As the calendar turns to October, the Big Sky Conference features a full slate of six conference games for the first time this weekend.
The action gets underway on Friday night with a Beehive State rivalry game as Southern Utah (2-2) plays at Weber State. Saturday, No. 13 Montana (2-2) plays at UC Davis (0-4), No. 16 Portland State (3-0) hosts North Dakota (3-1), Norhtern Colorado (2-2) is at Sacramento State (1-3), Idaho State (1-3) is at Cal Poly (1-3) and No. 11 Montana State (2-1) plays at the Walkup Skydome in Flagstaff, Arizona for the first time since 2010 as Northern Arizona (2-2) hosts the Bobcats. No.9 Eastern Washington (2-2) has a bye.
Southern Utah at Weber State
For the first time in the Jay Hill era, Weber State is on an winning streak. The Wildcats defeated Sacramento State 32-14 in a non-conference contest before starting Big Sky play 1-0 with a 38-17 win over Northern Colorado last week.
“We’ve won two in a row going into a rivalry game with a conference opponent and we are excited about it,” Hill said.
Southern Utah is coming off a 55-7 win over Division II Brevard College in which the Thunderbirds were simply physically superior. SUU has won two straight, including a 30-3 win over Northern Colorado two weeks ago, to rally back after an 0-2 start.
“We have moved on from last week quickly and we have our full attention on Weber State,” SUU head coach Ed Lamb said. “There were mistakes that were made in the game that were covered up by just having mismatches or having players with more speed, size and strength.”
A Southern Utah defense led by All-America defensive end James Cowser, All-Big Sky senior linebacker Matt Holley and All-Big Sky safety Miles Killebrew will be staked with slowing down a surging Weber State run game. Two weeks ago, true freshman Treshawn Garrett rushed for 101 yards and a touchdown. Last week, Eric Wilkes rushed for 122 yards.
“I thought they were really aggressive on defense a year ago and I thought they had some real big-play capability on offense,” Lamb said. “In our game last year, the really kicked us around even though we came away with the win, largely because of some well-timed turnovers. But no means was that a victory we win a high percentage of the time.”
Last season, Southern Utah took a 31-28 lead on Ammon Olsen’s third touchdown pass of the day early in the fourth quarter. Killebrew forced a fumble and Josh Smith snared an interception late to secure the win.
“Last year’s game, I thought, was a war. It came down to the very last play of the game where we throw the ball into the end-zone and if we catch it we win and they intercept it,” Hill said. “I think it’s an awesome rivalry. There’s so much riding on that this year.”
No. 12 Montana at UC Davis
The first month of the Bob Stitt era at Montana has been a roller coaster. The Griz shot out of the gate with a 38-35 win over top-ranked NDSU in the first college football game of the season in front of a national television ESPN audience. Then UM lost at home to Cal Poly 20-19 before falling behind on the road at No. 10 Liberty in an eventual 31-21 loss.
Last week, the Grizzlies got back on track with a 23-14 win over Northern Arizona. Montana scored 10 points before the Lumberjacks’ offense even took the field and 16 points before halftime, allowing NAU just 19 yards in the first two quarters. Montana totaled eight sacks, including four by senior defensive end Tyrone Holmes.
“It was nice to get a quick start since we haven’t done that this year,” Stitt said. “We were able to score on the first drive of the game for the first time this year. That quick start was just what we needed.”
Davis is the lone winless team in the Big Sky. But Stitt says UCD’s record is deceiving. The Aggies have a pair of FBS losses (31-17 at Nevada, 47-27 at Hawaii) as well as last week’s 31-24 loss to UND in Grand Forks.
“UC Davis is a very good football team and their record is not an indication of what time of team they have got,” Stitt said. “They’ve played a couple of FBS schools and the FCS schools they play are very tough. They are scary. Very multiple on offense. They are a lot like North Dakota State. And they are very tough against the pass, which is what we like to do. We have a great challenge this week.”
Montana lost 6-foot-7 quarterback Brady Gustafson for an undetermined amount of time to a leg injury in the first half of the Liberty loss. Prior to the injury, Gustafson was averaging 60 passing attempts and 393.5 yards per game. Last week, Chad Chailch completed 29-of-45 passes for 279 yards and Montana rushed for a season-high 195.
Davis counters with the second-best pass defense in the conference. The Aggies allow 157.5 passing yards per game. Darryl Graham and Patrick Wells lead UCD with one interception each.
Offensively, junior quarterback Ben Scott has been solid. He’s completing 65 percent of his passes for 221 yards per game and he’s thrown seven touchdowns. But UCD is averaging just 2.8 yards per carry despite rushing the ball 35 times per game, the exact same amount as the Aggies throw in their West Coast attack.
This week, Davis faces one of the best front sevens in the league. The Griz lead the Big Sky with 17 sacks thanks in large part to Holmes’ eight. The front also features senior linebackers Jeremiah Kose, Kendrick Van Ackeren and Herbert Gamboa along with an NFL prospect in 6-foot-5, 285-pound junior defensive tackle Caleb Kidder.
“We are playing one of the best defenses in the country,” Gould said. “Holmes is an NFL guy. We thought he was really good last year and now he’s like super man, almost unblockable. It’s not just him. That front seven, I think is one of the best in the conference and I feel like they have two corners (Nate Harris, J.R. Nelson) who are exceptional that do a great job of playing man-to-man to take receivers out of it.”
Idaho State at Cal Poly
San Luis Obispo is host to a showdown between two veteran Big Sky coaches hoping to help their teams find their identities. Idaho State rolled up nearly 800 yards of offense in a season-opening win over Division II Black Hills State and hasn’t had any offense since. ISU opened up Big Sky play a week before the rest of the league with a 34-14 loss to Portland State at home. The last two weeks, Idaho State has been outscored 132-8, including a 52-0 shutout loss at Boise State and an 80-8 decimation in Sin City at the hands of UNLV last weekend.
