The Big Sky Conference race continues to be a study in unpredictability.
After the third full week of conference play, No. 8 Eastern Washington and Southern Utah are the only teams with no conference losses. The rest of the league is a crap shoot as evidence of last weekend’s results. Weber State knocked Montana from the ranks of the unbeaten with its first win in Missoula in 28 years. Northern Arizona smashed Montana State in Flagstaff only to turn around and lose to winless UC Davis on the road.
Each Tuesday 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 and each team’s future in regards to momentum, health, and upcoming match-ups.
1. No. 8 Eastern Washington (2-0 in Big Sky play, 3-2 overall)
The Eagles stumbled to an 0-2 start thanks to a brutal early schedule — EWU opened up at FBS preseason No. 7 Oregon with a 61-42 loss before falling at No. 10 Northern Iowa 38-35.
Eastern has found it’s footing since. The Eastern Washington defense remains shaky (42 points per game, 557 yards of offense allowed) but EWU’s quick-strike offense makes the three-time defending league champions the favorites still.
Jordan West’s emergence at quarterback (353 passing, 19 touchdowns) has been a key as EWU continues to throw the ball down the field with as much prevalence as any team in college football. The trio of Cooper Kupp, Kendrick Bourne and Nic Sblendorio have combined for 104 catches, 1,639 yards and 19 touchdowns already this season.
If Eastern can escape Holt Arena with a win over Idaho State this week, it should be smooth sailing for a few weeks. EWU plays at Northern Colorado on October 24, hosts Weber State on October 31 before hosting Northern Arizona on November 7. The Eagles finish the season at Montana before hosting Portland State.
2. 17 Portland State (1-1 in Big Sky, 4-1 overall) — Portland State’s surprise season continued last week with a 66-7 win over FBS North Texas, the largest margin of victory ever compiled by an FCS team over an FBS squad. The victory was PSU’s second over an FBS school this season following a season-opening 24-17 triumph over Washington State of the Pac 12.
Using the league’s stoutest defense and a ball control offense that is averaging almost 240 rushing yards per game, the Vikings have pounded teams into submission during a 4-1 start. Portland State rode the momentum of the Wazzu win to a 34-14 victory in Holt over ISU. The following week, the Vikings blanked Division II Western Oregon 31-0. The Vikings’ lone league loss came in Portland to North Dakota as UND prevailed 19-16 in a defensive slugfest.
The Vikings are the Big Sky’s lone four-win team and the squad has a pair of FBS wins. But PSU still has much to prove and the trial will begin on Saturday with No. 16 Montana State in town. Portland State plays at Cal Poly on October 24 before returning home to host No. 20 Montana on October 31. PSU’s November schedule includes at Northern Colorado, home against Southern Utah and at Eastern Washington to wrap up the season.
3. No. 16 Montana State (2-1 in Big Sky, 3-2 overall) — The preseason league favorites have looked great in Bozeman and shaky on the road so far this season. One thing is certain: Montana State can light up the scoreboard.
The Bobcats are averaging a league-best 43.2 points per game and gaining 565 yards of total offense every outing. Last week’s 35-13 win over Sacramento State included 511 yards of offense, including 346 by junior quarterback Dakota Prukop and it seemed like a tame day. Prukop leads the country with 410 yards of total offense a game.
But when the offense has struggled for stretches, the defense has offered no resistance, particularly on the road. Against Eastern Washington, MSU missed two fourth-down tries in the fourth quarter. The result was a 28-7 first-quarter lead that was too large to surmount as MSU fell 55-50 in Cheney. The following week, MSU jolted out to a 21-0 first-quarter lead against Cal Poly and the Bobcat defense played with confidence, notching three consecutive stops to spark a 45-28 runaway win. Against Northern Arizona, the MSU offense went dry for four possessions. The Lumberjacks turned a 14-14 ball game into a 42-14 NAU lead. Prukop sparked an MSU rally but fell, 49-41.
