As Andy Thompson defensive coordinator said earlier this week, the games people remember are played in November.
It’s an old saying that Thompson certainly first heard muttered by his first college head coach Mick Dennehy when Thompson was a linebacker at the University of Montana. Thompson went on to play for Joe Glenn and Bobby Hauck before his days in UM finished up.
On Saturday, Northern Arizona plays at Montana in head coach Jerome Souers’ last trip to Missoula. The 20th-year head coach will not return for the 2018 season. That contest is one of two crucial Big Sky Conference titles including two of the league’s top five teams. NAU is the lone unbeaten team in the Big Sky at 5-0 in league play. Montana has its backs against the wall with two league losses entering the final month of the regular season.
The other will play out in Cheney, Washington as No. 19 Weber State plays at No. 11 Eastern Washington. Montana State, the other team with four league wins, finishes its non-conference schedule in what is sure to be a snowy day in Bozeman on Saturday afternoon.
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.
PICKS FOR BIG SKY GAMES ON OCTOBER 28
*North Dakota at Portland State — W
*Sacramento State at Northern Arizona — W
*Cal Poly at UC Davis — W
*Southern Utah at Northern Colorado — W
*Idaho State at Montana State — W
Skyline Sports 2017 record since league play began: 24-10
PICKS FOR BIG SKY GAMES ON NOVEMBER 4
*North Dakota at Southern Utah
*UC Davis at Idaho State
*Portland State at Cal Poly
*Northern Arizona at Montana
*Northern Colorado at Sacramento State
*Weber State at Eastern Washington
Kennesaw State at Montana State
1. Southern Utah (6-2 overall, 4-1 in Big Sky play) — With non-conference wins over Stephen F. Austin and Northern Iowa and back-to-back wins over ranked Big Sky teams Weber State (32-16) and Eastern Washington (46-28), the Thunderbirds have the strongest resume in the Big Sky. But as has been the case for the last several years, SUU still remains underrated on the national level. With the release of the most recent FCS playoff projection rankings, Northern Arizona is No. 9, the highest-ranked Big Sky team. SUU is not in the top 10.
2. Northern Arizona (6-2, 5-0 in Big Sky play) — The Lumberjacks are one of the nation’s hottest teams with six straight victories. But the meat of NAU’s schedule still lies ahead.
Northern Arizona’s five conference opponents this season have combined for a total of six league victories. NAU plays at Montana this week before hosting upstart Montana State in its home finale and finishing the season at Southern Utah.
“The optics of our vision end the next Saturday each week and the ability to focus with great clarity has led to successful doing that,” Souers said. “You aren’t going to catch anyone talking about any game other than what is ahead of us on Saturday. We knew the schedule would be back-end loaded and in order to be at our best, we had to be our best in November.”
3. Weber State (6-2, 4-1 in Big Sky play) — Stefan Cantwell’s injury suffered in the second quarter against Southern Utah caused Weber to fold. But the Wildcats have bounced back for wins over Cal Poly and Montana to vault back into the playoff race.
Weber State jumped out to a 31-0 lead against the Griz last week. A similarly fast start could prove crucial at EWU on Saturday.
4. Eastern Washington (5-3, 4-1 in Big Sky play) — What Eagle team will show up after the bye? Eastern Washington started 0-2 only to rip off five straight wins, some in runaway fashion, others because of the gritty ability of All-American quarterback Gage Gubrud to rally his team. But the Eagles could not finish against Southern Utah, squandering a 28-25 fourth-quarter lead in the 46-28 loss.
Coming out of the bye, EWU will face a Wildcat team coached by Jay Hill, a man who has seemed to have as many answers against Eastern’s spread offense. If the Eagles hope to stay alive to chase a sixth Big Sky title in eight years, Saturday’s game will be pivotal.
5. Montana State (4-4, 4-2) — The Bobcats essentially entered playoff mode two weeks ago and have won twice to stay alive. MSU’s four league victories double last year’s total and its four wins overall equal last season’s total. Now the Bobcats step out of conference to play an unorthodox opponent.
No. 25 Kennesaw State comes to Bozeman on a seven-game winning streak. The Owls are in their third year as an FCS program. The leading rushing attack in the country (330 yards per game) will have to weather the Bozeman elements with nearly two feet of snow predicted to all Friday night into Saturday morning.
6. Sacramento State (4-4, 3-2) — Sac State has affirmed itself as one of the league’s most improved teams. But the dangerous nature of the Hornets’ offense has hit a speed bump with an injury to quarterback Kevin Thomson that has cost the former UNLV transfer the last two weeks.
Sac State head coach Jody Sears said Thomson practiced this week and will be a game-time decision against Northern Colorado. Sac State will need to win to stay barely alive in the playoff picture.
7. Montana (5-3, 3-2) — For most of the last three decades, seven wins for a Montana team has been enough to secure a bid in the FCS playoffs. UM will need to win two of its next three to reach that mark. But a pair of Division I non-conference wins over Valparaiso of the Pioneer Football League and Savannah State of the MEAC could haunt Montana if the Griz don’t get to six Big Sky wins, meaning the next three weeks will be crucial if UM hopes to return to the postseason.
UM hosts NAU this week and Northern Colorado next week before heading to Bozeman for a rivalry showdown filled with postseason intrigue if the Griz and the Bobcats can take care of business.
The health of redshirt freshman quarterback Gresch Jensen, who suffered a concussion last week against Weber State, will be key for Montana’s success.
8. UC Davis (4-4, 2-3)
9. Idaho State (4-5, 2-4)
10. North Dakota (3-6, 2-4)
11. Northern Colorado (2-5, 1-4)
12. Portland State (0-8, 0-5)
13. Cal Poly (0-8, 0-5)
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