BIG SKY POWER RANKINGS: Second week of Big Sky play


After yet another unpredictable week, this one to official open up league play in the Big Sky Conference, Skyline Sports second edition of the 2017 Big Sky Power Rankings saw some major movement.

With a second straight strong showing by All-American quarterback Gage Gubrud, No. 10 Eastern Washington reaffirmed itself as a legit title contender once again. With a revitalization of its power rushing attack, Montana State made a statement against the other reigning co-champions from North Dakota. Northern Colorado continues to look dangerous with its explosive abilty and Weber State is flat out the most balanced squad in the Big Sky.

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.

LAST WEEK’S SELECTIONS (predicted winners in bold)

*UC Davis at Weber State – W

*Eastern Washington at Montana – L

*Northern Arizona at Cal Poly – L

*Southern Utah at Sacramento State – L

*Idaho State at Northern Colorado – W

*Montana State at North Dakota – L

BIG SKY CONFERENCE SCHEDULE FOR SEPT. 30 (predicted winners in bold)

*Sacramento State at Eastern Washington

*Cal Poly at Idaho State

*Northern Colorado at Northern Arizona

*Weber State at Montana State

*Montana at Portland State

*North Dakota at UC Davis

1. Weber State (1-0, 3-1) — Weber State turned heads by putting a scare into Cal. The following week, a 31-24 win over Sacramento State in a non-conference game between conference foes earned extra clout when Sac State whooped Southern Utah 54-27 last week.

The Wildcats’ performances to thus point have turned heads around the league, including from Montana State head coach Jeff Choate, who’s Bobcats host Weber on Saturday in Bozeman.

Weber State's Xequille Henry during an 84-yard punt return for a touchdown in Saturday's win over UC Davis/ Weber State athletics

Weber State’s Xequille Henry during an 84-yard punt return for a touchdown in Saturday’s win over UC Davis/ Weber State athletics

“I think Weber State is the most well-rounded team in the league right now,” Choate said. “There are some very good teams right now in the Big Sky Conference but I think if you look at the balance they play with on offense, their ability to force turnovers and make plays on defense and the thing that keyed their dominating performance over Davis was the explosive nature of their special teams.

“They’ve gotten out to fast starts in all their games, including their (33-20) loss to Cal. They had a lead for the majority of the game. I know they don’t hand out trophies this early in the season but if they were, (head coach) Jay (Hill) and his crew would probably be getting one.”

The Wildcats have found a hard-nosed quarterback in Stefan Cantwell, a talented and fast running back in Treshawn Garrett and one of the best deep threats in the country in freshman Rashid Shaheed (FCS-best 36.2 yards per catch). That’s not to mention All-American and NFL prospect tight end Andrew Vollert (18 catches, 200 yards, 3 TDs).

Defensively, senior McKay Murphy (seven tackles for loss) is a rising NFL prospect, as is cornerback Taron Johnson (INT, four PBUs). The Wildcats enter the matchup at Montana State leading the league in scoring offense (42 points per game), scoring defense (15 points per game allowed) and total defense (292.8 yards per game allowed). 

2. Eastern Washington (1-0, 2-2) — If you have a quarterback, you have a chance. Eastern Washington still has one of the best quarterbacks in college football.

Eastern Washington junior quarterback Gage Gubrud threw for an EWU-record 549 yards against the Griz

Eastern Washington junior quarterback Gage Gubrud threw for an EWU-record 549 yards against the Griz

Trailing 24-6 at halftime in Missoula, Gubrud did not waiver in leading EWU on a furious comeback to topple Montana, 48-41. Gubrud threw for 331 of his school-record 549 yards and all four of his touchdowns after halftime. EWU trailed 27-14 with 1:16 left in the third quarter but exploded for 35 points in the last 16 minutes, a stretch that included three Gubrud passing touchdowns and a rushing touchdown from the junior.

After an 0-2 start that included tough losses at Texas Tech and North Dakota State, Eastern has been on fire, entering its conference home opener against Sac State averaging 634 yards and 52 points per game over its last two.

“They know how to evaluate talent, they know how to recruit and once they get those athletes’ feet on campus, they know how to develop it,” Sac State head coach Jody Sears, a former EWU defensive coordinator, said as his team prepares for EWU. “It’s really fun to watch them because they’ve had so much success and that’s a testament to the level that program is at.”

3. Montana State (1-0, 1-2) — Given North Dakota’s injury situation — the Fighting Hawks enter this week down 10 on-time starters — it wasn’t a huge surprise the upstart Bobcats were able to win in Grand Forks. but the way Montana State posted victory caused the ‘Cats to shoot up the power rankings.

