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 on 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, host Sac State rallied to tie Southern Oregon with one second to play in regulation, then beat the Raiders 63-56 with an overtime touchdown.
Although Saturday's weather was cold and wet, the energy from that win seemed to carry over in the nonconference game (even though both teams are in the Big Sky Conference) until the final five minutes.
The Hornets had played well offensively and defensively and were beating the Thunderbirds at their own ball-control, time-of-possession game.
Sac State, leading 21-13, seemed to have secured victory with a 12-play drive in 6:30 that took the ball to the Southern Utah 36. Quarterback Garrett Safron's pooch kick pinned Southern Utah back on its 2 with 4:52 to go.
Then the game turned into a nightmare for the Hornets, who twice thought they had sealed the victory with interceptions only to see them nullified by 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 1-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 attempt. "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 score 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 Thunderbirds' 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 and wound up losing 5 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 402-344 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 march and two 75-yard drives. Safron completed 33- and 20-yard touchdown passes to Morris Norrise and DeAndre Carter, respectively, and Ezekiel Graham had an 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.
Call The Bee's Bill Paterson, (916) 326-5506.