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CEDAR CITY, Utah -- With an upset in mind, Southern Utah quarterback Brad Sorensen's hail mary attempt at the end of regulation was deflected and picked off as the Thunderbirds fell short of shocking No. 2 FCS Montana State 24-17 Saturday afternoon at Eccles Coliseum.
"I'm proud of their effort," SUU Head Coach Ed Lamb said. "I couldn't be more proud of the fight the guys put in. We expected to win and we worked hard to win, and so there's disappointment there from our players — and disappointment by me on our execution. But these guys are tough, they'll fight back — there's still a lot of season left and still a lot of things to fight for."
With the loss, SUU falls to 2-3 overall on the season and 1-1 in Big Sky Conference play.
With three minutes left in regulation, SUU drove the ball down to the MSU 27-yard line. Sorensen chucked the ball in the end zone to receiver Mitch Jessop, where the ball was tipped and bounced 10 feet above the receiver and was intercepted by Bobcat defender Steven Bethley in the back of the end zone.
The play in itself almost came down as déjà vu for the T-Birds, appearing to come down almost exactly the same as SUU's hail mary connection to Cameron Morgan in the first half of SUU's loss to California earlier this month. Had the ball been caught, SUU would have been able to force overtime against the Big Sky favorite.
"I thought for sure Mitch was going to come down with it," Sorensen said. "I mean he comes down with more than half the balls that are thrown his way. We put the ball in our best guy's hands, but unfortunately we didn't get this win."
Sorensen led SUU's offense with 250 yards passing on 25-of-47 attempts and two touchdowns. However, the receiving corps struggled, dropping more than three passes of 30-yards or more in the game. Sorensen also was picked off twice, including the final jump ball on the hail mary deflection at the end of the game.
Jessop led SUU's receivers for the second consecutive week, catching six passes for 97 yards and a touchdown. Fellow receiver Griff McNabb added 70 yards on six catches, and running back Brian Wilson caught a 6-yard touchdown pass for SUU in the loss.
Wilson added 70 yards on the ground for the T-Birds.
MSU quarterback DeNarius McGhee led the Bobcat offense with 211 yards passing, including the game-winning 3-yard touchdown pass to tight end Brian Flotkoetter with 2:59 left in the game.
Running back Orenzo Davis added 123 yards and a touchdown for the Bobcats.
SUU's defense, which allowed 42 points in a win over Portland State, played considerably better in Saturday's loss. The T-Bird defense forced three fumbles and four turnovers in the loss, but Lamb said that SUU's inability to convert the turnovers into points cost the T-Birds in the loss.
SUU missed two field goals on ensuing drives following the turnovers, including one that would have given the T-Birds a fourth-quarter lead. The T-Birds only scored on one possession after a Bobcat turnover.
"It was the difference of the game," Lamb said. "We didn't take advantage of good field possession. We should have gotten field goals — at least — out of those. It was a major problem."
Despite the loss, Lamb said there was plenty of silver lining for the rest of the season.
"It was a major step forward for our defense — both competitively and in their confidence," Lamb said. "I think that's something that they will build on because they're tough and they'll come back and want to practice … I think we'll have a very motivated team moving forward, and I think there's a realization that we could have beaten one of the best teams in America."
For the fifth-straight game, SUU struggled out of the gate, failing to score in the first quarter for the third time this season.
MSU, however, came out with guns blazing.
The Bobcats drove down the length of the field on its first drive only to come up short on putting points on the board. On its second possession, MSU replicated the first drive, but this time McGhee found Tray Robinson for a 4-yard strike to give the Bobcats a 7-0 lead.
After a pair of three-and-outs from both sides, SUU then responded with a quick-paced 82-yard drive in the second quarter.
Sorensen capped off the drive with a 6-yard screen pass to Wilson, who scampered into the end zone for SUU, tying the game 7-7. With multiple penalties on the drive, Sorensen used two 30-plus yard completions to help throw 88 yards on the drive alone.
The Bobcats then responded with 7:20 left in the second quarter with a 74-yard touchdown run by Davis to give MSU a 14-7 halftime lead.
After a dismal third quarter, SUU began its comeback run in the fourth quarter down 17-7.
Following a fumble recovery, Sorensen found Jessop on an 8-yard strike to cut the T-Birds' deficit to 17-14 with 13:21 left in the game.
After forcing a quick MSU three-and-out, SUU then tied the game on a 49-yard field goal by Colton Cook with 8:29 left in regulation.
The T-Birds then forced a fumble on the Bobcats next drive, but couldn't capitalize on the next drive.
After a three-and-out, Cook's potential go-ahead 49-yard field goal missed barely to the left with 7:20 left in the game.
MSU then took the ball 67 yards down the field on 12 plays to hit on the game-winning score with 2:59 left, helping the Bobcats avoid the scare.
The T-Birds will remain at home for the week, hosting Sacramento State next weekend at Eccles Coliseum. Kickoff against the Hornets is slated for 1 p.m. next Saturday.