MSU executed its new offensive folds installed during its bye week behind a revamped offensive line, a few new personnel groups and a reinvigorated attitude. The Bobcats turned the tables on UND, beating the hosts at the Fighting Hawks’ own game by rushing for 341 yards and limiting North Dakota to 102. MSU possessed the ball for nearly 40 minutes, converted 12 of 16 third-down tries and owned the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball from open to close.

Montana State's Chris Murry and Troy Andersen during fall camp

Montana State’s Chris Murry and Troy Andersen during fall camp

“Montana State did a very good job,” UND head coach Bubba Schweigert said several days after his team’s 11-game league winning streak was snapped. “We have to be better, stop the run and control the football like they did. They had the ball a whole lot compared to what we had it. That’s been our recipe for being successful and they took that from us.”

Montana State quarterback Chris Murray threw for 174 yards and three touchdowns and rushed for 132 and another score. True freshman Troy Andersen bolstered the attack by rushing for 131 yards and two touchdowns. The Bobcats now square off against No. 18 Weber State in Bozeman on Saturday.

 4. Sacramento State (1-0, 2-2) — Sacramento State proved its strong play early, namely hanging tough with Weber State, was no fluke as the Hornets waxed visiting Southern Utah.

Kevin Thomson, a UNLV transfer who took over after once-promising Nate Ketteringham transferred to UND in the off-season, affirmed the quarterback transition by posting a memorable day. He totaled 402 yards, including 149 on the ground, accounting for four rushing and three passing touchdowns to earn FCS National Offensive Player of the Week following Sac’s 54-27 victory over the talented Thunderbirds.

All told, Sac State piled up 586 yards of total offense as Andre Lindsey notched four catches for 100 yards and two touchdowns. The Hornet defense continued its early strong play, snaring three interceptions to boost their nation-leading total to 10 picks this season already. Dre Terrell leads that charge with four interceptions while Josiah Erickson is right behind with three picks.

“When you talk about the totality of that team, when you bring 18 starters back, that gives you a heck of a chance to not teach 100-level stuff,” said EWU head coach Aaron Best, who’s team hosts Sac State on Saturday. “You can teach 200 and 300-level stuff. Their defense plays extremely high-energy. They are ballhawks. There were a couple of interceptions that were out of this world interceptions, not just gift-wrapped interceptions.

“Experienced, high energy and the sense of belief because they are 1-0 in conference just like us. They are a dangerous team.”

5. Northern Colorado (1-0, 2-1) — The explosive nature of the Bears’ offense still continues to hover under the radar. Make no mistake: Northern Colorado can move the ball up and down the field as well as anyone in the Big Sky. In a 43-42 victory against Idaho State, the UNC defense offered little resistance. The Bears gave up 619 yards of total offense, including 363 yards on the ground against the formerly pass-happy Bengals.

Northern Colorado celebrates its game-winning field goal/ UNC athletics

Northern Colorado celebrates its game-winning field goal/ UNC athletics

But junior quarterback Jacob Knipp, junior running back Trae Riek and the Bears’ offense proved equally hard to stop. Knipp took shot after shot, completing 20-of-26 passes for 413 yards and four touchdowns. He threw scoring tosses of 25 yards to Frank Stephens, 29 yards to Jaison Miller, 59 yards to Alex Wesley and 42 yards to Theron Verna to help the Bears build a 40-26 lead late in the third quarter.

Idaho State came storming back but UNC showed resolve. With ISU trying to run out the clock, UNC junior defensive end Keifer Morris notched his fourth sack of the afternoon to give the Bears the ball one more time. Then Knipp completed six consecutive passes on a nine-play, 67-yard drive that moved Northern Colorado into field goal range. Collin Root drilled a 37-yard field goal as time expired for the win.

“These guys are believing in one another and that’s the thing I love the most,” UNC seventh-year head coach Earnest Collins Jr. said. “We were up the whole game, we give up the lead, we give up so many yards rushing but our guys decided to buckle it down. Our offense did what we had to do, we just had to get them the ball back. It was awesome to see.”

While the Bears have been incrementally building — UNC posted its first winning record as a Division I member last season behind a standout year from now Minnesota Vikings’ backup quarterback Kyle Sloter — their talent is no surprise to Northern Arizona. the Lumberjacks host the Bears at Walkup Skydome on Saturday.

