As the Big Sky Conference season reaches its midpoint, the league has started to divide itself. About half of the conference’s 13 teams remain alive in the hunt for postseason berths or conference titles while the other half will look to ruin those prospects.
Eastern Washington continues to roll, notching its 12th straight BSC win last week and the 44th in its last 50 games this decade. NAU stayed red hot and continued chasing a playoff berth. Weber State took a hit while Montana took advantage of a battered visitor from North Dakota on homecoming. Southern Utah has a chance to prove it is for real this week with EWU in town while Montana State will likely have to win out to stay alive in the postseason picture.
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 14
*Northern Arizona at Portland State — W
*Southern Utah at Weber State — L
*Idaho State at Sacramento State — L
*Montana State at Eastern Washington — W
*North Dakota at Montana — W
Skyline Sports 2017 record since league play began: 14-9
PICKS FOR SATURDAY OCTOBER 21 (winners in Bold)
*UC Davis at Northern Arizona
*Sacramento State at North Dakota
*Portland State at Idaho State
*Eastern Washington at Southern Utah
*Weber State at Cal Poly
*Montana State at Northern Colorado
1. Eastern Washington (4-0 in Big Sky, 5-2 overall) — Another week, another upset bid, another Eastern Washington bid.
Montana State did everything it could to eliminate EWU All-American quarterback Gage Gubrud’s big play ability. Instead, Gubrud commanded the offense, particularly in crucial moments, and made the plays Eastern needed for a fourth straight win. After the 31-19 victory over Montana State, the Eagles have now won 44 of their last 50 Big Sky games.
Eastern Washington junior quarterback Gage Gubrud eludes Montana State senior Bryson McCabe/ EWU athleticsEastern Washington is averaging 35.9 points per game and giving up 35.1. Yet the Eagles have won five straight. Whether it was a 42-point second half to earn a 48-41 win in Missoula over now-No. 21 Montana or 21 fourth-quarter points in a 41-38 win over UC Davis or a 13-play, 78-yard drive that spanned nearly six minutes to eliminate MSU’s upset bit, Eastern continues to be the class and clutch of the Big Sky.
“It’s one of those situations where our keyboards in Cheney don’t have the letter P; We don’t panic,” first-year EWU head coach Aaron Best said. “We find a way to not type that letter out because it’s not in our vernacular. Our kids believe that, they always have.”
Gubrud continues to lead the way with 1,672 yards passing (418 a game), 16 touchdowns and just three interceptions during league play. Eastern Washington plays at Southern Utah on Saturday.
“It’s hard to win on the road, No. 1 and No. 2, the elevation is different there, so that’s also a touch of a challenge, something we can’t replicate in Cheney as much as we’d like,” Best said. “And (Southern Utah) is an outfit that plays well at home. I think I ran across something the other day that saide they have only lost one home game the last three years. They have done a great job with that.”
2. Northern Arizona (3-0 in Big Sky, 4-2 overall) — The return of Case Cookus, Andy Thompson’s reinvigorated defense and the motivation provided by the retirement of a legend have all spurred NAU to ignition.
Cookus, a 6-foot-5 junior with a rocket arm who also employs deft touch, missed the conference campaign last season with a broken clavicle. Three games into his return, he is throwing for 341 yards per conference game. He has tossed 11 touchdowns and no interceptions. Those stats don’t even include Cookus’ 380 yards and three touchdowns in a 37-16 win over No. 7 Illinois State two weeks ago.
During NAU’s 3-0 start in league play, Thompson’s defense is allowing just 16.7 points per outing. NAU ranks second to Montana State in total defense (373.5 yards per game) first in pass efficiency defense (99.1), and first in interceptions during Big Sky competition.
NAU administrators announced during Northern Arizona’s bye week, following an 0-2 start, that Souers would not return for his 21st season. The league’s all-time leader in wins and the longest tenured coach in the Big Sky is in his swan song season. The Lumberjacks have responded resoundingly, not losing a game since the resignation announcement despite the season-ending injury suffered by All-American wide receiver Emmanuel Butler.
“We all want to give Coach Souers a great season to go out on,” said Cookus, the FCS National Freshman of the Year in 2015. “That might fire up guys a little more. They shouldn’t need that in the first place but if that’s what drives them a little better, I’m all for it.”
Cookus threw for 347 yards and four touchdowns to earn Big Sky Offensive Player of the Week honors last in a 42-20 win at Portland State. The Lumberjacks host UC Davis on Saturday. Former NAU offensive coordinator Tim Plough is the play-caller at Davis, his alma mater, now. Former Northern Arizona defensive backs coach Cha’Pelle Brown also used to coach at Northern Arizona.
