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CEDAR CITY -- The Southern Utah football team will look to lock up at least a share of the Great West Conference Championship Saturday when it travels to Vermillion, S.D. to take on the South Dakota Coyotes in the DakotaDome.
The T-Birds (4-4, 2-1 Great West) enter the game tied with North Dakota, who they beat 35-10 on Oct. 24, for the conference lead. The T-Birds' lone conference loss was the 24-23 heartbreaker at Cal Poly on Oct. 17. North Dakota beat Cal Poly on Halloween, which gives the T-Birds a chance to clinch a share of the conference title this weekend.
The T-Birds are coming off a 56-35 victory on Halloween over UC Davis, in which they swept the Great West Conference Player of the Week Awards.
Running back Major Gray won on offense thanks to his four rushing touchdowns; cornerback Colin Pretlow won on defense after returning an interception for a touchdown as well as having 13 tackles, three pass breakups and a forced fumble; and wide receiver Fesi Sitake won on special teams after returning three punts for 106 yards, including a 61-yard touchdown.
Head Coach Ed Lamb said the team has heightened focus, awareness and urgency playing in a championship game.
Linebacker Robert Takeno, the T-Birds' leading tackler, said the chance to win the conference title gives the team extra motivation, "especially for people who have been here a long time and seen the program go from having an 0-11 season to having respect across the country."
Wide receiver Tysson Poots, who is second in the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) in catches per game and third in receiving yards per game, said the team is looking forward to the opportunity.
"It's a big motivation," he said. "We haven't done that in I don't know how long, but it's a big turnaround since I've been here. I know everybody is looking forward to the game and trying to get that share of the conference."
If the chance to win the conference title isn't motivating enough, the T-Birds also remember the embarrassment from 2008, when the Coyotes came to Eccles Coliseum and ran for 445 yards and six touchdowns, while only attempting five passes on their way to a 42-20 victory.
"It's embarrassing," Takeno said. "That'll be changed just by effort and desire and ‘want-to.' We're a stronger team this year, but all that aside it's going to be changed by desire and mentality."
The Coyotes (3-5, 0-2 Great West) have a balanced offense this year that is ranked 10th in the FCS with an average of 434.8 yards per game, including a 14th-ranked rushing average of 189.8 yards per game.
They've lost their last three games by a combined 12 points, including two overtime defeats.
"Every week they get more experienced," Lamb said. "There's 50 teams out there we could have put on a schedule for South Dakota and they'd be 8-0 right now. There's a lot of teams in this country they would absolutely dominate. They're a very good football team."
After the debacle from last year, Lamb said the T-Birds' primary focus will definitely be on the run.
"We're focused on that ‒ we're focused on that number one, we have got to stop the run," he said. "They embarrassed us last year on our home field and ran the ball up and down this field. It's going to be a big challenge for our guys."
Three Coyotes ran for more than 100 yards on the T-Birds last year, all of which returned for this year. Running back Chris Ganious rushed for 167 yards and two touchdowns, quarterback Noah Shephard rushed for 153 yards and four touchdowns, and running back Isaac Newton rushed for 102 yards.
Shephard has thrown for 1,829 yards and 15 touchdowns this year while completing almost 62 percent of his passes on the way to winning Great West Offensive Player of the Week Accolades twice this year. He has also rushed for 390 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Takeno said the T-Birds must take away at least one facet of Shephard's game to be successful.
"He's a very good runner," Takeno said. "He's tough, he's hard to tackle ‒ and he's a very good passer, he's got a really strong arm. I feel like if we shut him down and make him one-dimensional, it'll be beneficial for us."
Lamb said the key for the T-Birds to stop the Coyotes will be for each player to do his own job and not try to do anyone else's.
The T-Birds also enter the game with one of the nation's leading offenses, tied for 19th in total offense with 399.4 yards per game and 12th in passing offense with 270 yards per game. For them to be successful against South Dakota, Poots said they must neutralize the pass rush.
"(We receivers must) get open as fast as we can; read the defense and if we choose right, we should be open and if we do it fast enough, their guys can't get there."
Coyote defensive lineman Wayne Curry leads the Great West with six sacks and Lamb said he will be one of the T-Birds' primary challenges Saturday.
"We've got to be alert for where Curry is at all times and we've got to be the aggressors," Lamb said. "We've got to make sure that we get rid of the ball quickly and on time, and we've got to make sure we run the ball efficiently so (they) don't tee off on the pass. One year ago when they came in here, we allowed them to tee off on our passing game, it was all we had, we rushed for negative four yards on the night and it was a total embarrassment."
The Coyotes have been nearly unbeatable on their home field in recent years, going 29-3 under Coach Ed Meierkort, including a 24-23 overtime loss to conference foe UC Davis on Oct. 10.
Poots and Takeno each said getting off to a fast start will be important for the T-Birds if they hope to take the crowd out of the game.
"Jump on them fast, jump on them early," Takeno said. "If we go out there, get on them fast … go up a couple scores early, our offense plays well and our defense comes out and hits them in the mouth, it's going to be hard for their crowd to get into it."
Lamb said the crowd noise will affect the way the T-Birds snap the ball.
"We've got to be ready to go on a silent count on offense," Lamb said. "Typically they won't make a lot of noise when our defense or special teams are out there, but they're well-schooled, their fans know when to make noise and it's a tight, dome environment."
Kickoff is scheduled for Saturday at 3:05 p.m. The game will broadcast live on Power 91 Radio which streams live at www.suu.edu/hss/comm/ksuu/. Live stats will also be available from USDCoyotes.com.