“Earnest Collins has done a great job and we’ve known it because they have beaten us the last few times we were up in Greeley,” NAU head coach Jerome Souers said. “They have handled us twice in the last four years. They have done a great job with their program. They play hard. They played well against Colorado (a 41-21 loss). That’s a good football team. We know what’s coming to Flagstaff.”

6. Northern Arizona (1-0, 1-2) — The adversity came in a wave for Northern Arizona. After a 38-20 home loss to Western Illinois to begin the season 0-2, athletic director Lisa Campos announced that Souers would not return for his 21st season after the 2017 campaign is finished. During NAU’s ensuing bye week, the team officially announced that All-American wide receiver Emmanuel Butler would miss the rest of the season with a serious shoulder injury.

NAU quarterback Case Cookus (15) with former offensive coordinator Tim Plough/by NAU Athletics

NAU quarterback Case Cookus (15) with former offensive coordinator Tim Plough/by NAU Athletics

NAU came out of its bye week to face a struggling Cal Poly team. Despite the swirling exterior factors, the Lumberjacks did not miss a beat in San Luis Obispo. In fact, Case Cookus reemerged as one of the league’s most dangerous offensive weapons.

The 6-foot-5 junior quarterback threw for 406 yards and four touchdowns, finding speedy Elijah Marks 14 times for 206 yards and two scores alone. Defensively, Wes Sutton earned Big Sky Player of the Week honors by notching two tackles for loss and an interception as NAU held Cal Poly’s triple option attack to just 178 yards rushing. Northern Arizona’s 28-10 victory served as a breakthrough and gave the Lumberjacks they hope to carry back home to Flagstaff against Northern Colorado on Saturday.

“I was really proud of the way the team and the coaches responded,” Souers said. “Going on the road like that, particularly against a tough opponent like Cal Poly, a lot of things could’ve gone wrong. But they held it together like you hope your team is going to do when you face adversity. All those things were a challenge for us but we were able to put it all aside and have our best performance thus far this year.”

7. Montana (0-1, 2-2) — Entering conference play, the Griz had one of the cloudiest pictures of any Big Sky team. Montana rolled two overmatched opponents (Valparaiso, Savannah State) at home and got steamrolled by No. 6 Washington on the road. To confound the unclarity, UM lost senior starting quarterback Reese Phillips for the season in the Savannah State game, opening the door for redshirt freshman Gresch Jensen.

For three quarters, it appeared Montana might be on the way back to the top of the Big Sky, a place the Grizzlies owned for nearly 20 years. Montana built a 24-6 halftime lead and owned a 27-13 advantage with a minute to go in the third quarter Saturday night against visiting Eastern Washington. Then it all fell apart.

Montana head coach Bob Stitt fell to 16-12 in his career, 2-2 this season last week/ by Brooks Nuanez

Montana head coach Bob Stitt fell to 16-12 in his career, 2-2 this season last week/ by Brooks Nuanez

EWU exhausted Montana’s defense with an array of wide receiver screens and passes that made UM run sideline to sideline. The once-explosive offense stalled out, mustering short possessions and giving EWU six possessions in the final 16 minutes. Eastern scored touchdowns on five of them as part of a 42-point second half that included 35 points in the final 16:17.

“In the fourth quarter, we ran out of gas defensively and we did nothing on offense for three straight drives,” Montana head coach Bob Stitt said. “I really feel like we let one go by not making key plays. The one in the third quarter where Gresch threw a great ball (for dropped touchdown by Lamarriel Taylor) that was flat dropped was a big turning point in the game. We have to count on our guys to do those things. We are not getting on anybody. We just have to understand how big it is to make plays when you have opportunities.”

Montana now hits the road, a nemesis in totality under Stitt. Montana lost all four of its conference road games last season. UM is 4-9 on the road overall under Stitt. UM has not won on the road since a victory at Northern Iowa last September. UM has lost six of its last seven conference games overall.

“We’ve set our sights on trying to play better on the road and this is our opportunity to go in and get a much-needed win on the road, play very well and deal with not playing in our own stadium,” Stitt said. ”

8. Southern Utah (0-1, 2-2) — The Thunderbirds were without senior quarterback Patrick Tyler during the destruction at the hands of the Hornets. But that did little to explain how SUU’s talented defense gave up nearly 600 yards of total offense and 54 points to a Sac State team that struggled to score for most of the last two years.

“We have to be better in all areas,” SUU head coach Demario Warren said as his team enters a bye. “We have to get back to fundamentals.