“When they were here, we had a really close staff, tight knit and that will be hard to ignore,” Souers said. “But in the spirit of competitiveness, it will be a great challenge and a lot of fun for both sides. We can’t discount that they have a lot of familiarity with our program. They are starting things new over there where we are building on things we’ve done.
“There’s no doubt that when they watch the tape, they know our personnel as well as we do. They recruited so many of these kids. Tim Plough was significant in recruiting and getting kids here like Case Cookus and (wide receiver) Elijah Marks. I hope it’s fun in that way.”
3. Montana (3-1 in BSC, 5-2 overall) — The Grizzlies lost their senior quarterback in the final game of the non-conference. The injury suffered by Reese Phillips literally hasn’t mattered.
Redshirt freshman Gresch Jensen is throwing for 356.2 yards per game in conference play roughly three quarters after taking over midway through UM’s win over Savannah State. Jensen has thrown for 1,425 yards and 10 touchdowns during league competition, including 423 yards and three scores last week as the Griz have won three straight. The Griz are averaging 41.5 points and 529 yards of total offense per game in league play.
“We are getting to focus on just a few things this week, some red-zone things that we may want to use, some goal line stuff we may want to use and this week allows you to get a few more reps,” UM head coach Bob Stitt said. “Despite the bye this week, our offensive mindset doesn’t change this week, the game plans don’t change that much. It’s just how we attack a defense.”
Montana has found its best flow since this time last season entering its bye week. The Griz won two straight on the road before smashing North Dakota on homecoming. But UM’s three league wins come against teams with a combined five wins, including just two conference victories split between Portland State, Idaho State and UND.
Montana has a bye this week before playing at Weber State on October 28.
“We’ve been grinding for seven straight weeks,” Stitt said. “You want to keep your momentum going. We are playing good football right now. You definitely don’t want to take a week off, come out and be rusty so we have to stay sharp with practice this week. We have a chance to be very, very healthy going into Weber State.”
4. Southern Utah (2-1, 4-2) — The Thunderbirds checked in at No. 1 in the first edition of these rankings after posting impressive non-conference wins over Stephen F. Austin and Northern Iowa. SUU’s loss to Sacramento State seemed inexplicable at the time.
But that loss proved the importance of senior quarterback Patrick Tyler, who did not play in that game, and foreshadowed Sac’s improvement under fourth-year head coach Jody Sears.
Southern Utah has bounced back with wins over Cal Poly (20-14) and last week against in-state rival and nationally ranked Weber State, 32-16. In last week’s contest, SUU knocked out Weber State senior quarterback Stefan Cantwell with the score tied 13 and the No. 16 Wildcats did not score an offensive touchdown in the contest.
“They are well-coached, tough, play hard, don’t beat themselves, very fundamentally sound and they get the most out of their guys,” Eastern Washington head coach Aaron Best said leading up to his team’s game in Cedar City. “They are very much a reflection out of ourselves. They get every ounce of energy, tenacity and talent out of their team.”
The Thunderbirds lead the league in pass defense during conference play (185 yards per game). That number is influenced by playing Cal Poly’s triple option and the run-heavy offense and will be challenged significantly with No. 8 Eastern Washington coming to town.
“I love the character of this football team and I think we are on the verge of creating a consistently winning program,” SUU second-year head coach Demario Warren said. “I think the guys are hungry, they see that they are building something special, something that will last. I like the urgency they are playing with right now.”
5. Weber State (2-1, 4-2) — The Wildcats plummet from the top two spots in these rankings for the first time after losing to their rival fresh off a bye.
The influence on Cantwell’s concussion on the SUU loss cannot be understated. With Justin Shaw and Braden Miles taking turns, Weber couldn’t do anything offensively. Shaw, who went 0-of-4 with three interceptions as a freshman in WSU’s 44-0 loss to Weber two years ago, went 4-12 for 20 yards and two interceptions in the most recent loss to SUU. Miles went 4-of-6 for 33 yards in his college debut.
“You can’t blame the loss on injuries because everyone has injuries but our team did not handle that injury very well,” WSU head coach Jay Hill said. “At the same time, we lost our starting guard and our starting center (Ben Bos) at the exact same. I think a little bit the team went into panic mode. Those three injuries should not affect the defense at all and quite frankly, we did not play well in that game and that was disppointing because the injuries had nothing to do with that.”
Last season against Cal Poly, Hill lined fullback Cory Thomson up at safety, had him run the alley against CP’s pitch game and the Wildcats stuffed the Mustangs. Thompson had 14 tackles and a tackle for loss as WSU held Cal Poly to 190 yards rushing, nearly 200 below its FCS-leading average. WSU travels to San Luis Obispo to play the defeated Mustangs on Saturday.
