Big Sky Conference

Big Sky Conference opens spring season


Although several of the most competitive members in the league are not participating, the Big Sky Conference began its spring football season in earnest on Saturday.

Initially, all eight teams participating in the spring season were slated to open on the final Saturday of February. Instead, three Big Sky games were played yesterday, instead of four. Cal Poly at UC Davis was postponed, as is this upcoming week’s game between Cal Poly and Weber State because of Covid-19 issues within the CP program.

The other three league matchups featured three rivalry games. Northern Arizona scored on the final play of the game to earn a 34-33 win over Southern Utah to claim the Grand Canyon Trophy in walk-off fashion.

Weber State drilled Idaho State in Pocatello, 49-21, to continue to domination of its rival.

And Idaho emerged with a 28-21 win over No. 12 Eastern Washington in Moscow that was shrouded in controversy after a made EWU field goal was ruled no good.

No. 4 Weber State 49, Idaho State 21

Weber State has won or shared the Big Sky Conference title three seasons in a row largely on the strength of elite defenses and exceptional special teams play. A narrative has been brewing since the end of last season with multi-year starter Jake Constantine entered the NCAA Transfer Portal that if Weber could get its hands on a quarterback this off-season, look out.

It might be the missing ingredient to get WSU over the top and into the FCS title game for the first time after advancing to the semifinals for the first time in school history in 2019.

If Saturday’s performance in Pocatello is any indication, Weber State might’ve found that missing ingredient in freshman quarterback Bronson Barron.

Barron, a 6-foot-3, 215-pounder from American Fork, Utah who has been on an LDS mission the last two years, ripped a 55-yard touchdown pass to David Ames to give WSU a 14-0 lead, his second touchdown pass of his first quarter of college football.

By the time the third quarter was over, Barron had thrown for more than 300 yards and four touchdowns. He finished his college debut with 312 yards and four passing touchdowns. On Sunday, he was named Big Sky Offensive Player of the Week.

Weber State poured it on the third frame, turning a 14-0 halftime lead into a 42-7 cushion entering the fourth quarter.

WSU All-American running back Josh Davis took a 27-yard pass from Barron for the first score of the game. Rashid Shaheed, the most accomplished and decorated kick returner in the FCS, caught touchdowns of 38 and 10 yards early in the third quarter.

Weber State running back Josh Davis pictured here in 2019 against Northern Arizona/ NAU athletics

Davis, who finished with 106 yards rushing and 165 yards from scrimmage, scored a 64-yard touchdown to put WSU up 35-7. And Dontae McMillan scored a three-yard touchdown on an afternoon Weber rushed for 289 yards and piled up 638 total yards.

Shaheed caught five passes for 73 yards and the two scores. Ty MacPherson caught three passes for 93 yards as Weber showed a newfound explosive element to its downfield passing game.

In his first start at quarterback at Idaho State, former Wyoming transfer Tyler Vander Waal completed 17-of-42 passes for 304 yards and three touchdowns but was picked off twice.

Tanner Conner caught a 74-yard touchdown on the first possession of the second half to cut the WSU lead to 14-7. He also caught a 52-yard touchdown with 10 minutes left to cut the cap to 42-21. He finished with six catches for 167 yards.

Conner Mortensen had an interception, as did Logan Lutui for a Weber State defense that did not register a sack or a tackle for loss according to the official stats.

Weber State’s game next week against Cal Poly has been postponed. The Bengals travel to Cedar City, Utah to take on Southern Utah.

Idaho 28, No. 12 EWU 21

Eastern Washington has been the team to beat in the Big Sky Conference since the beginning of the 2010 season. The Eagles claimed the league’s last FCS national title in 2010 and advanced to the Final Four of the FCS playoffs five times in nine years under former head coach Beau Baldwin.

EWU returned to the national title game in 2018 behind the electric play of Barriere, then a sophomore. But last season, EWU’s 35-27 loss at Idaho proved to be the first dent in Eastern’s armor.

The Eagles stubbed their toes a few more times along the way, finishing at 7-5 and on the outside of the FCS Playoff picture despite the fact that the Big Sky got four teams — Sac State, Montana State, Weber State and Montana — into the 24-team field in 2019.

Saturday in Moscow, despite missing head coach Aaron Best after he had a positive Covid 19 test, the Eagles looked like they would make quick work of the rival Vandals. But the Vandals kept on swinging, taking advantage when the Eagles were deflated when a clearly made 24-yard field goal was called no good.

By the time the final possession rolled around, burly Vandals quarterback Mike Beaudry had settled in, proving he will likely be a key addition as Idaho continues fighting for respect after moving into the Big Sky after more than 20 years away.

The confident signal caller engineered an eight-play, 68-yard drive capped by a 25-yard touchdown pass to sophomore Hayden Hatten with 54 seconds left that proved to be the game-winning score.

“The last drive was just a really good drive by the offense,” Petrino said. “Defense played really well all day long. Their quarterback (Eric Barriere) is one of the best players in the country. I thought our defense was exceptional today.

“Tre Walker made all sorts of tackles, Christian Ellis did a tremendous job. And then on offense, Hayden and Mike and Cutrell (Haywood) did a good job. And up front, I thought a bunch of our young guys protected well, too.”

An EWU team known for its prolific offenses — Eastern was among the FCS leaders in 2019 by scoring 40.6 points and rolling up 524.5 yards of total offense per game — got off to a quick start thanks to a huge defensive play.

Less than 10 minutes into the game, Anthany Smith intercepted Beaudry and took the pick 71 yards for a touchdown.

