Analysis

BIG SKY RANKINGS: Week of October 29

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The last week of October will whittle the list of Big Sky Conference teams without a loss to two no matter the result. And if Montana can win in Cheney, the list of unbeaten teams will be cut to a single team after Saturday’s showdowns are complete.

North Dakota (5-0, 6-2) hosts Weber State (4-0, 5-2) in a battle of two of the undefeated teams left in the league. Montana (2-2, 5-2) plays at Eastern Washington (4-0, 6-1) with a chance to know the Eagles from the ranks of the unbeaten.

Each Wednesday for the rest of the season, 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, most recent performance and each team’s future in regard to momentum, health and upcoming match-ups.

Composite Schedule

Saturday, October 29

Montana at Eastern Washington

Southern Utah at Idaho State

Weber State at North Dakota

Cal Poly at Sacramento State

Northern Colorado at Portland State

EWU quarterback Gage Gubrud/by Brooks Nuanez

EWU quarterback Gage Gubrud/by Brooks Nuanez

1. Eastern Washington (4-0, 6-1) — Montana State put forth perhaps the most solid game plan, at least in terms of limiting EWU’s explosive plays over the top, on Saturday in Bozeman. It mattered not.

Eastern sophomore quarterback Gage Gubrud took whatever the Bobcat defense gave him, whether it was on first down or second and short or third and long. EWU converted four third downs of at least 19 yards or farther because of Gubrud’s ability to extend plays with is feet and his deadly accuracy. Gubrud threw conversion strikes to All-American Cooper Kupp for 40 yards and senior Shaq Hill for 36 yards but EWU did not score any long touchdowns. Instead, Gubrud was equally as lethal with running back screens and intermediate outs. The sum result: 37-of-51 for a EWU-record 520 yards and four touchdowns to earn Big Sky and FCS Offensive Player of the Week honors.

Eastern Washington can take one more giant step forward to its fifth conference title in seven years with the rival Grizzlies in town on Saturday.

2. North Dakota (5-0, 6-2) — North Dakota is already in unchartered territory during its Division I era. The week, UND came in at No. 12 in the FCS Coaches’ poll and No. 17 in the STATS FCS Top 25, both the highest rankings in program history as D-I competitor. The team is on a six-game winning streak , also the longest since moving to Division I before the 2008 season.

UND quarterback Keaton Studsrud/by UNDsports

UND quarterback Keaton Studsrud/by UNDsports

UND earned its sixth straight win thanks in large part to a trademark 15-play, 78-yard drive to open the second half and break a 14-14 tie against Idaho State. The eight minute, 14-second march included a fake field goal in which All-American running back John Santiago served as the holder and raced around the left end to give his team a first and goal. Sophomore Brady Oliveira’s touchdown sealed the longest drive of UND’s season and gave the hosts a lead it would not give up in a 28-21 victory over the Bengals.

Now UND has a chance to move one step closer to its first outright Big Sky championship with the surging Wildcats in Grand Forks on Saturday.

3. Cal Poly (4-1, 5-2) — One of the Mustangs’ biggest downfalls since joining the Big Sky in 2012 has been their inability to stay healthy, a product of their physical style more than anything else.

Cal Poly running back Kyle Lewis/by CP Athletics

Cal Poly running back Kyle Lewis/by CP Athletics

At times this fall — like in a 38-31 win over No. 9 South Dakota State or a 55-35 over Portland State — Cal Poly’s triple option offense has clicked on all cylinders and literally looked unstoppable. Other times — like in a 42-41 win over Montana or last week’s 21-16 rivalry win over UC Davis — opponents have executed good game plans to provide speed bumps but the Mustangs have still overcome. Cal Poly has cured its fumbling woes that cost it at least three games a year ago and the defense has pulled its weight much better as well.

Cal Poly will play its second straight rivalry game against in-state foe Sacramento State in California’s capital on Saturday.

4. Weber State (4-0, 5-2) — The Wildcats have won five straight games for the first time since WSU’s 2008 Big Sky title season. Now Weber has a chance to prove if it is a contender or a pretender with its showdown against UND on Saturday.

Weber State wide receiever Cam Livingston/ By Brooks Nuanez

Weber State wide receiever Cam Livingston/ By Brooks Nuanez

Weber State has won five straight games, all against Big Sky foes, but the first win was a 14-7 non-conference victory against Sac State. Since then, WSU has defeated UC Davis, Portland State, Montana State and Southern Utah, a group that has a combined five Division I wins between them and just one league win each.

Still, the Wildcats enter the showdown hot, both in duration of win streak and most recent performance. WSU rallied from a 36-14 deficit with seven minutes left in the game to post a 37-36 win at in-state rival SUU last week. Senior quarterback Jadrian Clark continued to perform in the clutch, throwing for 416 yards and four touchdowns, including two scoring strikes in the last seven minutes to lift his team. Clark scored the game-winning touchdown against Sac with less than two minutes, set up the game-winning field goal with a scramble in a 38-35 win over Davis, threw the game-winning touchdown in a 14-10 win over PSU and performaned almost flawlessly in a 45-27 win over MSU.

Clark will again have to come up in the clutch to get past surging UND.