Montana State must prove it can play a complete game on the road. NAU’s aggressiveness flustered Montana State and the Bobcats are sure to see more of the same in Portland and later in Grand Forks against North Dakota. If MSU can get past PSU, the Bobcats will get a reprieve the following week with East Tennessee State in town. ETSU is a revived program that has already lost to two Division II schools this season.
MSU’s stretch run includes games at North Dakota (October 31) and at Idaho State (November 14) as well as home games against Southern Utah (November 7) and rival Montana (November 21).
Montana State gets the nod over UND because of two factors: the Bobcats are much healthier and Prukop is the one of the most dynamic offensive threats in the country.
4. North Dakota (2-1 in Big Sky, 4-2 overall) — North Dakota’s physical, aggressive defense looked vulnerable for the first time last weekend as Idaho State rallied from a 31-15 deficit to post a 37-31 victory. It will be interesting to see how UND responds to the loss of inside linebacker Taj Rich. The junior is finished for the season after suffering a knee injury. UND starting safeties Zach Arnell and Cole Reyes each missed the ISU loss as well. Starting quarterback Keaton Studsrud exited last weeks game with an apparent ankle injury.
Still, North Dakota is winning with a different style than anyone in the league other than PSU. And UND already has defeated Portland State on the road. UND is allowing 66.5 rushing yards per game to lead the Big Sky. North Dakota is also rushing for 180 yards per game, including 257 yards per game on the ground during league play. North Dakota rushed for 260 yards against a Vikings defense that allowed just 192 rushing yards in their first three games combined.
The return of Studsrud will also be a key if North Dakota hopes to continue its Big Sky title chase. If Studsrud cannot play, it looks like head coach Bubba Schweigert will go with junior Ryan Bartels.
True freshman John Santiago has been a revelation in his rookie season. Recruited as a wide receiver, Santiago switched to running back midway through fall camp and earned the starting job with UAB transfer Ja’Won Arrington on the shelf. Santiago has rushed for 597 yards and six touchdowns, averaging 5.6 yards per carry and 99.5 yards per game. He has rushed for more than 100 yards in all but two of UND’s games.
Defensively, senior linebacker Will Ratelle and Reyes are the leaders and most productive players for a team that is second in the league with 17 sacks. Ratelle’s eight tackles for loss are second in the league as UND has piled up 44 takedowns behind the line of scrimmage as a team. Reyes has 5.5 tackles for loss and Brandon Dranka has five TFLs.
North Dakota plays at Weber State this week before traveling to Missoula to take on Montana on October 24 in a contest that might amount to an elimination game for a suddenly-reeling Griz squad. North Dakota hosts Montana State on Halloween before taking the first week of November off. UND hosts Northern Colorado on November 14 and plays at Cal Poly to finish its season.
5. Southern Utah (2-0 in Big Sky, 3-2 overall) — A season ago, Southern Utah played a brutal non-conference schedule that included two losses to FBS teams and two more losses to ranked FCS schools (South Dakota State, Southeast Louisiana). Four straight losses and a slew of injuries made sure SUU would not make the FCS playoffs for a second straight season.
This fall, SUU welcomed back 2013 All-Big Sky linebacker Matt Holley back after missing last season with a knee injury. Senior outside linebacker Mike Needham returned after two years away on an LDS mission. Fesi Va’aivaka, a 29-year-old walk-on, has emerged as a force on the interior defensive line. The sum total is a Thunderbirds team that has given up three points total in Big Sky play.
Southern Utah still has much to prove. The Thunderbirds are 11th in the league in total offense (348 yards per game) and their two league wins came over two of the league’s unproven teams in Northern Colorado and Weber State. SUU also must find a way to replace veteran offensive coordinator Gary Crowton, who resigned abruptly during SUU’s bye week this week.
But the T-Birds have a chance to stay hot before the meat if their schedule commences. Out of the bye, SUU hosts a Sacramento State team in the midst of a five-game losing streak. The following week, SUU plays at one-win UC Davis. SUU finishes with Cal Poly in Cedar City, at Montana State, at Portland State and home against rival NAU. The Thunderbirds may linger toward the top of the power rankings for a few more weeks before truly getting tested.
