A month into the season with conference play on the horizon, the Big Sky picture looks as hazy as the skies throughout the American West.
Defending co-champions Eastern Washington and North Dakota won one game each during the non-conference. Perennial powers like EWU, Montana and Montana State are still searching to find whether if they are rebuilding or reloading. Contenders like Northern Arizona and Cal Poly have already lost offensive stars before league play even gets underway.
Meanwhile, first-year head coaches Rob Phenicie at Idaho State and Dan Hawkins at UC Davis have reinvigorated their respective programs after each team struggling throughout the decade. Weber State continues improving, Southern Utah keeps embracing an underdog mentality and the rest of the league remains largely a mystery.
“Every single team has a chance to win every single week and that makes it fun,” Montana third-year head coach Bob Stitt said on Monday. “There’s no clear cut favorites anymore in the Big Sky because everyone has shown they can win games, have some strengths but some weakness too.”
Montana and No. 11 Eastern Washington are among two premier matchups in the league to kick off the conference slate on Saturday. The other intriguing content includes Montana State searching for its first win over suddenly struggling North Dakota in Grand Forks.
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, most recent performance and each team’s future in regard to momentum, health and upcoming match-ups.
BIG SKY CONFERENCE SCHEDULE FOR SEPT. 23 (predicted winners in bold)
*UC Davis at Weber State
*Eastern Washington at Montana
*Northern Arizona at Cal Poly
*Southern Utah at Sacramento State
*Idaho State at Northern Colorado
*Montana State at North Dakota
1. Southern Utah (2-1) — The Thunderbirds take the top spot in the first Skyline Sports because of back-to-back wins over legitimate non-conference foes. Behind the much improved play of senior quarterback Patrick Tyler (307 yards of total offense per game, eight total touchdowns), Southern Utah bounced back from a 77-21 drubbing at the hands of Oregon to post a 51-14 win at Stephen F. Austin. Southern Utah posted the Big Sky’s top FCS win last week by beating No. 18 Northern Iowa 24-21 on a late field goal.
Tyler’s emergence coupled with his new favorite weapon, true freshman Landen Measom (16 catches, 342 yards, two touchdowns) makes the SUU offense dangerous despite the loss of key contributors Mike Sharp, Steven Wroblewski and Malik Brown from last year’s squad. An athletic defense anchored by All-Big Sky tackle Robert Torgerson and solidified by athletic linebacker Mike Needam, Chinedu Ahanonu and Taylor Nelson should keep SUU in the mix all year.
Southern Utah plays at Sacramento State on Saturday.
2. Idaho State (2-1) — In the third year of the Skyline Sports power rankings, this is the first time the Bengals have even cracked the top 10. With Rob Phenicie at the helm, it seems like the culture of losing is dissipating in Pocatello.
Idaho State’s 30-28 win at Nevada last week served as ISU’s first win over an FBS school since 2000. The victory was spurred on by impassioned performances from stud linebackers Mario Jenkins (17 tackles, two tackles for loss, forced fumble) and Joe Martin (eight tackles, forced fumble, interception) and a sense of belief instilled by Phenicie and his staff that ISU could pull out a victory.
“We actually practiced during our weekly routine coming up into the locker room and singing the fight song after a win,” Phenicie said. “The guys knew what to expect.
“Part of the belief is we have practiced these situations. There wasn’t a single situation that came up in that Nevada game that we hasn’t practiced in the off-season.”
Idaho State enters its game at Northern Colorado Saturday with a much-improved run game ignited by Ty Flanagan. His emergence has allowed Phenicie to move speedy running back Michael Dean to the outside, where he’s caught 12 passes for 257 yards (21.4 yards per catch) and three touchdowns thus far.
3. UC Davis (2-1) — Hawkins, who attained great success as the foundation builder at Boise State before enduring a tumultuous time at Colorado, is back at his alma mater and has reenergized the program.
Davis has had a nearly impossible time finding its footing since joining the Big Sky in 2012. But Hawkins helped lead the Aggies to a 35-7 win over 2016 FCS playoff team San Diego and a 37-14 domination of Portland State in the City of Roses last week.
Under offensive coordinator Tim Plough, a Davis alum who found great success the last few years at Northern Arizona, junior college transfer quarterback Jake Maier has been one of the most efficient passers in the country three games into the season. In UCD’s run-pass opition offense, Maier is completing 71 percent of his passes for 314 yards per game. He’s thrown eight touchdowns already.
Defensively, Davis has shored up the unit at least thus far. Defensive back Vincent White has been solid in coverage with five pass breakups while Nas Anesi has been strong at inside linebacker.
The Aggies will look to carry that momentum into Ogden against Weber State, a 2016 playoff qualifier.
