PULLMAN — You don’t have to look at Southern Utah’s football team to believe what Washington State head coach Mike Leach has been saying for a couple days now.
That’s because SUU coach Ed Lamb put it in blunter terms.
“We’re a team that’s weight lifters first who happen to play football,” Lamb said Wednesday, and he wasn’t joking.
The Thunderbirds play Washington State in its home opener at Martin Stadium on Saturday. Yes, SUU plays in the Big Sky, a Football Championship Series league. Yes, SUU plays in a considerably smaller stadium and enjoys fewer resources than Pac-12 schools.
And yes, Leach recognizes that little of that matters against a team well-coached and intensely proud of its tough-guy, physical image.
As Lamb said: “The bus won’t be leaving until the end of the game anyway, so we’re going to go out and play as hard as we can and see what happens.”
That’s a philosophy that has served his team well. The Thunderbirds struggled to a 5-6 record last season, but they made headlines regardless: a Week 2, 50-31 loss at California was a 3-point game heading into the fourth quarter before the Bears pulled away late.
The difference in that final period, Lamb said, was obvious.
“The difference was depth and speed,” said Lamb, a former defensive coordinator at Idaho under then head coach Tom Cable. “They exposed us on special teams … (on) offense and defense, I thought we were able to hang in there.”
They more than hung in against Big Sky powers Eastern Washington and Montana, beating the Eagles at home when they were ranked No. 1 among Football Championship Series teams, and winning at Missoula.
That’s a feat not often accomplished, and WSU defensive coordinator Mike Breske — himself a former Montana assistant — sees the challenges a team like Southern Utah can present if the Cougars approach this game with anything less than maximum gusto.
The Thunderbirds appear to be following Lamb’s wish that they become a power-oriented rushing team. Last season, with star quarterback Brad Sorenson at the helm, SUU threw the ball 439 times for 3,139 yards, compared to 944 yards rushing on 330 carries.
But through two games this year, that script has flipped. They’ve rushed the ball 91 times. They’ve thrown it 41 times. New quarterback Aaron Cantu, who threw for a whole mess of yards at East Los Angeles College last season, has completed 70 percent of his passes.
But Lamb wants the Thunderbirds to establish themselves offensively without slinging the ball around all that much. Backs Raysean Martin and Malik Brown have split the rushing load nearly evenly.
“We always hoped to be in a position where we could run the ball better,” Lamb said. “One thing we noticed in the past was we had a tremendous live arm at quarterback that we just felt like more often than not, our best opportunity to move the ball was to have Brad throwing it. We’ve always aspired to be a physical run team, and we want to continue to try to develop that in any way we can.”
They’ll likely do that in different ways.
Breske said SUU runs the ball with “a lot of 1-back, zone read type plays, fool-type plays trying to get to the outside. They have a traditional fullback, heavy sets, 21, 22 personnel, power and lead. So they turn into a different philosophy, so we’ve got to prepare for both.”
Leach described the Thunderbirds on Monday as being “big, strong, kind of blocky-looking guys, and they hang onto stuff and move it around.”
“They’re a pretty good-sized group. They’re clearly dedicated to the weight room, no question.”