As the calendar turns to October, the Big Sky Conference is starting to gain clarity, although not much. Three teams — Weber State, Eastern Washington, Northern Arizona — are 2-0 two weeks into league play. Teams that entered 2017 with high expectations — Cal Poly, Portland State — enter October without a win of any sort.
In between, the middle of the league remains murky with no separation in sight. The league likely will not replicate the four playoff teams it produced last season — non-conference non-success will play a key factor — but as many as 10 teams remain in the hunt for a postseason berth.
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 SEPT. 30 (predicted winners in bold)
*Sacramento State at Eastern Washington — W
*Cal Poly at Idaho State — W
*Northern Colorado at Northern Arizona — L
*Weber State at Montana State — L
*Montana at Portland State — W
*North Dakota at UC Davis — W
2017 record since league play began: 6-6
BIG SKY CONFERENCE PICKS FOR WEEK OF OCTOBER 7
*Cal Poly at Southern Utah
*Portland State at Montana State
*Eastern Washington at UC Davis
*Northern Colorado at North Dakota
*Montana at Idaho State
Illinois State at Northern Arizona
Weber State, Sacramento State have byes
1. Weber State (2-0 in Big Sky, 4-1 overall) — The Wildcats continue to climb, bringing their primary goal into focus with each win.
Weber State moved into the top 20 — WSU is at No. 19 in this week’s STATS FCS Top 25 — with a hard-fought 25-17 win in front of a sellout homecoming crowd at Montana State. Weber has now defeated three of the league’s most improved teams: Sacramento State, UC Davis and MSU. The Wildcats take their bye week this week before playing against Southern Utah next week
“This is where we are hoping we’d be,” WSU fourth-year head coach Jay Hill said. “We are undefeated in conference right now. In my opinion, we have played three outstanding opponents so far. UC Davis has show what they can do offensive. They absolutely tore it up last week throwing the ball. I think their quarterback (Jake Maier) was 33-of-38 passing. So do get the win against those guys, that’s huge. Chris Murray is an outstanding talent. That guy is unbelievable and made us look stupid at times. Bottom line, to get wins over those opponents with the way their coaching staffs approach the game was huge for our team.”
2. Eastern Washington (2-0, 3-2) — At this rate, the Big Sky will have to rename its weekly Offensive Player of the Week award after EWU junior quarterback Gage Gubrud.
Last week, Gubrud completed 35-of-50 passes for 447 yards. The 2016 Big Sky Offensive MVP and Walter Payton Award runner-up threw touchdowns to five different receivers and caught a touchdown pass in EWU’s 52-31 win over Sac State.
“I don’t think we or anyone has the answer” Hawkins said. “He is so prolific. They are so talented and so well coached. (Gubrud) is a great player.”
3. Northern Arizona (2-0, 2-2) — Northern Arizona has been playing dominant football in all three phases of the game since a week filled with adverse news.
Fresh off a 38-20 tail whipping against Western Illinois at home, NAU sat at 0-2. Entering its early bye week, Northern Arizona head coach Jerome Souers announced he would not return for his 21st season. Later that week, the school announced All-American wide receiver Emmanuel Butler would miss the rest of the season following shoulder surgery. NAU has not lost since.
In last week’s 48-20 win over explosive Northern Colorado, All-American quarterback Case Cookus threw for 273 yards and three touchdowns, Elijah Marks earned Big Sky Special Teams Player of the Week honors with a 100-yard kick return to compliment a second straight 100-yard receiving day and the defense dominated. Andy Thompson’s unit notched 14 tackles for loss, six sacks and forced three turnovers, including Taylor Powell’s interception return for a touchdown. After the 0-2 start, NAU sits 2-0 in league play.
“We are pretty heavy in our junior class defensively,” Souers said. “This last weekend coming out of the Cal Poly game (a 28-10 win), we had to use a lot of reserve defensive linemen and a lot of guys were pressed into play. But honing our defensive identity and mix this year has been a result of a lot of planning and some experimentation. Andy has done a great job of formulating what has become more of a consistent unit. Our rush defense has improved dramatically since the first couple of weeks. That needs to continue.”
NAU hosts Missouri Valley Conference power Illinois State (4-0) this week at Walkup Skydome.
4. Montana (1-1, 3-2) — The Griz continue to search for consistency defensively while the offense hums along despite being guided by redshirt freshman quarterback Gresch Jensen. Last week, the Griz gained 454 yards of total offense, including a season-high 170 on the ground thanks to a 124-yard performance by Jeremy Calhoun. But the defense gave up 544 yards of total offense to Portland State, including 295 on the ground.
The Grizzly defense continues to pile up statistics — Montana ranks second in the league with 14 sacks and second in the Big Sky with nine interceptions — but also remain vulnerable to big plays. Justin Strong earned FCS National Player of the Week honors last week. The senior safety snared three interceptions despite playing with a club on his broken left hand.
