at South Alabama, SUU ran on all but two plays throughout the whole drive, and the Brown-Martin duo each contributed largely to that drive.

Not to put down any of SUU's former backs, but Martin has a certain speed and agility the T-Birds have lacked from that spot the past couple of years. He's got that "it" factor that I really began noticing in camp leading up to this season. He's very athletic and could play a factor this week. Brown has similar attributes, so expect them to see roughly equal playing time to allow each other to rest up and not tire as quickly.

If SUU's offensive line, anchored by FCS All-American candidate Gavin Farr, can establish a presence like it did at South Alabama, the T-Birds will run early and often, which will set up Cantu's passing.

WW: Who are the receiving threats that the Cougars should be wary of on the outside?

CW: SUU is loaded with receivers with experience. There's nobody with lightning-quick speed like some of the big name wide outs of the NCAA, but much like Oregon State found out against fellow Big Sky member Eastern Washington two weeks ago, there's nothing more difficult to cover than receivers that run good routes.

SUU has a pair of Utah transfers in Fatu Moala and Griff McNabb that suffice as Cantu's two top weapons. Moala is a bigger receiver at 6-foot-2, 180 pounds and is coming off a monster junior year, catching 65 passes for 810 yards and nine touchdowns. It's that effort that led him to a 1st team all-Big Sky preseason pick and other various preseason awards for this season.

McNabb, on the other hand, is much smaller at 5-foot-7, 165 pounds. He's more of a Danny Woodhead, Wes Welker-type receiver, who caught 30 passes in 2012 and two touchdowns. McNabb leads the T-Birds early this season with 9 catches for 116 yards, while Moala has five for just 45 yards.

SUU also has some quality options in Easton Pedersen and Chandler Allphin, who much like Moala, run on the bigger side. There's also Wyoming transfer C.J. Morgan who tweeted this week he's got an infection in his knee, which possibly makes his status unsure for Saturday. If he's available, he's an athletic receiver that adds to the depth SUU has at that position.

One of SUU's biggest threats in the red zone this year has been tight end Anthony Norris, who has six catches and three touchdowns in the first two games SUU has played this season. Believe it or not, no T-Bird tight end even caught a pass throughout the entire 2012 season.

WW: On the defensive side, the Thunderbirds are yielding just 275 total yards per game to their opponents after two solid defensive performances, including last weeks' shutout and a road victory against FBS-opponent South Alabama in week one. What is SUU's identity on defense and what type formation will they throw at the Cougars' Air-Raid attack? How does this defense matchup against a spread offense that hopes to throw the football over 60 times per game?

CW: SUU is smaller, but very athletic throughout the board on defense. You'll see a traditional 4-3 defense most of the time, but the three linebackers (Matt Holley, Zak Browning and Chad Hansen) cover a lot of ground quickly enough that it almost feels like a 3-4. I wouldn't be surprised if the coaches shook up the defense a tad just to create a new fold of the defense not found on the tapes.

I imagine by now the T-Bird defense is conditioned well enough knowing the physical aspect of Saturday's game, which will be how many snaps Wazzu takes. The coaching staff turned up the heat in the weight rooms in the preseason to simulate the heat and the humidity of the South, and it worked because the defense seemed to never get too tired in the win over South Alabama. They actually simulate a lot of different conditions on a week-to-week basis.

The defensive in general is pretty young on all ends of the board, but loaded with experience. There are a lot of sophomores (Browning, James Cowser and Miles Killebrew) that played big last year. Seniors Tommy Collett and Chad Hansen have also opened the season strongly for SUU.

WW: Who are the playmakers on the defensive side of the ball? At first glance, the Thunderbirds have a few capable defenders in the front seven including defensive lineman James Cowser. Will that front seven be able to create an adamant amount of pressure based on what you've seen through the first two weeks of 2013?