“Patrick is a captain, one of our leaders but that doesn’t really affect what we do on the football field. We have 11-on-11, go play on the road. We just have to play better. Sac State had a great game, played better, out-coached us, out-played us. We have to give them credit. We weren’t ready to go like Sac State was.”

Southern Utah plays Cal Poly in two weeks.

Idaho State running back James Madison

Idaho State running back James Madison

9. Idaho State (0-1, ,2-2) — The Bengals tumbled down the rankings after assuming the No. 2 spot last week following a 30-28 win over FBS Nevada. The loss to Northern Colorado is certainly not a horrible defeat, but the Nevada victory is looking less and less like one over a superior opponent following the Wolfpack’s 45-7 loss to Washington State last week.

Still, Idaho State has shored up several aspects of its football team that were largely absent the last two seasons. Even with backup running back James Madison in for injured starter Ty Flanagan, the Bengals ran the ball with authority. Madison piled up 253 yards and scored two touchdowns. Defensively, Idaho State struggled but that unit has shown significant improvement overall.

“It’s great to have these wonderful stats and points, but the bottom line is we still game up with a loss in the column,” ISU head coach Rob Phenicie said. “There’s no moral victories. We are evaluated on wins and losses and that’s a loss to Northern Colorado.

10. UC Davis (0-1, 2-2) — After wins over FCS playoff victor San Diego (35-7) and Portland State (37-14), Davis came back to earth against Weber State. The Wildcats enforced their will in all three phases, dominating from the outset of a 41-3 Weber State win.

“On to the next one because we got out-coached, got out-played,” UC Davis first-year head coach Dan Hawkins said. “Give Weber State a lot of credit. They have a lot of good players who made a lot of big plays. Our approach just needs to get better each week and move on to the next one.”

Davis hosts a beat up North Dakota team on Saturday.

11. North Dakota (0-1, 1-3) — The rash of injuries at UND continues as now Cole Reyes, the reigning Big Sky Defensive MVP, is questionable at Davis. If Reyes can’t go, the Fighting Hawks will be missing both their All-Americans — cornerback Deion Harris tore his Achilles in July — along with 11 on-time starters and three All-Big Sky picks, including offensive guard Demon Taylor.

“We don’t talk about it,” Schweigert said. “We get asked about it. But our job is to prepare the guys who are physically able to play. Does there ever get to be some frustration with injuries? Sure. But we deal with it and that’s what we are attempting to do. We have challenged our leaders to help us. The mind is a powerful thing. We’ve got to stay really positive and work really hard in our preparation through any circumstance we have.”

Portland State defensive end Davond Dade/ by Brooks Nuanez

Portland State defensive end Davond Dade/ by Brooks Nuanez

12. Portland State (0-0, 0-3) — Portland State earned respect for two tough showings against BYU (20-6 loss) and Oregon State (35-32 loss, missed a last-second field goal to tie the game). But head coach Bruce Barnum did not like the way his team responded after its first bye week as the Vikings came out flat and were drilled 37-14 against UC Davis.

Barnum hopes his team’s second bye week leading up to Saturday’s conference opener against Montana will have been put to better use.

“The first bye week didn’t work. I had all these grandioso ideas, we are going to practice here, we are going to do all this to practice fast and then we showed up to UC Davis and got walloped, just got gully washed off the field,” Barnum said. “Two blocked punts, they capitlized, just a mess. We practiced two extra days this time, did some extra work on the Griz. But it’s the Griz coming to town. I’m sure their 2s and 3s are very excited. ‘Hey, we are going to get some time at Portland State.'”

13. Cal Poly (0-1, 0-4) — The fumbling issues, the lack of offensive rhythm and continuity, the injury to All-American fullback Joe Protheroe and the inexperience of quarterback Khaleel Jenkins all continue to hinder the Mustangs. Cal Poly managed just 178 yards rushing, fumbled twice and gave up 406 passing yards in a 28-10 loss to Northern Arizona. The search for their first victory continues in Pocatello against upstart Idaho State on Saturday.

Photos by Brooks Nuanez or attributed. All quotes come from Colter Nuanez interviews on weekly Big Sky teleconference. All Rights Reserved. 

About Colter Nuanez

Colter Nuanez is the co-founder and senior writer for Skyline Sports. After spending six years in the newspaper industry with stops at the Missoulian, the Ellensburg Daily Record and the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, the former Washington Newspaper Association Sportswriter of the Year and University of Montana Journalism School graduate ('09) has cultivated a deep passion for sports journalism during his 13-year career covering the Big Sky Conference. In August of 2014, Colter and brother Brooks merged their passions of writing and art to found Skyline Sports.

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