As October reaches its midpoint, Eastern Washington is all of a sudden the favorite again, Northern Arizona is suddenly surging and Weber State’s march toward a second straight playoff berth continues while the middle of the league continues to fight of potential postseason positioning.
EWU, NAU and Weber are the last three remaining unbeaten teams in league play just three games in. Montana and Montana State have crucial games on Saturday to keep pace while pretty much the rest of the league will need to win to stay in the hunt.
Each week, Skyline Sports will break down the Big Sky Conference race with weekly power rankings. These rankings are based on strength of schedule, quality of wins and most recent performance. Included are our weekly picks from the previous and upcoming weeks.
BIG SKY CONFERENCE PICKS FOR WEEK OF OCTOBER 7
*Cal Poly at Southern Utah — W
*Portland State at Montana State — W
*Eastern Washington at UC Davis — W
*Northern Colorado at North Dakota — L
*Montana at Idaho State — W
Illinois State at Northern Arizona — W
Weber State, Sacramento State had byes
2017 record since league play began: 11-7
GAMES SATURDAY OCTOBER 14 (winners in Bold)
*Northern Arizona at Portland State
*Southern Utah at Weber State
*Idaho State at Sacramento State
*Montana State at Eastern Washington
*North Dakota at Montana
1. Eastern Washington (3-0 in Big Sky, 4-2 overall) — The Eagles rise to the top of the rankings because the trend of Big Sky domination has not wavered in Cheney despite the departure of a collection of stars. No Cooper Kupp, no Kendrick Bourne, no Samson Ebukam has been no problem for Gage Gubrud and the defending Big Sky champions since league play began.
UC Davis gave EWU all it could handle last week before Eastern claimed a 41-38 win at Aggie Stadium. But the resolve and big-play ability, especially in clutch moments, shown by Gubrud, EWU’s star quarterback, and the rest of the offense vault the Eagles to the top of these rankings this week.
Eastern Washington has won 56 of its last 63 games against Big Sky competition since the beginning of the 2009 season. EWU has won 43 of its last 49 Big Sky games. After last week’s rally, EWU has won 23 games when trailing in the fourth quarter since 2010.
The Eagles have done it by smashing records in terms of offensive production, a tall task when it comes to a program steeped in offensive tradition. After starting the season 0-2, Eastern has won its last four games by scores of 56-21 (Fordham), 48-41 (Montana), 52-31 (Sacramento State) and 41-38 (UC Davis). The team’s total of 1,890 passing yards in that stretch – 472.5 per game – has never been matched in school history. The Eagles have averaged 49.3 points and have 2,419 total yards (604.8 per game) during the winning streak, which were just short of EWU’s four-game stretch a year ago when the Eagles had 203 points (50.8 average) and 2,422 total yards (605.5).
This week, the Eagles take host Montana State, a team that has engaged in shootouts with EWU but that has lost four straight to the Eags.
“You could see they were trying to find their footing with Aaron being a first-year head coach and a new offensive coordinator and a cast of characters around Gubrud that were a little different,” MSU second-year head coach Jeff Choate said. “But from the (Fordham) game on, they have been lighting it up.
“One of the things I think makes Eastern so challenging to defend late in games is that you may have already rushed the passer 45 or 50 times going into the fourth quarter and then the last four or five minutes when the game is on the line, you don’t have a lot of guys who can rush the passer. The ones who can are exhausted. Gage with time and the receivers around him, that’s tough to defend.”
2. Northern Arizona (2-0, 3-2) — The Lumberjacks leapfrog the Wildcats because of perhaps the most impressive win by a Big Sky team this season. Last week, NAU dismantled Illinois State, a 4-0 squad who came to Flagstaff with a No. 7 national ranking. Just before halftime, NAU quarterback Case Cookus turned a 6-6 game into a landslide by hitting Elijah Marks for a 32-yard touchdown. From there, Northern Arizona dominated as Cookus threw two more touchdown passes of at least 23 yards and caught a long touchdown as well in the ‘Jacks’ 37-16 victory.
“I think our guys did a great job adjusting and the coaches did a great job of seeing what the defense was trying to do,” NAU first-year offensive coordinator Brian Sheppard said. “All week, we always have a plan for what if they do this, what if they do that, how are we going to attack them? And then how are we going to counterpunch. We thought we could out-tempo them. We thought if they left our guys man-to-man, that would be a fatal error. I don’t know if they have confidence in their outside guys but we sure have confidence in our outside guys.”
