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CEDAR CITY -- Running back Major Gray scored four touchdowns to help lead the SUU football team to a 56-35 win Saturday over UC Davis.
The T-Birds (4-4, 2-1 Great West) scored on the ground, through the air, on special teams and on defense while collecting four sacks on the Aggies (4-4, 1-1 Great West). The T-Bird win means both teams are still in the hunt for a conference title and potential playoff berth.
Three of Gray's touchdowns came from one yard out, for which he gives credit to SUU's offensive line.
"I love my linemen and I'll take them any day," Gray said.
Gray finished with 16 carries for 74 yards and the four scores.
Special teams and turnovers helped SUU claim the three-touchdown victory, despite being out-gained 473-351. The T-Birds collected 21 points off three Aggie turnovers to go along with a punt-return touchdown by Fesi Sitake.
Sitake said he was to able to break free because of good blocking.
"That whole punt return, everyone stayed on their blocks and were getting some big shots," he said. "I was just lucky and fortunate to see where the seams were and take it back."
Sitake had 106 punt-return yards on three tries as well as six catches for 61 yards.
Safety Akeem Anifowoshe recovered a fumble in the first quarter and defensive lineman Chad Westwood recovered one in the second quarter, each leading to T-Bird scores. Cornerback Colin Pretlow intercepted a pass in the fourth quarter and returned it 46 yards for a touchdown to seal the T-Birds' victory.
Pretlow also led the team in tackles with 10, forced a fumble and broke up three additional passes. It was his second straight game with an interception.
The T-Birds defense Aggie quarterback Greg Denham four times and when they weren't getting all the way to him, they were batting balls down at the line or forcing him into throwaways or poor throws.
Westwood was one of the T-Birds' key pressure appliers Saturday, notching a sack and a quarterback hurry as well as batting three passes down at the line of scrimmage and recovering a fumble. He said the pressure put on the Aggies was a team effort.
"It's a total team victory -- everyone applied pressure," Westwood said. "It's just something that we came out together and played as a team."
Defensive linemen Scott Larsen and Taylor Pendley and linebacker Drew Willard also recorded sacks for SUU,with Willard's sack resulting in Westwood's fumble recovery.
Denham completed 24 of 44 passes for 223 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. Twenty-seven of his pass attempts came in the fourth quarter.
The Aggies entered the game with the 12th-ranked passing offense in the FCS, but strayed away from it for the first three quarters.
"I think a lot of it was our guys getting their hands on the ball," T-Bird Head Coach Ed Lamb said. "I think in the first half we touched their quarterback's passes more than their receivers did, so I think they got scared out of their game plan a little bit and their run game was working well. We just sat in the same coverage figuring if they were going to try to run it while we were throwing it, they wouldn't be able to keep pace with us."
The Aggies used the Wildcat formation effectively for much of the afternoon as safety Nick Aprile played quarterback in the formation and ran eight times for 56 yards as well as throwing one pass, which was a fourth-quarter touchdown to tight end Dean Rogers.
The Aggies, who came in with the 113th-ranked rushing offense in the FCS, also ran the ball well out of conventional formations, helping them rack up 244 rushing yards. Running back Josh Reese led the Aggies' charge with 101 yards on 14 carries.
"Looking at the whole scope of the game, we gave up 35 points, we could have done a lot better job stopping the run. Even some of the passes they got were just mental errors by our guys," Lamb said. "They surprised us with some new formations on offense, but the bottom line is the defense really stepped up today and did what they needed to do to win."
The T-Birds built a 42-21 halftime lead thanks to moving the ball well and having short fields as three of their first-half scoring drives were 41 yards or less. The Aggie defense, however, was able to stifle SUU's offensive rhythm in the second half.
"In the second half, [the Aggies] were willing to throw caution to the wind and blitz and bring a lot of guys into the box," Lamb said. "We were cognizant of the clock and with a three-score lead, four scores after the first drive [of the second half], we felt like all we needed to do was punt, protect the ball and play decent defense to get the win."
The Aggies scored first on the game's opening drive with a 13-yard run by Joe Trombetta before SUU scored 21 unanswered points, all in the first quarter, to head into the second frame with a 21-7 lead.
After the Aggies rallied to tie the game at 21 early in the second quarter, the T-Birds scored 28 unanswered points to go up 49-21 with 10:24 remaining in the third quarter.
The Aggies were rallied again in the fourth quarter, scoring two touchdowns to cut the deficit to 49-35. They were threatening to make it a one-score game when Pretlow's interception returned for a touchdown put the T-Birds up 56-35 with 2:32 to go in regulation, sealing the T-Birds' victory.
Quarterback Cade Cooper completed 26 of 39 passes for 248 yards, two touchdowns and an interception, snapping his five-game streak of having at least 40 passing attempts, at least 250 yards and at least three touchdowns. His two touchdowns did, however, give him an SUU single-season record 22 for the season.
Wide receiver Tysson Poots caught 11 of Cooper's passes for 108 yards and both touchdowns. He entered the game tied for the SUU all-time career record in receptions and now holds the record by himself.
Gray said it was good for the T-Birds to get a "statement win."
"We're confident, but we know we still have to work," he said. "We're going to be right back at it tomorrow."
Lamb said the team must not become overconfident.
"The thing we've got to guard against now is overconfidence.," he said. "This team has come a long way, but they've done it not with trick plays, not with gimmicks, not with strategies -- they've just done it by working their tails off. So if they continue to do that, that will be a great sign of the type of character we have."
The T-Birds are back on the road Saturday, finishing their conference schedule at South Dakota before facing non-conference foes Eastern Washington and San Diego to finish the regular season.