SAN DIEGO -- Senior quarterback Cade Cooper passed for 273 yards and three touchdowns to lead the Southern Utah football team to a season-ending 37-32 victory over the University of San Diego Toreros.
The win gives the T-Birds 5-6 record for the 2009 season, their best record since going 6-5 in 2004, while the Toreros drop to 4-7 with the loss. It was SUU's first road win of the season as the T-Birds went 4-1 at home and 1-5 on the road.
"Cade is our leader," SUU football coach Ed Lamb said in a postgame interview with Power 91 Radio's Art Challis. "(He) always gives us hope."
The T-Birds had one of their most balanced games of the season, passing for 310 yards while running for 197, their second-highest rushing total of the season. Cooper pitched in on the ground with 48 rushing yards, while sophomore running back Austin Minefee led the T-Birds with 82 yards on the ground.
The Toreros had an opportunity to win the game late, but junior cornerback Colin Pretlow intercepted a pass from San Diego freshman quarterback Bo Stompro with 25 seconds left to preserve the victory.
"The interception at the end of the game was huge," Lamb said. "Every time I've been on this field with the Toreros they've won, so when they got the ball back with 30 seconds to go I was nervous. Our defense has struggled all year but we've also made some plays when we needed plays and Colin made a play when we needed it."
After the Toreros scored 13 unanswered points to take a 13-10 lead midway through the second quarter, the T-Birds closed out the quarter with 10 points to reclaim the lead, which they would not relinquish.
The T-Birds forged back in front on 25-yard, fourth-down pass from freshman quarterback Ammon Olsen to junior wide receiver Fesi Sitake with 3:08 to go before halftime; it was Olsen's only series of the game, in which he completed 3-of-4 passes for 37 yards and the touchdown.
The T-Birds got the ball back after San Diego failed to convert a fourth-and-2, and marched it down to the Toreros' 11-yard line with six seconds left before settling for a 28-yard field goal from senior kicker Ryan Griffith to go into the locker rooms up 20-13.
The T-Birds earned a two-score advantage for the second time in the game after senior linebacker Robert Takeno recovered a fumble on the Toreros' first second-half play from scrimmage, leading to a Cooper-to-Sitake 8-yard touchdown pass to give SUU a 27-13 lead with 13:15 left in the third quarter.
A 39-yard kickoff return by Torero senior running back J.T. Rogan gave the Toreros good field position for their next drive, which they had frequently throughout the game, allowing them to answer the T-Birds' score with one of their own, a 7-yard pass from Stompro to sophomore tight end Patrick Doyle, pulling the Toreros back within a touchdown at 27-20.
Lamb said the Toreros' field-position advantage throughout the game helped them stay close despite being outgained 507-352.
"If they don't get those kickoff returns to the 50-yard line and beyond tonight, it's a different ballgame," Lamb said.
The T-Birds seemingly missed out on a scoring opportunity after Cooper threw an interception to San Diego senior safety Derek Pilkington, but SUU forced the Toreros into a three-and-out, before scoring on a 16-yard pass from Cooper to junior wide receiver Tysson Poots, the only pass of the drive after five straight runs, to reclaim a 14-point edge at 34-20.
On the next Torero drive, the T-Birds had three opportunities to get their defense off the field on third down and at least 10, but allowed Stompro to connect with sophomore wide receiver Eric Fiege each time, eventually leading to an 8-yard scoring pass from Stompro to junior wide receiver Godfrey Smith.
The Toreros missed the extra point, their second missed extra point of the game, leaving the score at 34-26 with 10:59 to go.
After a 41-yard field goal by Griffith put SUU up 37-26, Stompro threw his fifth touchdown pass of the game, this one a 17-yarder to freshman wide receiver Kyle Warren. The Toreros failed on their two-point conversion attempt, leaving them down 37-32 with 5:01 left in the game.
The Toreros kicked the ball deep on the kickoff, and forced a punt after the T-Birds amassed one first down and took all but 40 seconds off the clock, before the interception by Pretlow sealed the SUU win.
The T-Birds jumped out to a 10-0 lead in the first quarter after scoring a 34-yard field goal by Griffith on the game's first drive, before forcing a Torero three-and-out and scoring a touchdown on a 42-yard pass from Cooper to Poots.
The Toreros answered with 14-play drive that culminated with a touchdown pass from Stompro to sophomore wide receiver John McGough to pull within four points at 10-6 after a missed extra-point.
The Toreros took their only lead of the game at 13-10 on their next drive after Griffith missed a 50-yard field goal attempt, scoring on a 2-yard touchdown pass from Stompro to freshman fullback Quintin Brown. The score was set up by a 37-yard run by Rogan that got the Toreros to the SUU 4-yard line.
Stompro completed 24 of 38 passes for 247 yards, five touchdowns to five different receivers, and an interception. Fiege and McGough each caught seven passes.
Cooper's passing performance Saturday helped him achieve the SUU single-season records in pass attempts (423), pass completions (276), passing yards (2,988), and passing touchdowns (31).
His favorite target Saturday was Tysson Poots, who caught 10 passes for 149 yards and two scores. Poots' 85 catches and 15 touchdowns on the season, despite missing the T-Birds' first two games of 2009, each top his own school records, which he set last year, of 83 catches and 14 touchdowns. His 1,081 yards ranks third, behind his record 1,236 from last year and Doug Berry's 1,201 in 1970.
Griffith, in his only season as a kicker after converting from wide receiver, broke the SUU single-season records for field goals with 15 and tied the single-season extra-points record with 43.
Ward's late punt was his only boot of the game and went 56 yards before being fair caught.
Entering the game, Ward averaged 47.8 yards per punt, which would lead the nation, had he had enough attempts. Saturday's game didn't give him enough attempts to qualify for the national leader board. His season average of 48.0 yards per punt did, however, break the SUU single-season record. His 42.29 career average is also an SUU record.
For 2010, The T-Birds will be without 11 graduating seniors, including their starting quarterback, three starting offensive linemen, two starting defensive linemen, a three-time leading tackler, their starting kicker, their starting punter and several other players going on church missions, but Lamb said the team should continue to improve in 2010 as they have a solid core of younger players to step in and fill the voids left by the departures.