NAU quarterback Blake Kemp/by Brooks Nuanez

NAU quarterback Blake Kemp/by Brooks Nuanez

5. Northern Arizona (3-2, 4-4) — Three weeks again, NAU was in the bottom third of these rankings. The Lumberjacks were reeling after the loss of All-American quarterback Case Cookus and staring their season in the face after a 1-4 start.

Now NAU is suddenly surging. Northern Arizona gutted out a win at Montana State to spark a three-game winning streak and have been on fire ever since. Backup quarterback Blake Kemp has settled in, throwing for 319 yards and four touchdowns in a 52-7 win over Idaho State. Kemp threw a 75-yard touchdown pass to William Morehand on NAU’s first snap of the game and three TD passes before the game as 17 minutes old in a 45-34 upset of No. 10 Montana in Flagstaff last week.

NAU will need a bunch of help to sneak into a share of the league championship. The ‘Jacks could also foil a collection of playoff resumes coming off this week’s bye. NAU plays at Weber State on November 5, hosts Cal Poly on November 12 and plays at rival Idaho State the final Saturday of the season.

6. Montana (2-2, 5-2) — The Griz are this week’s most rapid fallers after last week’s lackluster performance in Flagstaff.

Montana quarterback Brady Gustafson/ by Jason Bacaj

Montana quarterback Brady Gustafson/ by Jason Bacaj

Montana entered the NAU game riding high on a three-game winning streak after stellar offensive outings during three straight home games. UM scored 27 unanswered points in a 43-20 win over Southern Utah. Montana scored 128 unanswered points in back-to-back 60-plus point wins over Mississippi Valley State and Sacramento State. In Flagstaff, the Griz fell behind 14-3, 28-14 and 45-20 because of four missed fourth down conversions and two other turnovers. The offense gained 542 yards of offense but did not convert in crucial situations in losing to NAU for the third time in four tries, 45-34.

No. 16 Montana’s tough stretch gets no easier with a matchup at No. 3 Eastern Washington on Saturday.

7. Northern Colorado (2-2, 4-3) — UNC played well at Eastern Washington three weeks ago and blew a chance to get into the top half of the power rankings the following week by handing UC Davis its first and only Big Sky win.

But the Bears bounced last week with a crucial 27-19win over Sacramento State. Trae Riek proved how crucial he is; the sophomore running back missed the Davis game and UNC averaged 2.6 yards per carry. He played against Sac, rushed fro 108 yards and Northern Colorado rushed for 229 yards, averaging 6.7 yards per carry.

More than halfway through the season, UNC will just need to split its remaining four games to earn a second straight winning season after playing its first nine Division I campaigns with losing records. The quest begins Saturday against Portland State.

8. Southern Utah (2-3, 3-4) — How will the Big Sky defending champion Thunderbirds respond after blowing a 22-point lead?

Southern Utah has a chance to get on a roll with matchups this week at Idaho State and against last-place Montana State on November 5 in Cedar City before finishing its non-conference at BYU on November 12.

9. Portland State (1-3, 2-5) — On last week’s Big Sky coaches’ call, Portland State head coach Bruce Barnum said the Vikings had 27 guys watching practice on Wednesday of his team’s bye week. Injuries have been a key factor in PSU’s struggles, a stretch that includes just one Division I win.

The playoffs are out of the question but a winning season is still a distance goal if PSU can win out. That quest starts Saturday against Northern Colorado and continues with games at UC Davis and Sac State before a season-finale against EWU in Portland.

10. UC Davis (1-4, 2-6) — Davis went toe to toe with Cal Poly in the battle for the Golden Horseshoe but a 91-yard Kyle Lewis touchdown run broke UCD’s back in a 21-16 loss.

Davis has a bye this week before hosting Portland State, playing at winless Montana State and hosting Sac State in the Causeway Classic.

11. Idaho State (1-3, 2-5) — ISU looked better in a 28-21 loss to North Dakota than in a brutal performance against exclusively rushing Portland State or pass-happy NAU. Still, ISU has one Division I win this season: a 42-34 win over Sac State, one of only two teams below the Bengals in these standings.

Idaho State hosts Southern Utah this week before traveling to Montana to open November. The Bengals play at Eastern Washington and host Weber State in arguably the most brutal stretch for any Big Sky team the last month of the season.

12. Sacramento State (1-4, 1-7) — Sac State knocked on the door for four straight weeks before a breakthrough in a 17-point rally in a 41-38 win over Montana State. Sac hasn’t been competitive since, losing by an average score of 52-11.

 Sac hosts surging Cal Poly before taking its bye. The Hornets finish with Portland State in Sacramento before playing at UC Davis to finish the season.

13. Montana State (0-5, 2-6) — Montana State simply cannot rid itself of its turnover plague. A week after turning the ball over five times in a 45-27 loss at Weber State, MSU blew a first half lead by turning the ball over five times in the final 32 minutes of a 41-17 loss to No. 3 Eastern Washington at home. MSU now has 20 turnovers in league play alone, including five in three separate games.

Montana State is off this week before finishing at Southern Utah, home against UC Davis and at Montana for the 116th edition of the fierceset rivalry in the West.

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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