Big Sky Conference

Big Sky Conference play offically opens


Jerome Souers’ return to Missoula for Montana’s 20th anniversary celebration for the 1995 Grizzlies national title and Montana State’s latest dynamic offensive opponent highlight the first full weekend of Big Sky Conference play.

On Saturday, five Big Sky games will take place between 10 of the league’s 13 teams. Portland State defeated Idaho State 34-14 two weeks ago in Pocatello to open conference play. Last week, Southern Utah posted a 30-3 win at Northern Colorado. ISU plays at UNLV this week while PSU hosts Division II Western Oregon and Southern Utah hosts Division II Brevard (North Carolina) College.

Northern Colorado will become the first team to play two Big Sky games this season as the Bears play host to Weber State, a 32-14 winner over Sacramento State in a non-conference game.

The games of the week will be in Montana. The Grizzlies host a Northern Arizona team that started hot before a 77-13 lambasting at the hands of FBS No. 20 Arizona last week. Montana is looking to right the ship after two straight losses to end non-conference play.

In Bozeman, Montana State will hope to match its explosive offense with some semblance of a defensive effort with Cal Poly in town. The Mustangs already used their vaunted triple option attack to defeat Montana in Missoula earlier this season, 20-19. Montana State hung 50 points on the scoreboard and piled up 718 yards of total offense, including 549 total yards by MSU junior quarterback Dakota Prukop. But the hapless Montana State defense surrendered 16 plays of more than 30 yards, gave up 667 yards on just 57 plays and the Eastern Washington Eagles came away with a 55-50 despite having the ball for less than 22 minutes.

Other Big Sky games include the openers for UC Davis against North Dakota in Grand Forks and Eastern Washington against Sac State in Sacramento.

Northern Arizona at No. 14 Montana

Souers, Northern Arizona’s 18th-year head coach, was Montana’s defensive backs coach from 1986 until 1988, when he took over as the Grizzlies’ defensive coordinator from 1989 until his hiring at NAU in 1998. Souers was a part of five Big Sky title teams, two national championship qualifiers and the 1995 team that won it all, the first time UM had claimed a national title.

IMG_6034This week, Montana celebrates homecoming and the 20th anniversary of that championship.

“It was a special time, a special group and I’m certainly honored and proud to be a part of it,” Souers said. “I know they invited us for the barbecue but we are going to be on the spit is the problem. We have to do our best to mess with that whole plan. But what a great team.”

Souers’ squad began with two straight wins, including a 34-28 win over a previously ranked Stephen F. Austin team on the road. But last week, NAU played at Arizona and didn’t stand a chance. The Wildcats rushed for 499 yards and piled up 792 yards of offense in a 77-13 win. UA held a 56-13 lead in the third quarter but continued to pour it on.

“I don’t have too many thoughts on last Saturday other than it was a tough ball game for us,” Souers said. “Arizona is a talented team and they really put it on us.”

In the off-season, Souers hired Tim Plough as his offensive coordinator and the Lumberjacks installed a new spread offense. In the first two games, freshman upstart quarterback Case Cookus looked like a potential future star, throwing for almost 240 yards a game and hooking up with stud sophomore Emmanuel Butler for five touchdowns all for more than 35 yards. But Cookus was hurt against Arizona and is doubtful for Saturday’s action.

UM's Brady Gustafson

UM’s Brady Gustafson

Montana is searching for answers too, particularly at quarterback. UM came out firing as Brady Gustafson threw for more than 450 yards and four touchdowns in a 38-35 upset of four-time defending national champion North Dakota State. The next week, Cal Poly kept Montana’s big plays at bay and intercepted Gustafson three times in a 20-19 CP win. Last week, Montana fell behind 17-0 at No. 10 Liberty and couldn’t rally back, falling 31-21. In the game, Gustafson suffered a leg injury that several outlets have reported as a broke tibia. He’s out for Saturday’s homecoming game.

“No. 1, with conference play you get to start over,” Montana first-year head coach Bob Stitt said. “We are not excited about being 1-2 in the preseason but we get a chance to win a game in the conference, be on top of the conference immediately. It’s great for our team mentally. Really, the only issue for us is the mental side of it. We are not making plays, we are turning the ball over, we have mental errors on defense where we are giving up big plays. We are playing 95 percent of the game really well and that little part of it is getting us beat against Top 25 opponents.”