UM’s 45-33 win at Portland State moves the Griz to 5-9 on the road under head coach Bob Stitt. Montana will look for its second straight road win and second league victory overall at Idaho State on Saturday. The Griz will be taking on ISU head coach Rob Phenicie, the Grizzlies’ offensive coordinator from 2003 until 2009.
“Any time you play a team the caliber of Montana, you have to have all your Ts crossed and your Is dotted because it’s every bit like playing an FBS team,” Phenicie said. “You have to play error-free because they will take advantage of everything you give them.
“Defensively, they give you multiple looks and multiple blitzes out of multiple looks. It makes it tough to simulate in practice because you have to have the fine line of running against base stuff and going against blitz the whole time.”
5. Montana State (1-1, 1-3) — If not for a sudden plague of missed field goals and a handful of missed opportunities, the Bobcats could be 3-1 and near the top of this ranking. Instead, a 1-of-6 start on 3-pointers combined with a collection of missed tackles, senseless penalties and timely mis-executions has the Bobcats’ backs against the wall if playoff aspirations are to last through October into November.
MSU missed two field goals and gave up a touchdown on a fake field goal in a near-upset of No. 4 South Dakota State last month. The Bobcats ripped defending Big Sky champion North Dakota in Grand Forks but could not muster much offensive gusto in the loss last week to Weber State. MSU head coach Jeff Choate talked frequently about “surviving September”. Now MSU has to figure out how to navigate October, beginning Saturday morning against Portland State.
One reason for optimism comes in the diverse skill set of sophomore quarterback Chris Murray. The electric signal caller is second in the league with 104.2 rushing yards per game. He is averaging an eye-popping 6.6 yards per carry. He is averaging 254 yards of total offense per game. He caught the eye of Hill, Portland State head coach Bruce Barnum and just about every other coach in the Big Sky so far.
“The kid gets better every game,” Barnum said. “I remember watching him last year. I think the first full game I watched on him was playing the Griz last year and that game, he was mis-firing on some throws. He’s more accurate. He’s faster than everybody on the field. They are building the offense around him and he’s doing a helluva job.”
6. Idaho State (1-1, 3-2) — The Bengals showed something they haven’t had in a number of years last week: resolve. Fresh off losing on a last-second field goal to Northern Colorado, Idaho State trailed Cal Poly 31-17 late in the third quarter at home. Instead of folding, the Bengals rallied for a 38-34 victory.
“Honestly, it’s the atmosphere we’ve created,” ISU explosive sophomore wide receiver Michael Dean “We’ve created a great environment throughout our whole team where we all have the sense of belief where even when we are down, we can come back. It’s a belief we all share.”
The Bengals already have more wins than they did either of the last two seasons. Running back James Madison leads the league with 422 yards rushing while Tanner Gueller is throwing for 270 yards per game and already has 12 touchdown passes. Dean is averaging 19 yards per catch on 21 grabs and has scored five touchdowns. Mario Jenkins (59 tackles) and Joe Martin (54 tackles are No. 1 and No. 3 respectively in tackles in the Big Sky as ISU prepares to host Montana on Saturday.
“They are a good team and you can tell they have some confidence,” UM head coach Bob Stitt said. “They had a good comeback from a couple of scores and they have been in pretty much every game,” Stitt said. “Utah State was a little tough for them but everything else, they continue to play well and get better. They have some really good players.”
7. UC Davis (1-1, 3-2) — Davis has been one of the surprise teams in the league thus far and the UCD faithful are already taking notice. More than 9,500 attended Davis’ 48-24 win over North Dakota at Aggie Stadium. More than 10,000 are expected for Saturday’s showdown with defending Big Sky champion Eastern Washington.
“It’s a combination of our athletic director, our marketing folks doing a great job of rebranding all this, getting people out and excited for the program,” first-year head coach Dan Hawkins said. “Hopefully the football team is doing our part in terms of having success and being exciting.”
The Aggies play an exciting brand of football. Tim Plough, formerly of Northern Arizona, has installed his run-pass option offense to solid success so far. Quarterback Jake Maier is second in the league with 337 passing yards per game and his 72 percent competion rate is one of the top percentages in the country. He has throw 12 touchdowns, including four to All-Big Sky receiver Keelan Doss, the second-best total in the league behind Dean.
UC Davis will get its toughest challenge of the Hawkins era with Gubrud and company coming to town.
8. Northern Colorado (1-1, 2-2) — The Bears carried momentum from the last-second win over Idaho State to Flagstaff but then ran into a Lumberjack squad operating on all cylinders. Northern Colorado has a chance to bounce back in a big way playing against a wounded North Dakota team that is missing 13 starters, including All-American cornerback Deion Harris and potentially also missing Cole Reyes, the reigning Big Sky Defensive MVP.