“I knew going in that Weber State would be one of the better teams in the league and that’s what they are,” Cal Poly head coach Tim Walsh said. “It’s unfortunate their quarterback got hurt because he’s a big part of what they do. He’s a great player. But their thing starts with defense and special teams. They are the best defensive football team in the league and that has statistically been proven. They are a very good outfit and they play us very strongly every year.”
6. Sacramento State (2-1, 3-3) — Sac State’s next win will equal their win total from the last two seasons combined. The Hornets have already won as many games as they did a season ago.
The decision to move on from talented quarterback Nate Ketteringham — after falling out favor, the two-year starter transferred to North Dakota in the summer — and going with UNLV transfer Kevin Thomson has paid huge dividends. The Hornets are averaging 35.1 points and 443 yards of total offense per game. Those numbers spike to 42 points and a league-best 573 yards of total offense per game.
Thomson was recruited to UNLV by former head coach Bobby Hauck and former offensive coordinator Rob Phenicie. Hauck and Phenicie won seven straight Big Sky titles at Montana before going to Vegas. Phenicie is now the head coach at Idaho State, Sac’s last victim; the Hornets put up 572 yards of total offense, including 340 by Thomson, in a 41-21 win over the Bengals.
“I’ve been bragging on Kevin Thomson since whenever anyone would care to listen” Phenicie said. “He’s a special player for them and he is what makes them go. You can tell they are playing with a lot of emotion and playing very hard. This is one of the best Sac State teams I’ve seen.”
The Hornets play at defending Big Sky champion North Dakota on Saturday.
“They have put up a lot of points and yards throughout the season,” UND head coach Bubba Schweigert said. ‘We think Kevin Thomson is playing well at quarterback. He has accounted for 19 touchdowns and that’s a lot for this time of year. He’s surrounded by a lot of skill. We need to really be sharp.”
7. Montana State (2-2, 2-4) — Coming close against elite opponents can only earn you so much credibility. After four losses to nationally-ranked teams in six weeks, Montana State now finds itself in a must-win situation for the rest of the year to keep playoff hopes alive.
Last week at Eastern Washington, MSU fell behind 24-7 due to two turnovers inside the red-zone and general inconsistencies that caused the Bobcats to seem one-dimensional offensively. Like it has for most of the season, the Bobcats seized the momentum for a brief moment and looked dominant during a stretch in Cheney. MSU shaved the 17-point lead to a five-point advantage with 10 minutes left.
Montana State junior Ben Folsom forced a fumble on EWU’s next kickoff after cutting the lead to 24-19. MSU recovered in its own red-zone. Electric yet sporadic quarterback Chris Murray fumbled on the very next play. EWU took over and executed a six-minute drive to seal a 31-19 win.
“We know we can play with just about anybody,” MSU second-year defensive coordinator Ty Gregorak said. “Now we need to prove we can beat anybody. We’ve scrapped with some of the best at our level. But we haven’t proven to anybody we can go win those games yet.”
The Bobcats’ quest for a five-game win streak to assume a spot on the playoff bubble starts on Saturday Northern Colorado. MSU has not played at Nottingham field since 2013. No member of the Bobcats, coaches or players, has ever competed against UNC.
“Every week is a challenge in the Big Sky Conference and we are looking at it exactly how we looked at last week playing Eastern Washington,” MSU second-year head coach Jeff Choate said. “We are playing a tough team at their place. It’s a tough road trip like most of them are in the Big Sky. We have to handle it, be focused and be ready to compete.”
8. UC Davis (1-2, 3-3) — Davis bounced back from a beatdown at the hands of Weber State (41-3) with a dominant 48-24 win over North Dakota. Then the Aggies took the Eagles down to the wire before going into their bye. Now UC Davis has another stout opponent in a difficult venue with a trip to Northern Arizona this week.
“They have one of the best quarterbacks in the country,” Davis head coach Dan Hawkins said, referring to NAU stud junior Case Cookus. “He’s a very special player.”
Thanks to sophomore quarterback Jake Maier and junior wide receiver Keelan Doss, the Aggies have transformed into one of the most lethal passing offenses in the country. Maier, a transfer from Long Beach City College, is throwing for 342 yards per game. He is completing 70 percent of his passes and has thrown 14 touchdowns.
Doss was added to the Walter Payton Award watch list earlier this week. The 6-foot-3, 205-pounder leads the nation with 56 catches, 870 yards and 145 receiving yards per game. He has caught five touchdowns. He had 15 catches for 208 yards against EWU.
“They are ranked seventh in the country in total offense and they are throwing it around on everybody,” Souers said. “That’s going to be something to deal with. You are never going to stop a team like that when they are throwing the ball that well and moving the ball. What you hope to do is manage it to a point.
“We have played a plethora of run teams and this will be the best passing team we have seen so far.”
