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CEDAR CITY — With a new turf under its feet, the Southern Utah football team will make its 2012 home debut Saturday night against New Mexico-Highlands, in search of its first victory of the season.
The Thunderbirds (0-2) will take a break from back-to-back weeks at FBS schools to take on Division II NMHU Saturday at Eccles Coliseum.
The T-Birds are coming off a 50-31 loss at Cal last week. Even with an 0-2 start, Lamb said he has already seen a "linear progression" of the team.
"Our team got better from Week 1 to Week 2," Lamb said. "We had opportunities to win the game at Cal and didn't capitalize on those opportunities. We created some bad misfortune for ourselves in the fourth quarter that took us out of the game.
SUU hung tough in the loss, heading into the fourth quarter trailing just 20-17 — and offensive momentum was shifting in the T-Birds' favor, before it all collapsed under a pair of mistakes.
The T-Birds found success running the ball, which helped SUU remain in the game with its time of possession control.
"There were huge strides by our offense, particularly in the second half (at Cal)," Lamb said. "We wanted to run the ball and run the clock, which gives our defense the opportunity to be off the field."
SUU's offensive struggles appeared to continue in the first half last week, until quarterback Brad Sorensen found receiver Cameron Morgan in the back of the end zone on a Hail Mary that wound up No. 1 on Sports Center's Top 10 Plays Saturday night.
Morgan said the play in itself shouldn't have happened — and would not have had fellow receiver Fatu Moala not drawn a pass interference penalty on the original final play of the first half to give the T-Birds another chance to chuck the ball into the end zone.
"Had Fatu not fought for the ball, my play never happens," Morgan said. "At the end of the day, football is always a team effort. It takes all 11 every time."
Sorensen said the play drawn up in itself was a fluke to begin with.
"We hadn't practiced that play all year," Sorensen admitted. "I don't think we knew exactly what our assignments were. All I was trying to do was buy time for them to get down to the end zone, and once they were down there I was just trying to find somebody."
Morgan said his phone lit up the rest of the day with messages from friends congratulating him on the catch and recognition on ESPN, which caught him off guard.
"It's something I've watched all the time and to see yourself on it — it's crazy," he said.
Though the play was nice, it also woke up SUU's offense. Sorensen went on to complete 31-of-45 passes for 292 yards and four touchdowns.
"I think it sparked a little bit of something," Morgan said. "That first drive (after halftime), Brad was on fire and I really feel like we kept that rhythm the rest of the game — and hopefully into (Saturday's game).
SUU will now look for win No. 1 this week in its home opener.
"I think we have tough-minded guys that came out and practiced and are working in the weight room really hard," he said. "We'll be a better team each week. I have great confidence in the direction we're going."
The T-Birds' opponent, NMHU (2-0) has obliterated its first two opponents this season, starting with a 42-14 victory of Eastern New Mexico on Sept. 1 and a 50-0 victory at Fort Lewis last week — although against much lesser opponents than SUU's FBS competition thus far.
Despite the drop to a Division II opponent this week, T-Bird Head Coach Ed Lamb said that won't mean SUU's players will take the Cowboys lightly one bit.
"New Mexico-Highlands is a good football team," Lamb said. "They've got to be one of the best Division II football teams in the country. They have a lot of very, very good players — players that could play anywhere. They won their first two contests by a combined score of 92-14."
The T-Birds will look to continue its success running the ball it found last week. In the loss, Brian Wilson stepped out as a potential starting running back candidate with 71 yards on 17 carries, as well as a touchdown catch.
Lamb said finding a consistent running game will only benefit SUU down the road.
"It's not all positive to start whipping the ball down the field," he said. "We have to continue to strive to be the best balanced offensive football team we can be."
SUU will also have a new field to work on. The T-Birds moved its practices to its new turf field inside the Centrum Arena, which was added over the summer.
The new field has gotten almost all positive reviews from the SUU players.
"This field is amazing," Morgan said. "I'd like to thank all the sponsors and everything that has been done to get us this. I think it's going to be a great game and we're lucky to have it."
Kickoff against the Cowboys is slated for 6 p.m. Saturday at Eccles Coliseum in Cedar City.