Less than two minutes into the second quarter, running back Dennis Merritt ripped off a 27-yard touchdown run to cap a 70-yard drive and put Eastern Washington up 14-0.

Idaho quarterback Mike Beaudry/ by UI athletics

As the game wore on, Beaudry, a 6-foot-5, 250-pound transfer from UConn by way of West Florida, settled in and began picking EWU’s defense apart. The strong-armed signal caller finished 22-of-45 for 296 yards and a pair of touchdowns to helped carry an offense that managed just 70 rushing yards on 29 carries (2.4 yards per carry).

Barriere, a senior and preseason All-American honoree, picked up right where he left off last season, a campaign that saw him throw for 3,712 yards and 31 touchdowns.

Saturday in Moscow, he completed 32-of-57 passes for 339 yards and a pair of scores. But he finished with -16 yards rushing as Idaho’s defense finished with 10 tackles behind the line of scrimmage.

UI running backs sophomore Nick Romano and junior Roshawn Johnson each scored short rushing touchdowns to help the Vandals tie the action 14-14 with 6:15 left in the first half.

Eastern began the second half with a nine-play, 75-yard touchdown drive capped by Barriere hitting Anthony Stell Jr. from 16 yards out to put EWU up 21-14. The Eagles would not score again, although the Big Sky did send out a statement admitting the call was erroneous.

At the moment the 24-yard field goal attempt was ruled no good, the game was tied 21-21 with 11:01 left.

On what proved to be the game-winning drive, Beaudry hit Hatten for a 28-yard gain, one of three completions by Beaudry on the final possession, to spark the march.

“Any time you are playing at a school for the first time, you are going to have nerves,” Petrino said. “He’s been playing really well in practice. It’s different, different to settle into a game. He missed a couple of throws early but he kept his calm, kept fighting, kept battling.”

Eastern Washington hosts Northern Arizona next week. Southern Utah hosts Idaho State.

NAU 34, Southern Utah 33

In his first career start at NAU, fifth-year senior quarterback Keondre Wudtee engineered a final drive to be remembered. The 6-foot-4, 230-pound Oklahoma State transfer capped an eight-play, 81-yard march over the final 53 seconds of the game by hitting redshirt freshman Coleman Owen for a two-yard touchdown, the first of his young career, as the clock expired.

“It was a sprint out, we were going to hit him from the get-go. It broke down and we just freestyle at the end,” Wudtee said of the play after throwing for 252 yards and a pair of touchdowns.

The catch was the fourth and final of the game for Owen, who finished with 62 yards.

“They kind of rolled the safety down and it kind of got blown up, but I just sat in the hole and Keondre put it where I could get it,” Owen said of the game-winner. “It was really emotional after the game.”

While NAU’s offense struggled early, Wudtee opened up the second half with a perfect pass down the sideline to Stacy Chukwumezie and connected for a 55-yard score just 33 seconds into the third quarter. That gave NAU a 21-20 lead after trailing 13-2 early in the second quarter.

Kam Hightower sparked the rally by taking an interception 58 yards for a score to cut the SUU lead to 13-9. Southern Utah quarterback Justin Miller threw five touchdowns Saturday, including three in the first half. Miller threw a 10-yard scoring strike to Tanner McLachlan to cap a 17-play, 66-yard drive on the first possession of the game. Miller also threw a pair of short touchdowns to Brandon Schenks to give SUU a 20-15 halftime lead.

Out of halftime, Wudtee ripped the touchdown to Chukwumezie and the rest of the game went back and forth. Schenks, who caught five for 74 yards total, caught his third touchdown on NAU’s next possession to give the T-Birds a 27-21 lead.

NAU freshman quarterback Jeff Widener orchestrated a 10-play, 75-yard drive capped by a short touchdown run on a QB keeper to give the hosts the lead back, 28-27, with 10 minutes left in the third.

Miller hit Landen Measom from three yards out for the final score of the day for Southern Utah just four seconds into the fourth quarter. But the visitors could not hold on to the 33-28 lead.

“We made some mistakes, but that’s college football,” SUU head coach Demario Warren said following the contest. “That’s why we’re out here, we want to play these kinds of games, have this kind of feeling and have games come down to the final play.  It was an exciting game. It’s disappointing that we lost, but it is what it is.”  

In Chris Ball’s first season at the helm in 2019, NAU went 4-8, including 2-6 in league play. The Lumberjacks closed the season on a four-game losing streak, meaning Saturday’s victory was the first by NAU since October 26, 2019.

Northern Arizona second-year head coach Chris Ball/ by Brooks Nuanez

“It was emotional from the beginning, the start of the day was really emotional,” Ball said of NAU’s first game in more than 460 days. “The stuff we have been through to get to this point. We start thinking about all the people to make this happen. And I am talking work, long hours and late nights to put our players in this position to play a game and have some normalcy is amazing.”

SUU finished 2019 with a 3-9 record but the Thunderbirds did win two of their last four, defeating Idaho State 59-34 on October 26, 2019 and beating NAU 31-30 on November 16, 2019. The Thunderbirds will play at Eccles Coliseum in Cedar City, Utah next Saturday against the Bengals, who fell 49-21 to Weber State.

“I can’t complain about my team, I’ve got to do a better job as a head coach,” Warren said. “I think we can win a lot of games this year, so we’ll get back to the drawing board and get our guys in the best position to be successful.”

NAU plays against Eastern Washington, one of the favorites entering the spring season but a squad coming off Saturday’s 28-21 loss to Idaho. On November 2, 2019, EWU pounded NAU 66-38 as All-American Eagles’ quarterback Eric Barriere rolled up 367 yards passing, 101 yards rushing and accounted for four touchdowns.

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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