Game Day

Battle for title of Big Sky’s best running back reaches crossroads in Ogden


Entering the 2021 calendar year, the Big Sky Conference featured one of the strongest running backs groups of any FCS league in America and one of the deepest stables the league has seen.

The league projected as many as five All-American caliber running backs as this current year first started.

Friday’s showdown between No. 9 Montana State and No. 19 Weber State features two of the Big Sky’s best backs. But the first 10 months of 2021, particularly the first half of the current fall season,  the story of one of the strengths of the league has been a weakening of the Big Sky backfield via attrition.

Marcus Knight, a third-team All-American in 2019 after breaking Chase Reynolds’ record for rushing and total touchdowns in a single season at Montana with 25 scores, suffered a torn ACL during the spring before UM played either of its two exhibition contests.

Elijah Dotson, a two-time first-team All-Big Sky selection who led the league in rushing in 2018 and had more than 1,500 yards from scrimmage as the best dual threat in the league in 2019, abruptly quit the Sacramento State football team last week. He ends his Sac State career with 2,466 yards and 22 TDs

And Josh Davis, Weber State’s two-time All-American and a former Utah Gatorade Player of the Year, has just 213 yards rushing as he has missed two games and a part of a third so far during his junior season. Still, he went over 3,000 rushing yards for his career and scored his 22nd career touchdown earlier this fall.

Even with those dings, the Big Sky still has an impressive collection of ball carriers. In 2018 and 2019, Isaiah Ifanse was the one amongst this elite group who seemed to always be battling bangs and bruises. Now at full strength for the first sustained stretch in his career, the former Washington Gatorade Player of the Year is making a name for himself around the FCS.

“I think Ifanse has been one of the top running backs in the league for a few years now,” Weber State eighth-year head coach Jay Hill said. “And he continues to get better. That’s scary for everybody else.

“All I know is on Friday, we cannot let Ifanse go crazy and run for more than 100 yards.”

Montana junior running back Marcus Knight/ By Robert Casey

Even with Dotson and Knight unavailable and Davis expected back to full strength this week against the Bobcats, the group has at least one more contender. Ulonzo Gilliam entered his junior year at UC Davis with 2,534 career rushing yards, the fourth-most in school history.

The dual-threat, bruising runner rushed for 976 yards and had more than 1,300 yards from scrimmage, scoring 17 total touchdowns as a redshirt freshman in 2018 as the Aggies raced to a share of the first Big Sky title in program history.

In 2019, Gilliam rushed for 1,249 yards and 11 touchdowns while catching 57 passes for the second straight year, this time totaling 354 receiving yards and another score.

“It’s really nice to have a running back who can make people miss but also I fully trust him, if it’s 3rd and 1, he’s going to get that first down,” UC Davis junior center Connor Pettek said. “There are a lot of good running backs in the conference but we like our guy.”

The 5-foot-9, 189-pounder leads the Big Sky in carries with 112 on the way to 519 yards (4.6 per carry) and four touchdowns. Gilliam ranks third in the league in total rushing yards and, like Davis, has surpassed 3,000 yards rushing in his career already.

UC Davis sophomore running back Ulonzo Gilliam/ by UC Davis athletics

“He’s a dynamic back in both ways where I know he can run through someone or he can make those nice finesse moves and get around people,” Pettek said. “He’s an exceptionally talented running back.”

It’s also worth mentioning Dennis Merritt. The Eastern Washington senior was not a part of the group that received a bunch of preseason hype. But this season, he’s been one of the most dangerous backs in the country after players like Antoine Custer and Tamarack Pierce that Merritt split time with have since moved on.

He has rushed for 556 yards, the second-most in the Big Sky. And his 11 rushing touchdowns lead the country.

Big Sky’s Top RBsCareer rushing YardsCareer rushing TDsRush yards this seasonTDs this season
Josh Davis, Weber State3,097222131
Ulonzo Gilliam Jr, UC Davis3,056295224
Isaiah Ifanse, Montana State2,499196616
Elijah Dotson, Sacramento State2,46622951
Marcus Knight, Montana1,03025NANA
Dennis Merritt, Eastern Washington1,4171955611

Ifanse enters Friday night’s showcase (the game will be broadcast beginning at 8 p.m. on ESPN  U) with 661 yards on the ground. That’s the top total in the Big Sky and the third-best total in the country. He has rushed for more than 100 yards four times this season already, giving him 13 trips over the century mark during his already memorable Montana State career.