4. Weber State (2-1) — Had Weber State beaten Cal in Berkeley, the Wildcats would top these power rankings.
The Wildcats held a 20-17 lead enterting the fourth quarter against the Pac 12 Golden Bears. A pair of Patrick Laird touchdowns in the final 10 minutes helped Cal avoid an upset with a 33-20 win, but the performance certainly gave Weber confidence. Stefan Cantwell, a senior who is a former walk-on who made stops at Dixie College and Snow College before landing at Weber last season, had a career day, throwing for 431 yards and a touchdown while also rushing for 61 yards and a score.
“Going into Cal, we were confident,” Cantwell said. “Cal is a really good team but we had them. There was just some things we faulted on. I think that was a big growing opportunity for us, learn from our mistakes, especially in a key game like that where we were so close.”
Weber State moved to 2-1 by hanging one for a 31-24 win over Sacramento State in a non-conference game last week. The Wildcats are talented on both sides of the ball — Hawkins called WSU cornerback Taron Johnson “one of the best players in the country” on Wednesday — and likely will ascend to one of the top two spots in these rankings in a week or two. But Weber is at No. 4 this week entering its matchup with UC Davis because its two wins — Montana Western and Sac State — came against overmatched teams and it’s hard to boost a team because of a loss even if Weber was competitive in Berkeley.
5. Montana (2-1) — The Griz might have the most diverse collection of talent in the league. But a non-conference schedule that included blowing out two cupcakes at home — Valparaiso, Savannah State — and getting dismantled by one of the best teams in all of college football (a 63-7 loss at No. 6 Washington) revealed little about Montana’s improvement in terms of mentality, competitiveness and ability to finish.
A great many questions will be answered Saturday night in Missoula. Both the Griz and No. 11 Eastern Washington are teetering in a realm of uncertainty. Can UM harness its talent and return to glory in Stitt’s third season? Can redshirt freshman Gresch Jensen guide Montana’s offense after senior quarterback Reese Phillips lost his season to a gruesome injury last week? Or will the demons of an inability to capitalize in crucial situations carry over from the meltdown that defined UM’s 2016 campaign?
Can Eastern Washington keep its domination of the league rolling? Or is the departure of head coach Beau Baldwin, offensive coordinator Troy Taylor, and the quartet of NFL talent that includes wide receivers Cooper Kupp, Kendrick Bourne and Shaq Hill plus defensive end Samson Ebukam too much to handle for the Eagles? Much will be revealed about both UM and EWU on Saturday night at Washington-Grizzly Stadium.
6. Eastern Washington (1-2) — Out of the gates, EWU looked like it might return to earth after a streak that has seen the Eagles win five of the last seven Big Sky titles. Eastern struggled to move the ball against Texas Tech and North Dakota State. Even when EWU has lost this decade, Eastern almost always gains yards and scores points. That was not the case during an 0-2 start.
All-American quarterback Gage Gubrud found his rhythm in a big way against Fordham. The junior earned Big Sky Offensive Player of the Week honors by throwing for 399 yards and three touchdowns and rushing for 72 yards and two more scores.
EWU will try to replace Kupp, Bourne and Hill by committee with a group that includes senior Nic Sblendorio along with upstarts like Nsimba Webster, Terence Grady, Stu Stiles and Jayson Williams. Defensively, Ebukam is impossible to replace because of his freakish athleticism but EWU’s front put forth a record-setting effort in the 56-21 win last week in the Bronx, setting an all-time Eastern mark with 10 sacks.
7. North Dakota (1-2) — North Dakota looked competitive while matching Utah’s physicality in a season-opening 37-16 loss in Salt Lake City. The Fighting Hawks looked dominant in a 34-0 win over Missouri State, the first shutout UND has posted in Bubba Schweigert’s four seasons as head coach.
But North Dakota looked helpless last week in Vermillion as South Dakota manhandled the defending Big Sky champions. USD raced out to a 31-0 halftime lead and added another touchdown early in the third quarter. South Dakota senior quarterback moved the Coyote offense at will. He threw for 290 yards and rushed for 62 as South Dakota shredded UND’s normally stout unit to the tune of 575 total yards. The hosts averaged nearly five yards per rush and piled up 285 rushing yards against a team that led the Big Sky in rush defense a year ago.
Injuries on both sides of the ball have been the dominant story line for UND the last two weeks. The offense is without All-Big Sky offensive guard Demon Taylor for the foreseeable future. The run game has suffered as a result, averaging just 136 yards per game on the ground.
Defensively, cornerback Deion Harris’ off-season Achilles tear and inside linebacker Connor O’Brien’s retirement due to head injuries continue to hurt the Fighting Hawks. Injuries to Donnell Rodgers and Cam Hunt have UND down to its fifth and sixth inside linebackers at best.
Saturday’s conference opener against upstart Montana State will help UND set the tone for the rest of its conference season. North Dakota brings an 11-game winning streak into the action.
