Coaches have various nicknames for November, from crunch time to the stretch run to, as Idaho State head coach Mike Kramer has long called it, “big man month.”
As the Big Sky Conference enters the final month of the regular season, half the league remains mathematically alive for the league title with two losses or less. Six teams — Eastern Washington, North Dakota, Cal Poly, Weber State, Northern Colorado and Montana — still harbor playoff hopes as all six have reached five wins with three games to play. Northern Arizona is 4-4 but one win is a Division II win, meaning the Lumberjacks would need some major help to get into the 24-team FCS playoff field.
No. 3 Eastern Washington and No. 17 North Dakota have the inside tracks on the Big Sky championship; neither has lost entering November. No. 14 Cal Poly, who hosts EWU this week, could foil those plans with remaining matchups with Eastern, Weber and UNC remaining. North Dakota has just two games remaining — at Northern Colorado this week and at home against Northern Arizona the next — before taking a bye the final week of the season. Weber’s conference title hopes took a big hit last week with a loss at UND; the Wildcats have home games against NAU and Cal Poly the next two weeks followed by season-finale in the final week against rival Idaho State.
Each Wednesday for the rest of the season, 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 COMPOSITE SCHEDULE NOVEMBER 5
Eastern Washington at Cal Poly
Idaho State at Montana
North Dakota at Northern Colorado
Montana State at Southern Utah
Portland State at UC Davis
Northern Arizona at Weber State
1. Eastern Washington (5-0 in the Big Sky, 7-1 overall) — The Eagles took one step closer to a fifth Big Sky Conference championship this decade and have an inside track on earning one of the top four seeds in the FCS playoffs after a dominating win over Montana last week.
Senior All-American Cooper Kupp snatched the momentum from the Griz with a 69-yard touchdown, his 54-yard pass set up Tamarack Pierce’s two-yard touchdown spurt to give EWU a 14-7 lead and the Eagles never trailed again. Kupp burned the man coverage employed by the Grizzlies all afternoon, the second consecutive week Montana’s secondary has been vulnerable over the top in road losses.
Eastern Washington already has one of the most impressive resumes in the country. The Eagles have a Pac 12 win over Washington State, and now wins over three ranked FCS squads. EWU’s only loss came in a six-point overtime loss to North Dakota State and the 44 points the Eagles scored in Fargo are the most surrendered by NDSU during their current run of five straight FCS titles.
If EWU can win this weekend against red-hot Cal Poly, Eastern will have an inside track on becoming the first team to post an 8-0 conference record since the 2013 Eagles did it. Eastern Washington finishes with Idaho State and at Portland State after Saturday’s game in San Luis Obispo.
2. North Dakota (6-0, 7-2) — UND already has the inside track on becoming the first team to go unbeaten in Big Sky play other than Eastern Washington and Montana to win all its conference games since Boise State, Nevada and Idaho left the league 20-plus years ago.
North Dakota has taken full advantage of a schedule that doesn’t include this year’s Eagles or Grizzlies to rip off seven straight wins, including six straight over league opponents. The Fighting Hawks have this week’s game against Northern Colorado in Greeley and the following week against Northern Arizona in Grand Forks between them and a perfect Big Sky run in just their fifth season in the league.
UND put itself in the driver’s seat by knocking Weber State from the ranks of the Big Sky unbeaten despite junior quarterback Keaton Studsrud, who suffered an elbow injury late in the third quarter. John Santiago’s 100-yards kick return for a touchdown provided a spark on the first play of the game. Then North Dakota’s vicious defense locked in. UND held Weber to 12 yards rushing and sacked quarterback Jadrian Clark six times, including 2.5 by outside linebacker Drew Greely. Junior safety Cole Reyes had two of UND”s three interceptions to seal a 27-19 win.
3. Cal Poly (4-1, 6-2) — Cal Poly could come close to or even clinch a playoff bid with a win over No. 3 EWU on Saturday. North Dakota gets the nod in this week’s power rankings because of its seven-game winning streak and its 31-24 win over Cal Poly last month.
A Mustangs’ win over Eastern could boost Cal Poly’s at-large resume seriously. The Mustangs beat No. 9 South Dakota State in Brookings 38-31 to cap a non-conference that also included a 38-16 win over perennial Pioneer League champion San Diego and an overtime loss at FBS Nevada. CP also has a 42-41 win over Montana but a win over the Eagles would bolster Cal Poly’s resume significantly.
Cal Poly has been on fire offensively since the return of fullback Joe Protheroe the week after the UND loss. CP is averaging 40.2 points and 509.6 yards of total offense during Big Sky play. The Mustangs scored on nine consecutive possessions and rushed for 462 yards in a 55-35 win over Portland State and added a season-high 527 rushing yards, 12 short of the all-time Big Sky single-game record, in a 59-47 win over Sac State last week.
If Cal Poly could get past EWU this weekend, the Mustangs could claim their second Big Sky title since joining the league in 2012 with wins at Weber State and over Northern Colorado plus a loss by UND to UNC or NAU.
4. Northern Arizona (3-2, 4-4) — Northern Arizona took a three-game winning streak into its bye last week, including a 45-34 victory over the then-10th-ranked Grizzlies.
The Lumberjacks got confirmation sophomore quarterback Case Cookus, last season’s FCS Freshman of the Year, will miss the remainder of the season. Cookus went down in the third quarter of a 50-35 loss to Eastern Washington and Blake Kemp struggled with turnovers the rest of that game and the following week in a 21-18 loss to Northern Colorado that dropped NAU to 1-4.
