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CEDAR CITY — After boasting a prolific passing offense but struggling to run the ball much of last year, Southern Utah's football staff set a goal to create a running game this fall. If Saturday's 80-play scrimmage was any indication, that goal is definitely within reach.
The Thunderbirds ran for 276 yards, a total offensive coordinator Steve Clark said "was probably more yards than we had all last year." Although Clark was exaggerating, it was still an impressive day for a squad that picked up just 673 yards on the ground in 11 games in 2008.
Sophomore Austin Minefee ran for 155 yards on 10 carries, including an 81 yarder on his final carry, while Kennie Apilli had 11 carries for 67 yards. Brandon Godfrey picked up 33 yards on three carries late in the scrimmage.
"We'd love to duplicate that every week," head coach Ed Lamb said. "That's kind of who those guys are. Kennie gets the tough yardage, you notice Kennie runs in there with two hands on the ball, he protects the football really well, he didn't get us into any fumble trouble like a couple of the other backs did. Austin's a guy we've told along that he can take it the distance at any time and that's kind of what he showed today, he made what some other guys might have had as a 15-18 yard gain into a long gain by outrunning the secondary."
If not for a good play by sophomore safety Tyson Turley, who ran Minefee down on the four yard line, the 81-yarder would have been an 85-yard touchdown run.
"Tyson can run, too," Lamb noted. "He had the angle, and he took the correct angle, and Austin ran out of gas a little bit."
Both Lamb and Clark pointed out that the runs became longer as the scrimmage wore on.
"Our offense continued to play hard all day so that what started out as one- and two-yard gains in the running game became three- and four-yard gains and then seven- and eight-yard gains and as the size of the offense was able to wear down the defense ... it eventually became [an 81-yard gain]," Lamb pointed out.
Clark noted that his job is to be patient and let the running game develop as the game goes on.
"It's on the offensive coordinator not to get impatient and want to throw it a million times," he said. "We've just got to stick with it when it's not happening early and it will pay off down the line. It helps the team as a whole, it keeps the defense off the field, it shortens games we need to shorten, and it's a physical presence."
Clark added that the team needs to have both the run and the pass, and his squad had its share of success throwing the ball Saturday as well.
The biggest highlight for the aerial attack came early, as Cade Cooper hit Jared Ursua on a sideline route, then Ursua turned it in and outran the secondary for a 70 yard touchdown on just the second play of the scrimmage. Cooper and Ursua hooked up again one a nine-yard scoring pass later in the game, then after Minefee's long run, Cooper found tight end Abbel Aiono on a fade pass for the final score of the day.
Cooper completed 13-of-18 passes for 199 yards and the three scores, while freshmen J.J. Mayer and Ammon Olsen completed three-of-five for 24 yards and three-of-eight for 24 yards, respectively. Sophomore Zach Olsen completed two-of-three passes for nine yards and also ran for 24 yards.
Ursua led SUU's receivers with three receptions for 87 yards and the two touchdowns, while Aiono had three for 33 yards and a score and freshman Drake Eckholdt also had three catches, for 21 yards. In all, 11 different Thunderbirds had receptions Saturday.
The defense definitely had its moments in the scrimmage as well, with the highlight a leaping interception of a Cooper pass by junior nickel-back D.J. Lucchesi that brought a loud reaction from both the players and the crowd. Lucchesi had three solo tackles to go along with the interception and drew his coach's praise.
"I liked D.J. Lucchesi," Lamb said. "He had several nice hits and that interception he got was a really pretty play. It was a smart play, too, where he put himself on the field in that down-and-distance situation was really smart."
Freshman lineman James Cowser also got Lamb's attention.
"I liked the way our young freshman James Cowser was rushing the passer," he pointed out. "He showed up today with a sack and several hurries. He's a real nice pass rusher and he's put on about 25 pounds since we signed him, so he's putting in the work to be a player on the field in his first year and backing it up with some good solid performance."
Marlon Hogains, who moved from wide receiver to cornerback in the spring, linebacker Troy Bunting and safety Blake Fenn were the team's leading tacklers, with six each, and Hogains also broke up a pass and had a tackle-for-loss. Cody Heinreich was in on three sacks and in addition to Cowser Trent Barney, Jeff Tukuafu, Chad Westwood and Andrew Eide each got to the quarterback once. Cowser's sack came in the end zone for a safety.