“I’m going to echo the sentiments of every other coach in this conference: if you keep playing these Division I games, you are going to get wacked,” said ISU head coach Mike Kramer, who is in his 18th season as a Big Sky head coach. “Eventually, sometime, the combination of injuries and poor play is going to make it as ugly as it can be and it will emphasize the fact that 85 to 63 scholarships is something hard to overcome by anybody.”
Tim Walsh’s Mustangs haven’t had much better luck. CP began its season with a 20-19 upset of Montana in Missoula, a win accentuated by the fact that UM knocked off four-time defending national champion North Dakota State the week prior. Since then, Cal Poly has fallen behind 21-0 in three consecutive losses. Although both teams in the matchup are searching to snap losing streaks, Walsh isn’t buying the notion that ISU is reeling.
“I’ve heard enough really this week about the UNLV game with Idaho State. People all look up to the University of Oregon and look what happened to them against Utah (62-20),” Walsh said. “Sometimes, things like that just happen and they can happen to good teams. I really think Idaho State is physical on defense, big on the offensive line and (running back) Xavier Finney is a great player. They have a great corps of receivers surrounding the quarterback. If I know Mike Kramer’s team, they will be buckled up and you better have yours buckled up because he’s going to come after you.”
Idaho State has given up 861 rushing yards over the last two weeks, including 517 on 54 carries to UNLV. This week, the Bengals must slow the best rushing attack in the country. Cal Poly’s triple option attack is averaging 330 yards rushing per game.
“The main thing is, regardless of who we play, if we don’t fight off blocks and run to the ball with 11 guys with a bee in our butt, we are not going to stop anybody running the ball let alone the best rushing team in the nation,” Kramer said. “We come off of playing a woeful, inadequate effort to play the most up-hill opponent in our conference.”
North Dakota at Portland State
Few thought this October 1 matchup would be between the only three-win teams in the league. Even fewer thought the Vikings would be the last-standing undefeated team in the Big Sky.
Under interim head coach Bruce Barnum, Portland State has seen a defensive revitalization. The Vikings are leading the league by allowing 10.3 points per game and 292 yards per outing. PSU is tied for the league lead with seven interceptions and the team’s +7 turnover margin is the best in the FCS.
“We have a system where we want to attack and keep things in front of us,” Barnum said. “Last year, we gave up some long-ball heartbreakers when we should’ve. When we were winning a game. All of a sudden, a team that is on its way back is all the way back in one play. I don’t want that to happen.
“It’s tough to run 14 plays and score. That’s tough to do in any game today — high school, college, NFL. That’s the plan. Attack up front and when they do catch it, hit them in the mouth. That’s what we have going right here right now on defense.”
Portland State’s defensive fortitude will be tested by UND’s physical run game and vice versa. North Dakota is averaging 180 rushing yards per game in its wins — UND gained just four yards on the ground in a 34-9 loss to NDSU — and North Dakota leads the league by allowing 62.2 rushing yards per game. Portland State’s 242 yards per game on the ground are third in the league and the Vikings allow just 64 rushing yards per contest.
“They really like to run the football and we have to find ways to stop that,” UND second-year head coach Bubba Schweigert said. “They do it a little bit differently by spreading you out and by using one-back. We are going to be challenged that way. Sometimes, this is more difficult to defend than a two-back running back. And containing all their skill players is a huge challenge for us.”
Northern Colorado at Sacramento State
This might be a showdown to avoid the bottom of the power rankings as two of the most undermanned teams in the league square off.
Sac built a 20-7 lead over Eastern Washington last weekend before falling 28-20. The Hornets have lost three straight with their lone win a 41-20 victory over NAIA Eastern Oregon. Sac is giving up 313 passing yards per game and losing by an average score of 32-19. Sophomore quarterback Daniel Kniffin has thrown four touchdowns and five interceptions as he’s struggled to get the ball to All-Big Sky receiver Nnamdi Agude, who has just 10 catches and is averaging just 33 yards per game after a 1,100-yard junior campaign.
Junior running back Jordan Robinson has been a bright spot, rushing for 301 yards and three touchdowns as Sac’s primary ball carrier. He should get plenty of action against a UNC team giving up 216 yards per game on the ground.
“They are going to run the ball until we stop them,” Collins said. “They are going to run power. I would. We haven’t stopped it all year. We know we have to be ready for that.”
On Wednesday, Sac State head coach Jody Sears praised UNC running back Darius Graham, a bruiser who has rushed for 140 yards over the last two weeks. Hornets middle linebacker Darnell Sankey, the Big Sky’s leading tackler with 56 stops, has been the key to Sac allowing 144 rushing yards a game, something that will again be a key, Sears said.
Montana State at Northern Arizona
More and more coaches around the league are marveling at Montana State quarterback Dakota Prukop. Sears called him a “mighty man” following Prukop’s 549 yards in a loss at Eastern Washington. Cal Poly head coach Tim Walsh predicted Prukop would someday win the Walter Payton Award…before Prukop threw for 399 yards and three touchdowns against his squad. This week, NAU head coach Jerome Souers was the one singing Prukop’s praise.
“The way they are performing offensively is a deep concern, scoring as many points as they are,” Souers said. ‘Their quarterback is performing at the highest level. At this point, I’m not sure how you stop him but we will try. Their third down efficiency is unbelievable. It’s really a challenging game to start conference play at home.”
Prukop is averaging 316 yards passing and 100 yards rushing as Montana State has scored at least 45 points in all three of its outings so far this season. The Bobcats are rolling up 581 yards per game, including 718 against EWU and 602 last week against Cal Poly.
For more on this matchup, click here.
Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.