- 8. Montana State (0-2) — Those who follow the Bobcats closely would all agree that Montana State has improved markedly in terms of toughness, attitude and mentality after back-to-back losing campaigns. But MSU is still searching for a breakthrough victory in Jeff Choate’s second season.
That win almost came two weeks ago. Montana State forged a furious rally in the second half, coming back from a 17-0 deficit against No. 4 South Dakota State to cut the lead to 24-21 in the fourth quarter. Untimely penalties, missed field goals in the first and second half, a blocked extra point and SDSU’s fake field goal for a touchdown sealed an MSU loss, 31-27, in its home opener.
MSU quarterback Chris Murray opened eyes around the league in the final two quarters two weeks ago before the Bobcats entered their early bye week. The reigning Big Sky Freshman of the Year lit the league up with his explosive running ability. But he could not throw to save his life. That suddenly changed against the Jackrabbits. He completed 23-of-41 passes for 311 yards and four touchdowns. He also rushed for 107 yards.
Montana State’s challenging schedule continues with a matchup in Grand Forks against the reigning Big Sky champions.
9. Northern Colorado (1-1) — Like Weber State, Northern Colorado has an argument to be higher in these rankings but it’s hard to reward teams simply for playing Pac 12 teams tough. Northern Colorado blew out the College of Idaho in its opener before giving Colorado a battle in Boulder last week.
Mike McCauley’s 27-yard touchdown catch early in the third quarter cut the Buffs’ lead to 28-21. Colorado scored 13 unanswered from there to hold on for the win. A victory over an NAIA team and a loss to a Pac 12 makes it hard to gage where Northern Colorado is.
“We lost the game so that’s never enough,” UNC head coach Earnest Collins Jr. said. “We learned from the game. Our guys fought, no question we fought, but our guys are getting pats on the back and like I told them, all that’s being said, the disguise is folks are happy we didn’t go get blown out. We didn’t win the game. What else matters?”
Northern Colorado, who’s Week 2 game at Florida was cancelled because of the rash of hurricanes, hosts surging Idaho State on Saturday.
10. Portland State (0-3) — For a moment, Barny Ball looked like it might be back. After a poor performance at home in a lopsided loss to UC Davis, the Vikings are once again searching for answers.
With true freshman quarterback Jalani Eason guiding the offense and a physical defense setting the tone, PSU gave BYU and Oregon State all they could handle but fell in both games. Then came the home game against the Aggies and the Viks did not look like the same team.
Portland State has a bye this week to get things ironed out before hosting Montana at Hillsboro Stadium next weekend.
11. Northern Arizona (0-2) — NAU is again facing adversity on and off the field. Last season, star quarterback Case Cookus went down with a season-ending injury in the first conference game. Then a school shooting on NAU’s campus derailed the mindset of the team before a loss to UC Davis.
This year, All-American receiver Emmanuel Butler went down with what looks like a season-ending injury in the first quarter of NAU’s 38-20 home loss to Western Illinois. After that game and heading into the Lumberjacks’ early bye, the school announced longtime head coach Jerome Souers would not return for his 21st season after his 20th campaign is complete this fall.
NAU is still a dangerous team with the presence of Cookus under center and speed demon Elijah Marks on the outside. A bye week to prepare for the trip to San Luis Obispo to face Cal Poly’s diverse triple option attack always bodes well. But NAU is in desperate need of a victory entering conference play.
- 12. Sacramento State (1-2) — Sacramento State does have a victory over Incarnate Word but the Hornets were the far superior team against a fledgling FCS program. Sac State does lead the Big Sky with seven interceptions entering league play. The Hornets looked competitive in a 31-24 non-conference loss against Weber State last weekend.
Quarterback transfer Kevin Thomson (UNLV) has thrown six touchdown passes compared to just one interception, but five scoring strikes came in 10 completions in Sac’s 56-22 win over ICU. He’s completed just 37.7 percent of his passes otherwise.
Dre Terrell has a league-best four intercpetions, including three against Incarnate Word. Yet the Sac State defense still has much to prove as well. The Hornets will get a tough test right out the league gates with Southern Utah coming to California’s capital city
13. Cal Poly — Demons of 2015 continue to haunt the 2016 playoff qualifier. Two seasons ago, Cal Poly moved the ball prolifically on almost every opponent but untimely fumbles doomed the Mustangs. This season, fumbles have again been a kryptonite.
Cal Poly’s offense looked stagnant and not explosive in a 20-14 loss to Colgate to open the season. The Mustangs moved the ball in losses to San Jose State (34-13) and Northern Iowa (45-38 in overtime) but five fumbles against the Trojans and two more against UNI proved costly.
The confound Cal Poly’s issues, All-American fullback Joe Protheroe is likely out for the season, head coach tim Walsh confirmed on Wednesday.
The matchup in SLO on Saturday with NAU is a contest between two desparate teams with talent-laden rosters in need of their first victories.
Photos by Brooks Nuanez or attributed. All Rights Reserved.