6. Montana (2-1 in Big Sky play, 3-3 overall) — Montana made a serious statement the first weekend of the season. In front of a national television audience on ESPN, the Griz moved up and down the field with ease in a 38-35 win over four-time defending national champion North Dakota State. Since the landmark victory to begin the Bob Stitt era, the UM offense has sputtered.
Against NDSU, Stitt’s up-tempo spread attack was on full display as the Grizzlies ran 92 plays and piled up 544 yards, including 434 passing yards and three passing touchdowns by junior quarterback Brady Gustafson in his first start. Over their last five games, Montana is scoring 22.2 points while still running 84 plays per game. The Griz are averaging 284.8 passing yards per game despite throwing the ball throwing the ball 48 times per game. Montana’s 27 points in a win over a then-winless UC Davis squad are the most Montana has scored since the opener.
Part of the problem has been instability under center. Gustafson threw three interceptions in a 20-19 loss to Cal Poly in Missoula. Gustafson suffered a severe but undiagnosed lower leg injury in the first half of UM’s 31-21 loss at Liberty. Montana needed a defensive effort that included eight sacks and holding Norhtern Arizona to 19 first-half yards to prevail with a 23-14 win.
Last week, backup Chad Chalich suffered a foot injury that relegated him to crutches on the sideline for the second half in a 24-21 loss to Weber State last week. Montana managed 383 total yards, including 245 through the air as Makena Simis took his turn. The sophomore from Boise, Idaho fumbled on the first play of overtime to set up Weber’s game-winning field goal.
Montana has one of the most stout defenses in the league. Senior defensive end Tyrone Holmes has been a one-man wrecking crew. He leads the FCS with 10 sacks and 11.5 tackles for loss. Senior linebackers Kendrick Van Ackeren (52 tackles) and Jeremiah Kose (37.5 tackles, 1.5 sacks) are among the top tacklers in the league. Junior defensive tackle Caleb Kidder (21.5 tackles, 2.5 sacks, INT) is proving he is a true NFL prospect if he can stay healthy.
But Montana’s inconsistency offensively coupled with the spat of injured signal callers leaves the Griz with some serious question marks.
The Griz are off this week. Montana hosts North Dakota on October 24 in a game that will go a long way to keeping the Griz in the playoff picture. But the schedule offers no reprieve; Montana’s final four games: at Portland State, at Idaho State, home against Eastern Washington, at Montana State.
7. Cal Poly (1-2 in Big Sky, 2-4 overall) — The Mustangs have an elevated ranking because of their brutal schedule and their ability to beat anybody on any given day. Unlike many of the contenders, Cal Poly has already endured the most difficult part of its schedule.
Cal Poly won at then-No. 8 Montana and hung tough for 52 minutes with then- FBS No. 15 Arizona State. The Mustangs fell behind early in losses to No. 9 Northern Iowa and No. 15 Montana State. Cal Poly got back on track with a 58-26 beat down of Idaho State. Last week in Cheney, a failed two-point conversion in overtime meant Cal Poly was on the wrong side of a 42-41 loss to No. 7 EWU.
The Mustangs are fast and athletic defensively. The unit has been inconsistent at times but spectacular at other times. A week after Montana’s 38-35 win over NDSU, the Mustangs did not allow the Grizzlies to establish any flow. Cal Poly forced four turnovers in Missoula. Against Eastern Washington, CP held EWU All-America receiver Cooper Kupp to season lows of four catches and 21 yards. But the unit has also been victim of surrendering big plays. A 59-yard Tim White run helped ASU cap its 35-21 win that saw the score tied 21-21 with seven minutes to play. Montana State threw touchdowns of 88 and 63 yards in building a 28-7 lead in a 45-28 win.
Cal Poly has rushed for 500 yards each of the last two weeks. That sort of production will put any opponent on the ropes. While the center of the storm has pasted for the Mustangs, it doesn’t get a whole lot easier for the team with potentially the FCS’ toughest schedule. Cal Poly is off this week before hosting No. 17 Portland State on October 24. The Mustangs play at Southern Utah on Halloween before finish by hosting Sacramento State, playing at UC Davis and hosting North Dakota in November.