CW: I think SUU's front seven has a strong chance to be at least pesky on Saturday. You mention Cowser, who had a big freshman year with 7.5 sacks and 13.5 tackles for loss. He's someone that has able to keep that same intensity from practice to practice and he might give Wazzu's offensive line fits. He's continued that success early with 16 tackles already this season (4.5 for loss). He also added a sack last week.

Meanwhile, SUU's linebacking corps is certainly the T-Birds' best feature. Matt Holley has been lights out in his first two games following an LDS mission, making 16 tackles in SUU's first two games this year, 5.5 tackles for loss, one forced fumble, two fumble recoveries and a defensive touchdown. He was named Big Sky Defensive Player of the Week on Monday.

Zak Browning, the 2012 Big Sky Freshman of the Year and SUU's leading tackler from 2012, has kept up his freshman numbers, compiling 15 tackles with one sack so far year. Chad Hansen, who led SUU with 106 tackles in 2011, has added 14 tackles and a forced fumble thus far.

The trio of Cowser, Holley and Browning combined for 37 tackles (6 for loss) in SUU's win over South Alabama. It will be interesting to see how those three in particular play against the spread, but I think they have the ability to be at least pesky to the Cougars.

Outside those front seven, Tommy Collett is a big playmaker on the defensive secondary. Dating back to last year, he's picked off a pass in his last three games, including a crucial game-shifting interception in the fourth quarter of SUU's South Alabama win two weeks ago. Miles Killebrew is another guy that has the potential to make big plays. He scooped up a fumble last week and returned it 89 yards for a touchdown. He also blocked a punt and returned it for a touchdown last year in an upset win over Eastern Washington.

WW: Last season's Thunderbirds team went into California and gave the Golden Bears all they could handle before tiring down throughout the second half. After the victory over South Alabama and the demolishing of Fort Lewis, how confident is this team coming into Pullman after an impressive start to the season?

CW: I think the confidence is pretty high heading into Saturday. The T-Birds are 2-0 to start the season for the first time since 2006 (Lamb likes to schedule early FBS games) and like you said, SUU gave Cal all it could handle until the fourth quarter. It was 20-17 heading into the fourth quarter and SUU had all the momentum of the third quarter. It wasn't until the T-Birds made two mistakes in the final quarter (Brad Sorensen pick-6 and an unbelievable Keenan Allen punt return for a TD) that ended any upset chance.

The T-Birds are actually 2-2 against FBS teams in the past three seasons, nothing as big as a Pac-12 win, but still it looks good. I guess it's actually 3-2 if you consider UTSA, which is FBS now, but wasn't in 2011. Beating South Alabama was a big confidence booster for the T-Birds, while Ft. Lewis was more of just making sure to sustain that confidence heading into this week.

WW: Overall thoughts on the game Saturday?

CW: Like any matchup between an FBS and FCS team, the FCS team has no room for error. Consider that Eastern Washington upset over Oregon State two weeks ago, EWU made no mistakes. No turnovers. Vernon Adams could do no wrong and still Oregon State almost completed a game-tying drive in a little more than a minute. It doesn't matter what the two teams are, the FCS team can't afford to make mistakes.

I think the T-Bird defensive needs to be aggressive, attacking after Halliday and forcing him to make poor decisions, while the offense can't turn the ball over and minimize any 3-and-outs. It's a lot to ask for, but it's not completely impossible. It's also been the key to the two FBS wins in SUU's program history.

Also, Halliday can't continue his current TD to INT ratio. I'm sure that's something Cougar fans have been frustrated with to start this season. UNLV learned the hard way in 2011, when SUU cashed in on three pick-6s on its way to beating the Rebels 41-16. Now, I'm not foolish enough to compare this year's Washington State squad to the 2011 UNLV team, but the reason I bring it up is, the FBS school still can't act like every FCS school is a part of the Little Sisters of the Poor. I guess that's one reason how seven FCS schools, including SUU, defeated FBS schools on the opening weekend of this season.




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