For the first time in 12 games, the Southern Utah University T-birds know what it's like to win.
Led by freshman quarterback Ryan Zimmerman, the T-birds erased a 14-0 first-quarter deficit en route to the 22-21 victory over No. 17 Stephen F. Austin (Div. I-AA).
Now, SUU first-year head football coach Gary Andersen plans to build on it.
"When you get that first win it's a huge relief," Andersen said. "Even though we had nothing to do with the last 10 losses from last year, it's on your back. It's a huge stepping stone and something for us to look at. We know we can make plays and win football games when we have to."
The T-birds fell 24-23 in their season opener at Nevada-Reno of the Western Athletic Conference. They also had several special teams muffs that led to the loss.
A week later, the offense was non-existent in a 13-3 loss to Weber State.
"I challenged them at half by telling them we're in this position for the third time, let's see who'll play tough and who'll compete," Andersen said.
In the second half, the T-birds responded to his plea.
Before leaving with a concussion, T-bird starter Casey Rehrer threw for 137 yards. Zimmerman picked up where Rehrer left off and threw for 182 yards and two scores.
"It gives us some confidence in Ryan in a game situation," Andersen said. "He was able to show us that he can lead the team. The kids rallied around him and won the football game."
However, it was a complete team effort in the second half that led to the victory in front of nearly 7,000 fans at Eccles Coliseum.
The offense converted three fourth-down situations in its final two drives; Justin Walterscheid put the T-birds on the SFA 18 with a 36-yard punt return with less than to minutes to go to set up the winning score, and on special teams, Wes Patterson ran in for the two-point conversion.
Finally, Grant Smith came up with a huge interception after Steve Smith forced the ball loose with a big on SFA's final possession.
"It was unbelievable. The kids scored twice with less than six minutes left," Andersen said. "It was a good night to say the least. It was a step, but it's a huge, huge giant step."
The T-birds complied 411 yards total offense (319 passing), while defensively, the held SFA to just 115 yards rushing.
TRUE FRESHMEN: Zimmerman and freshman Jake Box (Bountiful High) hooked up for SUU's final touchdown.
"I saw the play call and I saw a freshman to freshman beat Stephen F. Austin," Andersen said.
The twosome hooked up for a three-yard touchdown pass with 15 seconds left in the game.
NO QB CONTROVERSY: Andersen said Rehrer is still the starter despite Zimmerman's second-half heroics. Rehrer, who was knocked out of the game for three series at Nevada, will be re-evaluated today. Andersen will wait for that evaluation before naming a starter for Saturday's game at Eastern Washington of the Big Sky Conference.
"Right now it's a tough one to say," he said. "We have two kids that can play."
NOTABLE PERFORMANCES: WR A.J. Smith hauled in seven balls for 133 yards and Chuck Henderson had four receptions for 63 yards. Andy Hadfield, who transferred from BYU one week before SUU's opener with Reno, had two catches for 25 yards.
Hurricane High product Cory Ashby led the T-birds in rushing with eight carries for 37 yards.
COX RETURNS: Tremaine Cox, who had a 91-yard kick return against Reno, returned from injury against SFA and had one kick return for 20 yards.
SCORE: Southern Utah 22, Stephen F. Austin 21
RECORDS: Southern Utah 1-2, Stephen F. Austin 2-1, 0-0
OFFENSE: Starter Casey Rehrer and backup Ryan Zimmerman combined to throw for 319 yards — the most by the T-birds since Rick Robins threw for 324 in 1995 against St. Mary's. GRADE: A-
DEFENSE: The defense created a turnover late in the game, and held SFA to just 115 yards rushing. GRADE: A-
SPECIAL TEAMS: Justin Walterscheid, who has been hampered by a bad hamstring, had three punt returns for 72 yards. His final return put the T-birds on the SFA 18. GRADE: A
NEXT UP: Southern Utah at Eastern Washington, Saturday, 7:05 p.m. (MDT), TV: none. Radio: KSUB 590 AM (Cedar City)