8. Weber State (2-1 in Big Sky, 3-3 overall) — Don’t look now but the Wildcats have won three out of four. WSU has won just twice in each of the past three seasons.
Weber’s win in Missoula was a landmark victory in the program’s history. The Wildcats had not won at Washington-Grizzly Stadium since 1987. The Wildcats did it with stiff play in the secondary, a pass rush that notched seven sacks and took out Montana quarterback Chad Chalich and a rushing attack that piled up 253 yards, including 112 from sophomore tailback Eric Wilkes.
Weber played a competitive game in a 26-7 loss at Oregon State before getting smothered by North Dakota State in Fargo, 41-14. The offense clicked for the first time in a 32-14 win over Sac State in which Weber gained 448 yards and true freshman Treshawn Garrett rushed for 101 yards. The Wildcats gained 435 yards in a 38-17 win over Northern Colorado. Wilkes piled up 122 yards and Garrett added 82 as Weber rushed for 254 yards.
On October 2, Weber faltered. Junior quarterback Jadrian Clark threw two interceptions, true freshman Justin Shaw threw three more and Southern Utah forced six total turnovers. The Thunderbirds returned two picks and a punt for touchdowns in a 44-0 win in Ogden.
Jay Hill’s squad regained momentum with the momentous win in the Garden City. The Wildcats will have every chance to stay in contention with a challenging road ahead. Weber hosts UND this weekend and plays at NAU on October 24. WSU is at Eastern Washington on Halloween before finishing with a November schedule of UC Davis, a bye the week of November 14 and a season finale at home against rival Idaho State.
9. Northern Arizona (1-2 in Big Sky, 3-3 overall) — The Lumberjacks would likely be in the top half of the league rankings if not for last week’s 38-24 loss at UC Davis. Northern Arizona defeated No. 11 Montana State 49-41 to begin October after 23-14 loss at Montana to begin conference play.
Northern Arizona extended a 14-14 game to a 28-14 halftime advantage, in turn forcing the Bobcats to abandon its power run game for most of the second half. Against Davis, the host Aggies took a 14-7 first-quarter lead and extended a 17-17 halftime tie to a 31-17 third-quarter lead thanks to its power run game. UCD took advantage of NAU’s undersized defense by rushing for 208 yards on 48 carries, possessing the ball for more than 40 minutes in the process.
NAU gave up 195 rushing yards to a Montana team that is averaging 110 rushing yards in its other five games. Northern Arizona will continue to be tested. NAU has a bye this week before hosting Weber State on October 24. Northern Arizona hosts Northern Colorado on Halloween before a November stretch that includes at Eastern Washington, at home against Sacramento State and at rival Southern Utah.
10. Idaho State (1-2 in Big Sky, 2-4 overall) — The Bengals had a big breakthrough in Grand Forks. During a brutal stretch that included four straight road games and back-to-back FBS blowouts, Michael Sanders finally founds groove.
Idaho State’s junior quarterback had been largely disappointing outside of a five-touchdown performance in a 55-0 win over Division II Black Hills State. In his first four Division I starts, Sanders went winless. He averaged 198 yards per game during the losing stretch. He threw seven touchdowns and seven interceptions.
Against North Dakota’s depleted defense, the Bengals’ offense resembled the unit that led the nation in total offense last season for the first time this fall. Sanders completed 32-of-49 passes for 427 yards and four touchdowns on his way to earning Big Sky Offensive Player of the Week honors. Junior K.W. Williams caught 12 passes for 204 yards and two touchdowns, including a 47-yard score late in the third quarter to spark 22 unanswered points by the Bengals. Madison Mangum caught 10 passes for 142 yards and a touchdown. Backup running back Jakori Ford’s 27-yard touchdown with just over six minutes to play sealed the win.
Still, Idaho State has major concerns defensively. The Bengals gave up 517 rushing yards in an 80-8 loss at UNLV. The next week, Cal Poly rushed for 499 yards in a 58-26 win. UND totaled 270 yards rushing, including 156 from freshman running back John Santiago.