“Injured or not, you have to be very discipline on either side of the football because offensively, you are going to get shifts and motions and you have two running backs, John (Santiago) and Brady (Oliveira), who are running the ball and cause problems,” UNC head coach Earnest Collins Jr. said. “On defense, they cause you problems because of the stunts and blitzes.”
9. Sacramento State (1-1, 2-3) —Sacramento State head coach Jody Sears said there’s “been some pretty and some ugly” as his team enters its bye week at the midpoint of the season. Still, Sac State has improved on both sides of the ball, evidence in its league-leading 10 interceptions and the 34.2 points per game the Hornets are scoring.
“Consistency on defense with our tackling is the biggest thing that absolutely gutted us last week against Eastern Washington,” Sears said. “We missed too many tackles against a good team. I liked the production of our offense. They are putting up some pretty good numbers but numbers don’t mean nothing unless you are putting up Ws. We have to make sure defensively, we are consistent with our execution and our tackling and making plays. The consistency on offense has been pleasantly good at this point in time but we have not arrived. By no stretch of the imagination have we arrived.”
The Hornets host Idaho State in two weeks.
10. Southern Utah (0-1, 2-2) — The Thunderbirds play Cal Poly after coming off a bye, a distinct advantage no matter who plays the Mustangs’ vaunted triple option offense. Southern Utah limped into the week off with a 54-27 loss to Sacramento State but that defeat came without senior quarterback Patrick Tyler. He’s back now, which gives SUU a chance to move the ball and control the clock.
“For the defensive guys, the bye gives us a chance to coach up our scout offense and gives us a better look but it’s hard to duplicate what Cal Poly does,” SUU second-year head coach Demario Warren said. “We have to make sure we are discipline with what we are looking at and make sure our guys are fitting the run right. That extra week gave us time to heal up and get a good look at the option.”
11. Portland State (0-1, 0-4) — Portland State may still be searching for its first victory. But Montana State head coach Jeff Choate refuses to believe his team is a definitive favorite at Bobcat Stadium on Saturday.
“I remember we used to play Louisiana Tech when I was at Boise State and they always had the best athletes,” Choate said on Monday. “They always scared you the most. Looking at them on film, you’d be like, ‘Who’s that guy? Who’s that guy?’ They would play a bunch of SEC teams early so their record wouldn’t be great. But you knew you’d have your hands full when you play them. I see these guys the same way. They have a lot of talent, a lot of dangerous guys.”
PSU is in a similar situation, having played two FBS opponents, an improved UC Davis team and Montana last week in Portland. The Vikings operate a quarterback run-heavy offense which will go with senior Josh Kraght over freshman Jalani Eason at quarterback on Saturday.
“The system,” Barnum said. “The Compton kid (Eason, he’s talented, he’s going to be great but he wasn’t running the system like I needed it ran. So I said, ‘You know what, you are going to sit back here and watch Josh Kragth, senior, has done it.’ His first start was at Bozeman when I started him over Kieran McDonagh a few moons ago. You are going to learn how to run the system. I had hoped that would happen by game three but I was wrong. I gambled. I needed to give the kid a little more time. Kraght is essentially teaching him how to run our system on offense.”
Kickoff is at 11 a.m. because of the ROOT sports broadcast.
12. North Dakota (0-2, 1-4) — The injuries continue to mount as Reyes is questionable against Northern Colorado and Jake Disterhaupt, a senior outside linebacker who has been filling in at inside linebacker, is now on the shelf with an injury as well.
“Reyes is still questionable,” UND head coach Bubba Schweigert said. “We thought last week he might be a game-time decision and with a little luck, he would play. The progress has been a little slower than we had hoped.
“We don’t have any linebackers coming back. Mason Bennett will come back from the d-line after missing last week. We get one guy back but we are still so banged up. That’s where we are sitting right now.”
13. Cal Poly (0-2, 0-5) — Fresh off a playoff berth, Cal Poly entered the season with high expectations and a shot at making a run at a Big Sky title. Five straight losses to begin 2017 has the Mustangs reevaluating expectations entering October.
“There’s no question we have to reevaluate but before we start thinking about the future, we have to get our first win,” Cal Poly head coach Tim Walsh said. “That’s the emphasis with the team. I think we have a great group of people but they are extremely frustrated because in reality, in almost every game, we had control of our destiny and made mistakes that allowed us to not control our destiny. Really, seriously, mistakes that if you had them back, you take care of the football, you take care of a coverage here or there, the ball, the catches, our season looks a lot different. But unfortunately, you can’t go back and change those things. All you can try to do is get better at what you are doing.”
Photos by Brooks Nuanez or attributed. All Rights Reserved.