“The resolve of our team and the relentlessness of wanting to attack non-stop is great…Once our guys saw that we could beat this team like we thought we could, they fed off of that and continued to attack.”
Cookus earned FCS National Player of the Week honors by throwing for 360 yards and three touchdowns and catching a 23-yard touchdown thrown by freshman Chancellor Brewington. Over the last three games, Cookus has thrown for 1,057 yards (352 per game) and 10 touchdowns compared to no interceptions. NAU is on a three-game winning streak.
3. Weber State (2-0, 4-1) —Weber State falls from the top spot in these rankings through no fault of its own. The Wildcats were idle last week while EWU and NAU posted notable wins.
Weber State has a chance to strengthen its hold on its playoff destiny this week with in-state opponent Southern Utah coming to town.
“It’s an in-state rivalry game, no doubt,” Weber State head coach Jay Hill said. “Last year, we had the great comeback (rallying from down 36-14 for a 37-36 win in Cedar City). Two years ago, quite frankly, they kicked our butts (44-0). Bottom line is it’s an in-state game that should be a rivalry. Both teams right now are playing pretty well. I hope each year it gets to be more and more so.”
The SUU game begins a month-long stretch that will make or break WSU. The Wildcats play at Cal Poly, host Montana and play at Eastern Washington over the next four weeks.
4. Montana (2-1, 4-2) —All of a sudden, the road woes of the Grizzlies are gone.
Montana put a variety of losing streaks away from Missoula to be in recent weeks. First, the Griz snapped a four-game Big Sky losing streak away from home with a 45-33 win over Portland State. Last week, UM rallied from a 21-13 deficit at Idaho State to post a 39-31 win going away. The comeback marked the first time Montana has faced a halftime deficit on the road and won under third-year head coach Bob Stitt. UM lost its previous eight games when trailing at halftime away from Washington-Grizzly Stadium
“Building a football program and forming it into what you want is not just about recruiting,” Stitt said. “It’s about forming the mind. It’s about how these kids attack things and how they handle things and how they handle each other. We took a step on Saturday.”
Under the direction of redshirt freshman quarterback Gresch Jensen, Montana’s offense stayed red hot. The savvy, talented gunslinger threw for 360 yards and four touchdowns in his Holt Arena debut. He also weaved his way to an impressive touchdown run that accounted for UM’s first score. Jensen has already thrown for 1,207 yards and 10 touchdowns since taking over for injured senior Reese Phillips three and a half games again.
“We are really happy with the way he’s playing,” Stitt said. “We don’t think of him as a redshirt freshman. He seems like a guy who has been in our system for three or four years.”
Montana faces defending Big Sky champion North Dakota on Saturday for its homecoming game.
5. Montana State (2-1, 2-3) — Now that Big Sky Conference play is here, the Bobcats are finally making progress in the win column. A season after losing its first six league games to kick off the Jeff Choate era, MSU has now won two of three, the lone loss a 25-17 defeat to Weber State in Bozeman two weeks ago.
MSU has been impressive at times, like when sophomore quarterback Chris Murray threw for more than 300 yards and rushed for more than 100 in a 31-27 loss to No. 4 South Dakota State. Or when the Bobcats piled up 515 yards of total offense, including 341 on the ground, in a 49-21 blowout at North Dakota. Or last week, when the Bobcats rushed for 407 yards in a 30-22 win over Portland State
Murray has rushed for more than 100 yards in all four of MSU’s games against FCS opponents.
“Chris is a kid who can throw it for 300 yards when Coach puts it in his hands, like they did against South Dakota State, and then rush for a buck-30 like he did last week, or every week for that matter,” Best said. “They utilize his versatility well. You are choosing to pick your poison on defense.”
Now MSU has yet another challenge as the Bobcats face EWU, their fifth ranked opponent in six weeks. Last season, Montana State built a 17-14 first-half lead only to see Gubrud and the Eagles avalanche the hosts at Bobcat Stadium. Gubrud threw for a then program-record 520 yards — he threw for 549 earlier this season in a win at Montana — as EWU scored 27 unanswered points in the second half for a 41-17 victory. That EWU team had four players who made it into NFL camps. That Bobcat team featured NFL offensive lineman J.P. Flynn plus warrior running back Chad Newell.
