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Homegrown seniors anchor Southern Utah’s defense heading into playoff matchup with Weber State


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CEDAR CITY — Southern Utah football is getting familiar with big games.

Whether it's defeating four ranked opponents this year or returning to the FCS playoffs for the third time in five years, the T-Birds are earning time in the spotlight.

Two homegrown seniors who've been there for the big games and are ready for one more shot in the postseason include senior linebacker Mike Needham and senior defensive tackle Robert Torgerson.

Their next big-stage opportunity comes Saturday (6 p.m. MST, ESPN3) when the T-Birds (9-2) host in-state rival Weber State (10-2) at Eccles Coliseum in the second round of the playoffs. It's the school's first home playoff game.

SUU beat the Wildcats 32-16 earlier this year at Stewart Stadium in Ogden, and the teams shared the Big Sky championship after posting 7-1 league records. That may as well be ancient history for this matchup, though.

"We definitely take some pride in beating them earlier this season, but then again, that was earlier this season," Torgerson said. "We’re just worried about us, what we do and how we execute."

Both Needham, who hails from St. George, and Torgerson, a native of Richfield, have made big defensive plays in the program's previous two playoff appearances.

Sam Houston State beat SUU 51-20 in 2013, then the T-Birds held a 39-26 edge when the two teams met again in the postseason two years later, only to have the Bearkats rally past Southern Utah for the 42-39 win.

This year, Weber State sports a balanced offense that features the Big Sky's leader in passing efficiency in quarterback Stefan Cantwell and an All-American tight end in Andrew Vollert.

"They don’t beat themselves," SUU coach Demario Warren said. "It’s one of those offenses where you’ve got to be locked in every single play or else they’ll hit home runs on you."

No. 8/11 Weber State at No. 12/13 Southern Utah

Saturday, 6 p.m. MST

Eccles Coliseum, Cedar City


Radio: KLO 1430 AM


Needham and Torgerson have proven they can stop big plays as well as make their own.

Two years ago as a sophomore, Needham started against Sam Houston State and had eight tackles, a tackle for loss and two pass breakups in the three-point loss. He also blocked a 27-yard field attempt just before the half and came up with two big third-down stops on back-to-back possessions in the second half that prevented the Bearkats from scoring despite reaching SUU territory.

Needham is a first-team All-Big Sky defender this year and the team's leading tackler with 89 stops in 2017, to go along with 6.5 tackles for loss, six pass breakups, six pass deflections, a fumble recovery and a QB hurry.

"When everybody sees him doing well, I think the whole defense feeds off of it. He’s been in a lot of big games, and when he makes plays in big games, we do very, very well," Warren said of Needham.

They'll need big plays Saturday. In the 2015 playoff loss to Sam Houston State, the Bearkats scored the game's final 16 points, including the go-ahead score with 3:44 to play in a three-point game.

"I kinda think we could have given a little bit more," Needham said of that loss. "Now, coming into this year, we know that every play is going to matter. If we mess up too much, the season’s over. My senior season’s over. It’s going to help me give it all I have each and every play."

The T-Birds will be gunning to make game-changing plays defensively against Weber State, ones like Torgerson had in Southern Utah's first postseason appearance in 2013. In the third quarter, Torgerson recovered a fumble forced by fellow defensive lineman James Cowser, now with the Oakland Raiders, and took the fumble recovery 39 yards for a touchdown. It was SUU's final score of the game in the 51-20 loss.

"He's a manpower, he’s a diesel," Needham said of Torgerson. "He sacrifices himself to help the team. That’s what we’re all about, trying to do our part to help the team win."

His impact on the interior of the line helped Torgerson earn freshman All-America honors in 2013 and second-team All-Big Sky accolades this year.

"Every quarterback knows who he is. Even if he hasn’t sacked them, he’s hit a lot of quarterbacks and he’s always in their face. They can’t really step up in the pocket because he gets so much pressure. He’s a guy that really pushes the pocket for us," Warren said.

Torgerson missed the 2015 playoff game against Sam Houston State. He redshirted that season while he was academically ineligible, and admitted it stung watching as his teammates won SUU's first Big Sky championship that year and reached the playoffs.

"I use that more as motivation to keep this year going and to do everything that I can to make sure that this team is ready and we’re playing top-notch come Saturday," Torgerson said.