PULLMAN — You don’t have to watch Southern Utah’s football team to believe what Washington State coach Mike Leach has been saying for a couple of days now.
That’s because SUU coach Ed Lamb will put it in blunter terms.
“We’re a team that’s weightlifters first, who happen to play football,” Lamb said Wednesday, and he wasn’t joking.
The Thunderbirds travel to the Palouse on Saturday to face WSU in the Cougars’ home opener.
SUU plays in the Big Sky Conference, a Football Championship Series (FCS) league, and is accustomed to playing in stadiums much smaller than WSU’s Martin Stadium. But Leach knows that won’t matter for the Cougars against a team that is well-coached and intensely proud of its tough-guy, physical image.
As Lamb said: “The bus won’t be leaving until the end of the game anyway, so we’re going to go out and play as hard as we can and see what happens.”
That’s a philosophy that has served his team well. The Thunderbirds struggled to a 5-6 record last season, but they did make headlines along the way. In Week 2, they trailed by three points entering the fourth quarter at California before the Bears pulled away for a 50-31 win.
The difference in that final quarter, Lamb said, was obvious.
“The difference was depth and speed,” said Lamb, a former defensive coordinator at Idaho under then-coach Tom Cable, who is now the Seattle Seahawks’ offensive line coach and assistant head coach.
“They exposed us on special teams … (on) offense and defense,” Lamb added. “I thought we were able to hang in there.”
They more than hung in against Big Sky powers Eastern Washington and Montana, beating Eastern at home when the Eagles were ranked No. 1 in the FCS, and winning at Montana.
That’s a feat not often accomplished, and WSU defensive coordinator Mike Breske, a former Montana assistant, said he sees the challenges that a team like Southern Utah can present if the Cougars approach this game with anything less than maximum gusto.
The Thunderbirds appear to be following Lamb’s wish that they become a power-oriented rushing team. Last season, with star quarterback Brad Sorenson at the helm, SUU threw the ball 439 times, compared with 330 rushing attempts.
But through two games this year, the Thunderbirds have rushed 91 times and thrown 41 times.
New quarterback Aaron Cantu, a transfer from East Los Angeles College, has completed 70 percent of his throws. But Lamb wants the Thunderbirds to establish themselves offensively without slinging the ball around. Backs Raysean Martin and Malik Brown have split the rushing load nearly evenly.
Leach described the Thunderbirds on Monday as being “big, strong, kind of blocky-looking guys. … They’re a pretty good-sized group. They’re clearly dedicated to the weight room, no question.”