This Eagles team has found an array of new playmakers, led by Nic Sblendorio and Nsimba Webster. The Bobcats are also flush with new faces but also return 15 starters, including nine on defense.
“We are both different teams,” Choate said. “We are a better team than we were a year ago. But I don’t think they are much different. They are a gifted, talented outfit who plays with a lot of swagger and a lot of confidence. We are trying to become that and this is part of the process.”
6. UC Davis (1-2, 3-3) —Keelan Doss continued to be too much for Big Sky secondaries to handle and Jake Maier continued to make his case as the Newcomer of the Year in the league but Davis didn’t have quite enough juice to upset Eastern Washington.
Maier threw for 367 yards and two touchdowns. He found Doss 15 times for 208 yards and a 16-yard touchdown catch. C.J. Spencer’s third touchdown run with 4:45 left put the Aggies up 38-34. But Sblendorio capped a 75-yard drive with a six-yard touchdown catch to boost EWU to the 41-38 victory.
“Our guys played with a lot of heart and they’ve done that from the jump,” UC Davis first-year head coach Dan Hawkins said. “When you play teams like that, it comes down to three plays a game and you have to be able to buckle it up and get inside that three-play margin. Loved our effort, loved our heart, loved our competitiveness. Just trying to clean up a few details.”
The Aggies have the week off before playing at Northern Arizona in two weeks.
“We don’t tend to really focus on timing of this bye,” Hawkins said. “The schedule is wha it is and you play it how it plays out. If it was earlier, you deal with it then. We don’t get into if it’s good timing or good timing.
7. Idaho State (1-2, 3-3) — Rob Phenicie faces another familiar foe in his first trek through the Big Sky as a head coach this week.
Last week, Phenicie’s Bengals continued to show improvement, going blow for blow with a talented Montana team. In the end, Montana’s pass rush defensively (6 sacks) and Jensen’s ability to stretch the field offensively buried the Bengals. Phenicie spent 2003 until 2009 as UM’s offensive coordinator.
This week, Phenicie faces off against Sac State, led by fourth-year head coach Jody Sears, the defensive coordinator at Eastern Washington from 2003 until 2007 on Paul Wulff’s staff.
“Jody Sears is a defensive coach by trade and he’s always played a sound sort of defense,” Phenicie said. “I’ve competed against him quite a bit over my career with him being at Eastern Washington and Washington State. He is a very good coach that will have them prepared.”
Now it’s Wulff that is Sears’ play-caller, only on the offensive side. The Hornets are led by Kevin Thomson, a running quarterback who started his career for Phenicie at UNLV.
“Kevin Thomson is one of our signees with our last class at UNLV so I know him well, too,” Phenicie said. “We threw him in with the 1s during camp that year and he was running all over the starters. He’s a special athlete. I’ve been watching film on him this week and just going, ‘yup, looks like the same guy who could zone read and go running and throws the ball well. He has my vote for Newcomer of the Year.”
8. Southern Utah (1-1, 3-2) — Southern Utah has not forgotten about the way its lead evaporated to the Wildcats last season. After posting a physical 20-14 win over Cal Poly last week, now the Thunderbirds have a chance to avenge the loss to their rivals from last season.
“There’s a lot of history,” SUU head coach DeMario Warren said. “I’ve been in the state for 10 years. This rivalry has grown and grown as the years have gone on. I think (former SUU head coach) Coach Lamb had a big part in making this a rivalry. It’s fun to be a part of.”
A win for Southern Utah could vault the Thunderbirds up the Big Sky standings and these rankings alike. Warren can remember in 2014 when the two teams played with 0-4 records. Now both teams are playing well and there’s a lot more on the line this time.
“They are a legitimate Top 10 team in the country and they are on top of the statistics in everything you want to be good at,” Warren said. “This is an all-around great football team and this is a great challenge for us this week, a great opportunity for us to go play at their house.”
9. Sacramento State (1-1, 2-3) — The winner of Sacramento State’s game against Idaho State will stay among the contenders in the league and playoff races while the loser will fall a significant step behind. The Hornets are coming off a bye with the Bengals coming to California’s capital city.
“Defensively, they are really, really stout up front and they have some really stout outside linebackers,” Sears said. “They are extremely active on the second level. It puts a lot of pressure on offenses to be precise in execution.”