In previous trips to Missoula, Souers has won just once, a 41-31 win in 2012. Souers is 2-14 in his career against the Griz.

“It’s early and it’s a tough ball game early and you hate to have these type of ball games define your entire season but we are going to give it a shot and do the best we can, but there’s a lot of football left,” Souers said. “You have to have the mentality that it’s a huge game, absolutely, but you don’t want it to affect the rest of your season either. It’s Game 4 for us. We will try to be better than we have been. We have a lot of young guys who have to improve.”

Cal Poly at No. 15 Montana State

MSU's Dakota Prukop

MSU’s Dakota Prukop

Entering the season, Montana State had no doubts it would be able to put up points with Prukop at the helm behind an offensive line featuring four seniors. Thus far, MSU has lived up to the billing, scoring 95 points in two games and averaging 570 total yards per outing, fifth-best in the FCS.Montana State’s defense implemented a new scheme during the off-season along with at least nine new starters. The early returns have not been good. The 11.7 yards per play averaged by the Eagles were the second-most in Big Sky history, topped only by MSU’s last trip to Cheney in 2013, a 54-29 loss in which MSU did not get a single defensive stop. So is this the week that Rob Ash’s team turns it around as the Bobcats try to celebrate homecoming by stopping the Mustangs’ physical option attack?

“I don’t know,” Ash said on Tuesday. “I think the jury is still out on our defense. We have to find out what kind of defense we are going to have, how we are going to be able to play. We have a lot of young guys and a lot of guys who haven’t played a lot of football yet for us. We just have to play games and see how it looks before we have a true evaluation.”

Montana State might have given up yards and points without much resistance last week but Cal Poly head coach Tim Walsh said that’s much more a product of EWU’s explosive offense than Montana State’s defensive deficiencies.

“They gave up a lot of big plays and if they didn’t give up the big plays, that would’ve been a completely different performance by their defense,” Walsh said. “I’m sure that’s one of there mottos this week: no big plays. They don’t allow teams to have big plays against them, they will probably be much more effective in terms of scores. That was the thing that jumped out at me: the big plays Eastern Washington made. But they are going to make a lot of big plays against a lot of teams.

Cal Poly's Kori Garcia stiff arms MSU's Cole Moore in 2014 CP win

Cal Poly’s Kori Garcia stiff arms MSU’s Cole Moore in 2014 CP win

“Take that game for what it is: Eastern Washington is that good on offense and Montana State is that good on offense. Unfortunately, they came up a possession short but we have our work cut out for us this week.”

Cal Poly notched the win in Missoula but has lost two straight since. CP had Arizona State on the ropes, tied 21-21 with less than eight minutes to play before falling 35-21. Last week, two turnovers led to a 21-0 first-quarter lead for No. 8 Northern Iowa in San Luis Obispo. The Mustangs’ offense is not conducive to comebacks and the rally fell short as UNI won 34-20

“(Jumping out to a big lead) sounds like a pretty good plan every week,” Ash said. “It gives you a certain advantage but you still have to play 60 minutes. Cal Poly’s offense isn’t as crippled as you might think if they are behind. Chris Brown can throw the ball. They have good receivers. Shoot, in their two-minute drill against Montana, the last two plays were just pitch plays so they don’t have to throw the ball to move the ball down the field quickly. You can’t get ahead and say the game is over.”

Weber State at Northern Colorado

 IMG_6063 copyIt took Jay Hill more than two months to notch his first win as the head coach at Weber State last season. This fall, he earned his first non-conference win with the triumph over Sac State aided largely by Jawain Harrison’s three interceptions.

This week, the Wildcats will try to make it two straight in Greeley, Colorado.

“This is what we live for, right?” Hill said. “I bet if you ask every coach, they’d all agree that the No. 1 goal is to win the Big Sky Conference. Whether each team has that legit opportunity or not, that’s our goal. I think we need to be able to ratchet it up a notch. You hope your best games occur in conference. That’s what I’ll talk to our team about. We have to raise our level in practice and in games because we are in conference now. The majority of our goals begin this week.”