ISU lost outside linebacker Mario Jenkins, the 2014 Big Sky Freshman of the Year, for the season when he tore his ACL in fall camp. The Bengals lost All-Big Sky senior safety Taison Manu for the year later in fall camp to a similar injury. The offensive line has also been banged up, with key members slowly returning as the season has progressed.
Last season, Mike Kramer was the Big Sky Coach of the Year after leading ISU to an 8-4 record. The Bengals will have to win out to equal that mark and to keep any playoff hopes alive. Idaho State hosts Eastern Washington this week, Montana on November 7 and Montana State the next week. ISU has a bye the last week of October and plays at Weber State to wrap up the season.
11. Northern Colorado (2-1 in Big Sky, 3-2 overall) — The Bears are surprisingly above .500 during their bye week this week. But UNC has played the easiest schedule of any Big Sky squad this season and it’s not close.
The Bears began the season by allowing 587 yards of total offense and 34 points in an eight-point win over Division II Western State. The following week, Northern Colorado won 34-10 at Houston Baptist, a school that added football in 2013.
UNC fell behind 31-0 to Weber State at home in a 38-17 loss. The Bears managed just three points in a 27-point loss at Southern Utah. Northern Colorado scored twice on defense and returned a kick for a touchdown in a 27-20 win at Sacramento State. The Bears managed just 179 yards of total in the win.
The Bears are 10th in the league in total offense (350 yards per game) and their 24.6 points per game are eighth. The offense has struggled to find its footing since true freshman tailback Trae Riek (415 yards from scrimmage in four games) went down with an injury. Defensively, the Berrs have struggled against the run. Senior safety Taylor Risner looks like an all-conference candidate but the Bears are giving up 200 yards per game on the ground.
Out of the bye, Northern Colorado will have a good opportunity to stay hot with UC Davis coming to town on Saturday. UNC hosts Eastern Washington on October 24 and at NAU on Halloween. The Bears host Portland State, play at North Dakota and conclude their season by hosting Abiline Christian in a non-conference season finale.
12. UC Davis (1-2 in Big Sky, 2-4 overall)- Davis’ West Coast pro-style offense is dependent on balance. Struggles in the run game caused the Aggies to lose five straight games to start the season. Davis is last in the league in rushing yards per-game, but lead the league in average time of possession at 34:56 per-contest.
In last week’s 38-24 win over Northern Arizona, the Aggies ran the ball with authority. Manusamoa Luuga rushed for 96 yards on two touchdowns and Joshua Kelley added 94 yards on the ground. UC Davis’ 48 rushing attempts set up play action and offensive diversity for UC Davis quarterback Ben Scott and the rest of the UCD offense. Scott completed 20-of-35 passes for 289 yards and three touchdowns, including a 51-yard score to Ramon Vargas.
Davis’ 0-5 start was partially due to a challenging schedule. UCD opened with a 31-17 loss at FBS Nevada before losing 27-17 to South Dakota at home the following week. Davis opened conference play with a 31-24 loss at North Dakota, a game in which UND led 28-10 and 31-17 before a late rally.
The Aggies led Montana 13-7 but gave up 20 unanswered points in a home loss to the No. 13 Griz.
Davis plays at Northern Colorado this week before hosting Southern Utah on October 24. The Aggies have a bye the week of October 31. The November slate includes games at Weber State, at home against Cal Poly and at rival Sacramento State in the final game of the season.
13. Sacramento State (0-4 in Big Sky, 1-5 overall) — Unless you have a lights out defense like Portland State or North Dakota, you must be able to score points to win games in the Big Sky. Former Sac State quarterback Garrett Safron’s reputation is enhanced by the passing weeks as the Hornet offense looks nothing like the explosive attack guided by the former All-Big Sky signal caller.
This year’s Hornets are averaging just 13 points per game during a five-game losing streak to Division I opponents. Sophomore Daniel Kniffin outlasted SMU transfer Kolney Cassel, Baylor transfer Alexis Robinson and highly touted true freshman Nate Kettingham during an off-season quarterback battle to replace Safron. Kniffin threw four touchdowns and five interceptions in four starts before injuring his shoulder in a 28-20 loss to Eastern Washington.