Since Kemp settled in, Northern Arizona hasn’t lost. He has thrown four touchdowns each of the last two weeks. The preseason Big Sky favorites now have a chance to play big-time spoilers. NAU can push Weber State to the brink of the post-season picture and eliminate the Wildcats from the BSC title hunt with a win in Ogden this weekend. Northern Arizona could spoil UND’s bid for league perfection the following week.
5. Weber State (4-1, 5-3) — Weber State ripped off five straight wins over five of the bottom six teams in these rankings. Last week’s loss to UND saw old demons surface again for Jadrian Clark, who threw three interceptions. The loss also starts a brutal stretch for the Wildcats off on the wrong foot.
Weber will essentially need to win its remaining three games have a chance at the playoffs. A win over Cal Poly in Ogden in two weeks would serve as the Wildcats’ only marquee victory. Weber State will almost certainly finish with a winning record for the second straight season with a finale at Idaho State.
6. Northern Colorado (3-2, 5-3) — The Bears have one more win than Montana. Northern Colorado have one identical win (Sac State) and one identical loss to the Griz. The difference is Northern Colorado beat NAU while also moving one win away from its second straight winning season with last week’s win at Portland State.
Northern Colorado’s 56-49 overtime win last week pushed the Bears to three league wins and five overall. UNC is still searching for a quality win outside of NAU but a three-game winning streak or even wins in two of their final three would give the Bears a legitimate playoff resume for the first time since joining the Big Sky in 2006. UND finishes with home dates against North Dakota and Montana and its season finale at Cal Poly. UNC showed flashes during a three-game winning streak to finish with four Big Sky wins in 2012. The Bears had a winning record last year. But even two wins in its next three games would be the landmark achievement of the program in its Division I era thus far.
7. Montana (2-3, 5-3) — Montana’s early-season wins over Northeast Conference front runner Saint Francis (41-31) and at then-No. 3 Northern Iowa are proving more and more valuable as the Griz are officially fighting for their playoff lives.
A 7-4 Griz team would have a better shot than most other FCS teams, Big Sky or otherwise, at receiving an at-large bid. An 8-3 Griz team, even with an 5-3 conference record, would be a certain playoff qualifier. But a loss to any of three remaining teams — Idaho State, Northern Colorado, Montana State — who have no business stacking up with one of the league’s most talented squads would seriously hinder Montana’s quest for a fourth straight playoff berth.
Likely the only way the Big Sky gets four teams into the postseason is if Montana wins out, North Dakota runs the table, EWU earns a seed and Cal Poly gets to eight wins by winning two of three.
8. Southern Utah (3-3, 4-4) — The defending Big Sky champions have been able to bounce back after each of its losses this season, including after its collapse against in-state rival Weber State. The Thunderbirds led 36-14 entering the fourth quarter only to lose 37-36.
SUU responded by rolling up 610 yards and 32 first downs in a 52-27 win over Idaho State. Southern Utah has just two conference games left. This week, Montana State travels so Cedar City for the first time since 2012 and just the second time since SUU joined the league that same season. SUU plays at BYU on November 12 and at Northern Arizona in its season finale.
9. UC Davis (1-4, 2-6) — Davis put forth perhaps the best defensive performance by any team — including South Dakota State, Montana or Nevada — against Cal Poly’s triple option two weeks ago. UCD allowed 5.0 yards per carry but that included Kyle Lewis’ 91-yard scoring run that proved to be the game winner in the 21-16 victory by the Mustangs to win the 42nd Battle for the Golden Horseshoe for the fourth time in five years.
Like the other four teams in the bottom five of the rankings, Davis has just one Division I win, a 34-21 win over Northern Colorado, to its credit. Davis gets the nod over the other four because Northern Colorado is a better win than any Portland State, Sacramento State, Idaho State or Montana State possess. Davis could go on a run with Portland State in town this week, a game at winless Montana State and a finale in Davis against Sac.
10. Portland State (1-4, 2-6) — The Vikings simply can’t find the magic that charmed last season’s run to nine wins and a playoff seed. PSU still has just one Division I win (a 45-20 win over Idaho State) and the Vikings have been the victim of close losses three times in five Big Sky outings.
PSU trailed 38-31 but had the ball inside the Southern Utah 5-yard line with less than two minutes left before senior quarterback Alex Kuresa threw an interception that Jarmaine Doubs returned 98 yards for a touchdown to open Big Sky play. Portland State gave up a late touchdown in a 14-10 loss to Weber State. The Vikings were flagged for pass interference and gave up a 10-yard touchdown on the second play of overtime in last week’s overtime loss to UNC.
The Vikings have two shots at wins with two trips to California; PSU plays at UD Davis this week and at Sac State next week before hosting rival Eastern Washington.
11. Idaho State (1-4, 2-6) — ISU has consistently struggled once again and the Bengals already have Sac and Portland State in the rearview. Now the meat of the Bengals’ schedule begins, starting with their first trip to Missoula since 2012 to play desperate Montana. Idaho State finishes at Eastern Washington and at home against rival Weber State.
12. Sacramento State (1-5, 1-8) — The Hornets’ inconsistent offense found a spark last week in piling up 482 yards and scoring 47, including four Nate Ketteringham touchdown passes in the fourth quarter alone. But the league’s second-worst scoring defense couldn’t hold off Cal Poly as Sac lost for a league-high eighth time.
Sac has a bye this week before hosting Portland State and playing at UC Davis to finish the season.
13. Montana State (0-5, 2-6) — Montana State first-year head coach Jeff Choate said Monday that his team has shifted its vision to trying for a 3-0 record to finish what has been a disastrous season with a bang. MSU comes off its bye with a trip to Cedar City, Utah to take on defending Big Sky champion Southern Utah. Montana State finishes its home slate at home against UC Davis before playing rival Montana in Missoula in what will almost certainly be a must-win for the Griz if UM wants to keep its playoff hopes alive.