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CEDAR CITY — For an idea of how Southern Utah feels about its rematch with fellow Big Sky Conference co-champ Weber State in the second round of the FCS playoffs, look no further than the full house that is anticipated at the 8,500-seat Eccles Coliseum.
The Thunderbirds’ home turf, which doubles for the school’s track and field team and hosts the Utah Summer Games and adds another 2,000 for a standing-room only capacity, has placed 10,000-plus fans in the stands twice this season. The fan base isn’t growing, and the community—a city of 31,000 people per the 2016 census located closer to Las Vegas than the Wasatch Front—has taken notice.
Against the Wildcats, the Thunderbirds plan to fill every seat and then some when eighth-seeded Southern Utah hosts the rival Wildcats in the second round of the FCS playoffs at 6 p.m. Saturday in Cedar City.
“It's Weber State, so I probably don't have to say anything in pregame. I probably won't say anything in pregame,” said SUU coach Demario Warren, the Big Sky’s co-coach of the year and a finalist for the FCS national coach of the year award. “They know what this rivalry means to us, so we'll be about focusing on us.
“It's been about us all year long … and it comes down to games like this.”
The Thunderbirds’ mantra to “leave no doubt” has manifested itself through much of the 2017 season, finishing 9-2 through the year with a 7-1 mark in Big Sky play and the No. 8 seed in the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs.
Even the lone loss, though a bit puzzling at the time, has done little to leave doubt on SUU’s season: a 54-27 road setback at Sacramento State in the conference opener played without starting quarterback Patrick Tyler was quickly followed by road wins at then-No. 16 Weber State and home wins over then-No. 8 Eastern Washington and No. 23 Northern Arizona to clinch the league title.
But with the rematch scheduled for Saturday evening, and the winner likely headed to face defending FCS nationals champion James Madison, Warren was quick to say that "it doesn’t matter" if the Thunderbirds wanted another game against Weber State, or even what conclusions to take from the emotional 32-16 win in Ogden.
“We're in the second round of the playoffs, and it's a whole new season,” Warren told KSL Sports. “We have a chance to be among the final eight teams in the country. So we're excited for it.”
The school’s athletic department is even taking to calling it “The Game,” in a nod to similarly phrased rivalry matchups like Ohio State-Michigan and Cal-Stanford.
“The rivalry is there now,” said SUU linebacker Mike Needham, who leads the team with 89 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss and six pass breakups. “The trash talk, and all that—it's not common for two Big Sky teams to meet in the playoffs, so for this to happen, it's big.”
Needham, who prepped at nearby Desert Hills High School in St. George, said the game—or The Game, as the school prefers to say—is bigger than the school.
“I'm excited for Cedar City, and for the community,” he said. “It's a great thing for the program, with how fast it sold out.”
Even forecasts that call for an overnight low of 34 degrees haven't toned down the enthusiasm for the game. Multiple hotels in Cedar City are sold out, and several fans have reported staying in St. George—48 miles away—just to see the game live.
“It's going to be cold; hopefully it's not raining or snowing. But hopefully there will be a lot of fans there,” Needham said. “This is for Cedar City—every time someone says something about Cedar City, we take it personal. So this is for the fans.”
The game will be streamed live on ESPN3.
“It’s going to be nuts,” Warren said. “I’m expecting to see this whole place filled up to more than full capacity and I’m hoping for 11,000 at least.”
Contributing: Mark Weaver, KSL TV