With Wulff calling the offensive plays, the Hornets have taken a significant step in offensive production. Thomson is averaging 278 yards per game of total offense and Sac is averaging 34.2 points per game. Thomson is SSU’s leading rusher with 337 yards and seven rushing touchdowns. He has also thrown for 1,051 yards and nine touchdowns. The Hornet defense has also been productive the first half of the season, notching 10 interceptions.
“There’s really no magic formula of the improvements,” Sears said. “We have gotten a little older, we’ve gotten a little stronger, a little more mature, a little wiser. It hasn’t been like we have completely scrapped the schemes we’ve been running on both sides of the ball. We have tried to play toward the strengths we have, sticking to the plan and being more consistent. That’s what I see at Idaho State as well.”
10. North Dakota (1-2, 2-4) — After a season filled with almost exclusively with disappointment rooted in a plague of injuries, UND could’ve panicked last week against Northern Colorado. The Fighting Hawks jumped out to a 28-7 lead thanks to the guidance of senior quarterback Keaton Studsrud. That lead almost evaporated before halftime as Anthony Davis’ short touchdown run cut the lead to 28-24.
The Bears seized the lead with an early second half touchdown. But UND, desperate for its second win in its fourth home game, took the lead back and did not let up. The Fighting Hawks possessed the ball for 10:12 in the fourth quarter thanks to its customarily powerful run game that totaled 314 yards to seal a 48-38 win.
“The last five minutes of the first half did not go well for us,” UND head coach Bubba Schweigert said. “We made some mistakes and they took advantage of them. We go into the locker room and we still had the lead but we had lost all the momentum. Then we lost the lead the first drive of the second half but we really battled back. Game’s tied going into the fourth quarter, our guys found a way to control the ball for 10 minutes and out-score them for the win.”
North Dakota’s road does not get any easier with a trip to Missoula on the horizon. The two teams did not play last season. In 2015, the Griz rolled in a 42-16 win.
“Jensen is playing really well at quarterback,” Schweigert said. “It’s not his first start. You can really see that he’s gotten better at commanding their offense. Jerry Louie-McGee is a very talented receiver. They use so many guys at receiver and they are all talented. Keenan Curran, Justin Calhoun have scored on some deep balls. Samori Toure is very tough. Their running backs are big and physical. Calhoun, 215 pounds, they are big, fast and tough to get down.”
11. Northern Colorado (1-2, 2-3) — After giving up the lofty point total to UND on the heels of getting handled at Northern Arizona, the Bears are all of a sudden reeling. The re-injuring of the shoulder ailment that cost starting quarterback Jacob Knipp most of last season does not help.
The Bears, who haven’t been able to replicate the form that helped them earn a 43-42 win over Idaho State in the first week of conference play, will have a week to right the ship defensively — UNC is giving up 46 points per game in league play — before hosting Montana State in two weeks.
“It’s not like we wanted it to go but bye week, we will re-calibrate, scout yourselves, figure out what you are doing that works and what you are doing that is not working,” Northern Colorado head coach Earnest Collins Jr. said. “On top of that, we have to get the boys healthy. We have been banged up. I’m not using that as an excuse but we have to get them back on the field.”
12. Portland State (0-2, 0-5) — Portland State’s offense has found production with senior Josh Kraght at the helm — the quarterback rushed for 132 yards in a home loss to Montana and threw for 317 yards in PSU’s loss at Montana State last week — yet the Vikings are still searching for a breakthrough.
Dating back to a home loss in the second round of the 2015 FCS playoffs, PSU has now lost 14 of its last 17 games. The task gets no easier this week with red-hot NAU coming to Portland.
“The mantra so far has been to refocus,” PSU third-year head coach Bruce Barnum said. “As coaches and captains, we make sure we are playing the right way and acting the right way. We are acting 5-0 instead of 0-5. We haven’t changed. We are still coaching. But we can’t give away points.”
13. Cal Poly (0-3, 0-6) —As the losses mount, the frustration amongst the Mustangs does as well. Ninth-year head coach Tim Walsh did not join the Big Sky’s weekly teleconference this week, perhaps because he was tired of answering questions about the worst losing streak of his long and mostly successful career or perhaps because his team has a bye. Cal Poly was a playoff team a year ago but after a home loss to Pioneer Football League member San Diego in the first round of the playoffs, the Mustangs still have not been able to break through. in the 20-14 loss at Southern Utah, Walsh went with true freshman quarterback Jake Jeffrey instead of incumbent starter Khaleel Jenkins.
Cal Poly hosts Weber State on October 21.
Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.