The next week, Cassel threw for 294 yards and two touchdowns but three turnovers did in the Hornets as Northern Colorado returned two Sac fumbles for touchdowns in a 27-20 win.
Last week in Bozeman, Cassel engineered a drive that saw Sac go the length of the field in 17 plays only to have to settle for a field goal to cut the MSU lead to 21-13. Cassel took two big hits during the action and did not return after being diagnosed with a third-degree separated shoulder. In his place, Ketteringham earned his first college action. He completed 5-of-9 passes for 40 yards.
Jordan Robinson went over 100 yards rushing for a fourth straight game and middle linebacker Darnell Sankey is one of the league’s top individual talents. But the Hornets have four new starters on the offensive line and the defensive two-deep features 10 freshmen.
Sac is at Southern Utah this week before hosting Idaho State on October 24. The Hornets have a bye the last week of October before finishing with a November schedule of at Cal Poly, at Northern Arizona and at home against UC Davis the final week of the season.
BIG SKY PICKS
Here is how we picked each game so far before the season began and how we are stacking up as the third week of October begins. (*) Indicate a Big Sky Conference game. Predicted winners shown in BOLD.
Saturday, August 29
North Dakota State at Montana
Skyline Sports Week: 0-1 Overall: 0-1.
Thursday, Sept. 3
Fort Lewis at Montana State
UC Davis at Nevada
Friday, September 4
Weber State at Oregon State
Saturday, Sept. 5
Eastern Washington at Oregon
Portland State at Washington State — L
Southern Utah at Utah State
North Dakota at Wyoming — L
Eastern Oregon at Sacramento State
Black Hills State at Idaho State
Western State at Northern Colorado
Cal Poly at Montana (Non-Conference)
Northern Arizona at Stephen F. Austin
Skyline Sports Week: 10-2 Overall: 10-3
Saturday, September 12
Cal Poly at Arizona State
Weber State at North Dakota State
Sacramento State at Washington
Eastern Washington at Northern Iowa — L
Southern Utah at South Dakota State
*Portland State at Idaho State — L
New Mexico Highlands at Northern Arizona
Drake at North Dakota
South Dakota at UC Davis
Northern Colorado at Houston Baptist
Skyline Sports Week: 8-2 Overall: 18-5
Friday, September 18
Idaho State at Boise State
Saturday September 19
Montana State at Eastern Washington (Non-Conference)
Sacramento State at Weber State (Non-Conference)
*Northern Colorado at Southern Utah
Northern Iowa at Cal Poly — L
Northern Arizona at Arizona
UC Davis at Hawaii
Montana at Liberty
North Dakota at North Dakota State
Skyline Sports Week: 8-1 Overall: 26-6
Saturday, September 26
*UC Davis at North Dakota
*Cal Poly at Montana State
*Eastern Washington at Sacramento State
*Northern Arizona at Montana
*Weber State at Northern Colorado
Brevard College at Southern Utah
Western Oregon at Portland State
Idaho State at UNLV
Skyline Sports Week: 8-0 Overall: 34-6
Saturday, October 3
*Southern Utah at Weber State
*Northern Colorado at Sacramento State
*Idaho State at Cal Poly
*Montana at UC Davis
*Montana State at Northern Arizona
*North Dakota at Portland State — L
Skyline Sports Week: 5-1 Overall: 39-7
Saturday, October 10
*Sacramento State at Montana State
*Cal Poly at Eastern Washington
*Northern Arizona at UC Davis — L
*Weber State at Montana — L
*Idaho State at North Dakota
Portland State at North Texas — L
Skyline Sports Week: 3-3 Overall: 42-10
THIS WEEK – WEEK 8
Saturday, October 17
*UC Davis at Northern Colorado
*Sacramento State at Southern Utah
*Eastern Washington at Idaho State
*Montana State at Portland State
*North Dakota at Weber State