In UNC’s 30-3 home loss to Southern Utah last week, Bears’ quarterbacks Jacob Knipp and Jon Newsom combined to throw five interceptions. The two have split time at quarterback during UNC’s 2-1 start that includes a win at Houston Baptist. On Saturday, Northern Colorado head coach Earnest Collins Jr. said his team would go with Knipp for the foreseeable future.IMG_6046

Despite Northern Colorado’s 0-1 Big Sky mark this season and a 5-20 mark in league play under Collins overall, the Bears are taking the approach that everything lies in front of them.

“We’ve already had it and we just know that you have to be ready to go week in and week out,” Collins said. “You can’t look at past performances. You can’t look at other teams. You can’t worry about who you have and you don’t have. You can’t worry about any of it. When kickoff time comes and you strap it up to go play football, you have to be ready to play football regardless of anything else.”

No. 11 Eastern Washington at Sacramento State

EWU's quarterback Jordan West

EWU’s quarterback Jordan West

Eastern Washington’s title defense begins on Saturday in California’s capital. The three-time defending Big Sky champions are the marked team once again, especially given the departure of two-time Big Sky Offensive MVP Vernon Adams to Oregon in the off-season. But this year’s version of the Eagles enters league play 1-2 and, according to head coach Beau Baldwin, hasn’t proven anything yet despite last week’s big win over Montana State.

“What I’ve talked to the team about and we talked about it last week too, you hear guys say we don’t lose on the red but I’d say this again this week: the ’14 team, the ’13 team, the ’12 team had a lot of success but we haven’t proven anything,” Baldwin said. “I said the same going into this week. You have to take each season and every game as its own. Sac State doesn’t care what we did last year or the year before, nor should they.”

Sac is entering the game with a 1-2 mark that includes a win over NAIA Eastern Oregon. Senior middle linebacker Darnell Sankey already has 43 tackles but the young Hornets might be in for a long afternoon against an EWU squad that leads the nation by throwing for 482 yards a game and that scored 42 points on FBS No. 7 Oregon earlier this fall.

IMG_6061Saturday marks a sort of homecoming for Sac head coach Jody Sears as well. Sears coached alongside Baldwin as an EWU assistant from 2003 until 2006, including the final four seasons as the Eagles’ defensive coordinator. Baldwin was the EWU offensive coordinator from 2003 to 2006 before taking over as head coach at Central Washington in 2007 and returning as the head coach for EWU in 2008. Sears left EWU in 2007 for Washington State, his alma mater.

“I have a special place in my heart for everywhere I’ve been,” Sears said. “My time spent in Eastern Washington was very, very special. That’s where my wife, Molly, and my family are from. Coaching with Beau for four years at Eastern and then coaching for four years at Washington State was a very special time. But none of that matters this week. We have to figure out how to slow them down.”

UC Davis at North Dakota

UIMG_5989C Davis head coach Ron Gould likes to compare playing games in the Big Sky Conference to engaging in a heavyweight championship fight.

“This is the toughest conference in the FCS week in and week out,” said Gould, whose team takes a 0-3 record to Grand Forks. “We are playing a very tough team in North Dakota. They beat Wyoming and their only loss is to the No. 1 team in the country. It’s going to take a gallant effort on our part to come out and play against one of the most physical offensive lines we’ve played to date. They know exactly what they are doing, they get behind their pads and they grind you down.”

IMG_5979Through three games, UC Davis junior quarterback Ben Scott has been solid, throwing for 237 yards per game and four touchdowns. But a running game with no go-to guy has been able to only muster 106 yards per outing, 115 less than UCD is surrendering per game on the ground.

North Dakota began the season with two straight wins, pulling a 24-13 upset at Wyoming by holding the Cowboys to just 29 yards rushing. UND followed it up with a 21-18 win over Drake. Last week however, North Dakota was humbled by their in-state rival.

In the first matchup between UND and NDSU since 2003, the Bison utterly dominated. UND managed just three first downs, four yards rushing on 26 attempts and 57 total yards as NDSU rolled to a 34-9 win.

UND head coach Bubba Schweigert did not call into the weekly Big Sky coaches’ conference call this week.

Photos by Brooks Nuanez. 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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