Hawkins, a Davis alum in his first season leading his alma mater, has refused to acknowledge anything outside of his program as any sort of factor or distraction all season. The presence of Plough and Brown on his coaching staff given their NAU ties is no different.”
“It’s always been about Davis so we haven’t gotten into that,” Hawkins said. “These guys love the players in Flagstaff and have close relationships to them, very fond of the guys. We rest just trying to focus on getting our players ready to go…We don’t want those guys to have to betray anyone at NAU.”
9. Idaho State (1-3, 3-4) — In Rob Phenicie’s first year as a head coach, Idaho State looked like an early contender. The Bengals posted a historic upset over FBS Nevada, then rolled up 619 yards of total offense in a one-point loss to Northern Colorado. The Bengals rallied for a win over Cal Poly before pushing Montana to the brink in a 39-31 loss. Last week, ISU did not look like a contender, giving up 572 yards of total offense in a lopsided 41-21 loss at Sacramento State.
“We had a little bit of the Montana hangover,” Phenicie said. “Going to Sac State, it’s always a tough place to play. I’ve been there as a coach seven times and it’s a different environment. Jody has that going really well. It was a great environment. It was probably the best environment for a Sac State game I’ve ever been at. Their whole side was full with people. We didn’t respond as well as we needed to.”
Individually, ISU has several players who have shined. James Madison leads the league in rushing at 119 yards per game in Big Sky play. Quarterback Tanner Gueller leads the league in passing efficiency in BSC games at 170.0 and is throwing for 300 yards per game with 11 touchdowns and one interception.
Senior linebacker Mario Jenkins (right) landed on the Buck Buchanan award watch list earlier this week thanks to his prolific tackling prowess. He has 49 tackles in Big Sky play alone and 82 overall. But overall the Bengals have been bad on defense against Big Sky teams, giving up a league-worst 580 yards per game. ISU is surrendering 39.2 points per game to conference opponents.
“Play with more emotion,” Phenicie said of what it will take to right the ship. “We came out flat against Sac State and it showed. We have to play with a high level of emotion. We have to stop Portland’s run game. Last year, they ran for 531 yards on us and didn’t complete a pass. We have to stop the run and run the ball on them.
10 North Dakota (1-3, 2-5) —Just when it seems like North Dakota can’t endure any more, the hits keep coming. UND entered last week’s matchup down 15 starters. Then senior quarterback Keaton Studsrud was a late scratch from the starting lineup. Then starting cornerback Evan Holm suffered a knee injury in the middle of the 41-17 loss in Missoula.
Earlier this week, North Dakota got even worse news. Cole Reyes, the reigning Big Sky Defensive MVP, will not return this season.
“He’s been ruled out for the season and that’s unfortunate for us but I think it’s unfortunate for the league,” Schweigert said. “He’s such a good player to have as part of our defense and our team. For our fans not to be able to see him compete is disappointing.”
UND hosts Sac State on Saturday.
11. Northern Colorado (1-2, 2-3) —The Bears welcome a foreign opponent to Greeley on Saturday. Montana State has not been to UNC since 2013. Northern Colorado will have to face Montana State and most of the rest of the teams, if not all of them, remaining on its schedule without quarterback Jacob Knipp. The talented, strong-armed junior suffered a shoulder injury in a 48-38 loss at North Dakota two weeks ago. He is out six to eight weeks so will likely miss the rest of the Big Sky slate.
“You get banged up, get into the season, try to recover some of that confidence,” UNC head coach Earnest Collins Jr. said. “It’s the next man up. You have to get that next guy up, see what he does well, get him prepared and put him in a situation where he can succeed.”
Sophomore Connor Regan, a 6-foot-3, 205-pound transfer from Ventura College, is the slated starter Saturday in Greeley.
12. Portland State (0-3, 0-6) — The Vikings fought hard once again but can’t find a way into the win column still after a 42-20 home loss to NAU. Portland State rushed for 305 yards in the contest.
“They are very good football team that is much better than their record and they are going to be someone, probably sooner than later,” Souers said.
PSU will look for its first win against Idaho State, a place where head coach Bruce Barnum spent six seasons as the offensive coordinator during the first decade of the 21st century.
13. Cal Poly (0-3, 0-6) — Cal Poly took a much-needed bye a week ago. Now the 2016 playoff qualifier will search to break a peculiar losing streak that has marred a season once filled with great expectations.
“Last week, we focused on physical and mental health,” Walsh said. “As poor as our record is, you look at the game, watch the game, we could very easily be 4-2 or 5-1 if we just took care of the football. Injuries mount up on everybody and they are definitely mounting up on us. We are not getting healthier. You have to play the guys you’ve got. I really love and made sure our players understood this last week is that their effort has been outstanding. Somehow, someway we are not finding ways to win and that’s frustrating on my end as the head coach.”
Cal Poly hosts Weber State on Saturday.