Last week, he had 13 carries for 58 yards, season-lows , as Montana State cruised past Cal Poly on homecoming, 45-7. That still helped Ifanse reach 2,499 yards rushing in his career, surpassing Tony Boddie and Matt Engelking into sixth in MSU history.

Jeff Choate, the MSU head coach who recruited Ifanse out of perennial Washington state powerhouse Bellevue High, favored a bruising running game during his four seasons leading the Bobcats. And Ifanse was one of his favorite weapons. In 2018, Ifanse became the first Bobcat to rush for more than 1,000 yards in his rookie season. In 2019, Ifanse missed half the season but also had some iconic games.

Montana State junior Isaiah Ifanse scores one of his three touchdowns in MSU’s 45-7 win over Cal Poly/ by Brooks Nuanez

Ifanse returned from injury to rush for 171 yards and three touchdowns in Montana State’s 48-14 thrashing of rival Montana State. He rushed for 196 yards in MSU’s 28-7 win over Austin Peay to punch a ticket to the semifinals of the FCS Playoffs for the first time in 35 years.

New Montana State head coach Brent Vigen has also put a high priority on the ground game. MSU is averaging 228.5 yards per game, the top mark in the league by nearly 40 yards over UC Davis. Ifanse’s 110 yards per game leads the conference and ranks seventh in the country.

“I think having an elite back is important and I think it’s important to have an elite room,” Vigen said. “Every body who has intentions of running the football, you can’t be average back there. I think the nature of that position — that’s a place they come in all shapes and sizes — so good backs, really good backs make their way to the FCS. We are fortunate to have one in Isaiah.”

Vigen, who spent nearly two decades between his time as a player and a coach at North Dakota State, said that one of NDSU’s keys to domination during his latter years was the presence of multiple elite running backs. The Bison won three straight national titles before Vigen followed head coach Craig Bohl to Wyoming.

Vigen hopes he has the compliment to Ifanse in Elijah Elliott, a true freshman who went over 100 yards for the first time two weeks ago in a 40-7 win over Northern Colorado. Elliott is averaging 5.2 yards per carry during his rookie year.

Montana State running back Elijah Elliott (13) looks for space vs. Northern Colorado/by Brooks Nuanez

“I know a key to our success at the tail end of when we were at NDSU, we typically had two elite guys,” Vigen said. “Being able to split the load whether that’s amongst two guys, three guys, I think it is critical because if you make it to the top at this level, it’s a long road, that’s a lot of carries that have to be doled out and if you’re trying to lean on one guy, that’s really tough.”

Ifanse has missed five full games and parts of a few more during his time at Montana State, but now he’s healthy and quite literally carrying Montana State. He rolled up 217 yards on 30 carries in a 30-17 win at Portland State. He followed that up with 114 yards against Northern Colorado. And last week, despite a season-low total in rushing yards (58) and yards from scrimmage (80), he still scored three total touchdowns, giving him seven for the season.

“The way that he is able to finish his runs, I don’t think there’s someone in the league who finishes their runs as well as Isaiah,” Montana State junior fullback R.J. Fitzgerald said in September. “Just a way you think it’s going to be a four or five yard run and he makes it an eight or nine-yard run, which might not seem like a lot but when you are watching it on film, it gives you a burst of effort because you never know when your block might be that touchdown block that turns a casual run into a score.

“I don’t think there’s a lot of guys in this league who can do that.”

A duel for positioning in the Big Sky standings commences Friday night at Stewart Stadium in Ogden. A continued jockeying for the right to be called the Big Sky’s best tailback will also play out.

Several contenders have fallen out of the race. Davis is expected to be back to full strength and Ifanse is the leading candidate for first-team all-conference honors in a stacked competition.

“Well, we need him we need him to be more dominant, we need Josh to dominate like Ifanse has so far,” Hill said.

“We need to get the ball more to Josh and let him be the focal point of what we’re doing, a lot like Montana State’s done with Ifanse. I think those two are right there. I think those are the two best backs in the league right now.”

Photos by Brooks Nuanez and attributed. 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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