PULLMAN — You don’t have to look at Southern Utah’s football team to believe what coach Mike Leach has been saying for a couple days now.

That’s because SUU coach Ed Lamb will put it in more blunt 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 here Saturday to face Washington State in its home opener at Martin Stadium. Yes, SUU plays in the Big Sky, a Football Championship Series league. Yes, SUU plays in a considerably smaller stadium and enjoys fewer resources than Pac-12 schools.

    Most Read Stories

And yes, Leach recognizes that little of that matters against a team 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 made headlines regardless: a Week 2, 50-31 loss at California was a three-point game heading into the fourth quarter before the Bears pulled away late.

The difference in that final period, Lamb said, was obvious.

“The difference was depth and speed,” said Lamb, a former defensive coordinator at Idaho under then-coach Tom Cable. “They exposed us on special teams … (on) offense and defense, I thought we were able to hang in there.”

They more than hung in against Big Sky powers Eastern Washington and Montana, beating the Eagles at home when they were ranked No. 1 among Football Championship Series teams, and winning at Missoula.

That’s a feat not often accomplished, and WSU defensive coordinator Mike Breske — himself a former Montana assistant — sees the challenges a team like Southern Utah can present if the Cougars approach this game with anything less than maximum gusto.