One week after Sacramento State made a dramatic rally to win a wild and exciting overtime game, the Hornets had the tables turned on them by Southern Utah Saturday night at Hornet Stadium.
Southern Utah went 98 yards on its final drive in regulation to score a touchdown - aided by three penalties on the Hornets - made an improbable game-tying two-point conversion, then won 24-21 in overtime on Colton Cook's 38-yard field goal.
"They were a good team but I think we beat ourselves tonight," said senior linebacker Todd Davis, who had a monster game despite the loss.
Last week Sacramento State rallied to tie Southern Oregon with one second to play in regulation, then beat the Raiders 63-56 with an overtime touchdown.
Although a cold and wet evening, the energy from that win seemed to carry over into Saturday's game until the final five minutes, a nonconference matchup with a fellow Big Sky Conference member.
The Hornets (1-3) had played well offensively and defensively and were beating the Thunderbirds (3-1) at their own ball-control, time-of-possession game.
Sacramento State, leading 21-13, seemed to have secured victory with a 6-minute and 30-second, 12-play drive that took the ball to the Southern Utah 36. Quarterback Garrett Safron's pooch kick pinned Southern Utah back on its own 2 with 4:52 to go.
Then the game turned into a nightmare for the Hornets, who twice thought they had secured the victory with interceptions only to see them nullified because of penalties. That included Anthony Payne's 103-yard interception return with 1:14 to play that was called back because of a roughing the passer penalty.
Two plays later, Raysean Martin dived into the end zone from one-yard out to cut Sac State's lead to 21-19 with 31 seconds to go.
"Some of the penalties were gray areas for me," said Davis, who finished with a game-high 13 tackles and blocked a PAT. "I looked at the penalties on the scoreboard, and we thought they could have gone either way.
"You can't blame it on the refs. The refs are going to call the game they are going to call....You just got to be smart in your decisions so they can't throw flags."
The Thunderbirds tied the game 21-21 when quarterback Aaron Cantu's pass, intended for C.J. Morgan, was tipped by Payne. The deflection landed in the hands of the Thunderbird's Griff McNabb, who came back in from out of bounds to make the catch in the left front corner of the end zone.
Sac State got the ball first in overtime from its own 25 and wound up losing five yards. Jesse Aguilar's 45-yard field goal attempt missed wide right.
Southern Utah gained four yards in its three plays from scrimmage before Cook's field goal split the uprights.
"This one was a tough one to swallow," said Sac State coach Marshall Sperbeck. "We had our opportunities. We played well for a lot of the game."
Sac State outgained Southern Utah 402 to 344 in total yards, had 12 more plays and was close to the Thunderbirds in time of possession.
The Hornets scored their touchdowns on one 92-yard and two 75-yard drives. Safron completed 33- and 20-yard touchdown passes to Morris Norrise and DeAndre Carter, respectively, and Ezekiel Graham had a 11-yard touchdown run to put Sac State up 21-13 at the half.
Sac State held Southern Utah to 44 yards of total offense in the second half until the final, fateful drive.
The Hornets had success on the ground as freshman Demetrius Warren rushed for a career high 89 yards and Graham provided 67 yards on 14 attempts each. Safron also rushed for 43 yards and 12 attempts.
Through the air, Safron was 19-of-35 for 205 yards and two touchdowns without an interception.
In the last two games, the junior has thrown nine touchdown passes with only one interception.
Sophomore Shane Harrison was the team's leading receiver with seven catches for 73 yards -- both career highs. Norrise and Carter each caught five passes for 61 and 56 yards, respectively.
Martin, a true freshman, led all players with a career high 131 rushing yards.
Cantu was 16-of-25 for 136 yards. Fatu Maola caught 11 passes for 127 yards.
Sacramento State will begin Big Sky Conference play Saturday at Weber State.