As quarterback injuries continue to spread like a rash across the Big Sky Conference, all of a sudden an unlikely team tops the Skyline Sports Power Rankings for the second-to-last week of October.
UC Davis is the lone unbeaten team in Big Sky play entering the Battle for the Golden Horseshoe against Cal Poly on Saturday. The Aggies are averaging 47 points per game behind the elite execution of junior quarterback Jake Maier, an emerging front-runner for the Walter Payton Award.
Across the rest of the league, injuries under center have had an influence on outcomes, not the least of which came with Weber State bouncing back from its first Big Sky loss in a calendar year at Northern Arizona to post a 14-6 win over No. 3 Eastern Washington. EWU was without the services of All-American senior quarterback Gage Gubrud.
Montana State was without quarterback Troy Andersen for two non-conference games. The Bobcats tried to get redshirt freshman Tucker Rovig ready to potentially start coming out of their bye week but he suffered a season-ending injury, meaning MSU will stick with Andersen on its trip down to Weber this weekend.
Khalil Jenkins suffered an injury early in a 49-3 Cal Poly loss at North Dakota State, but is back to full strength with Davis coming to San Luis Obispo. NAU will likely still be without All-American junior quarterback Case Cookus as the ‘Jacks head to winless Northern Colorado, a team that is on its third quarterback after starter Jacob Knipp went down for the season early on. Southern Utah’s Chris Helbig is out for the season and Idaho’s Colton Richardson is uncertain for SUU’s game in Moscow. And Sacramento State senior Kevin Thomson suffered an injury last week against Southern Utah, taking an uncertain status into a key game against North Dakota.
This week marks the second of eight editions of Skyline Sports’ Big Sky Conference 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 OCTOBER 13
$Montana at North Dakota – L
*Idaho at Montana State (ROOT)
*Eastern Washington at Weber State
*Sacramento State at Southern Utah – L
*Idaho State at UC Davis
*Northern Colorado at Portland State
* league games, $ UND games count as Big Sky games for opponent
SKYLINE SPORTS 2018 PICKS FOR PRESEASON POLLS
BIG SKY PLAY: 15-9
PICKS FOR BIG SKY GAMES OCTOBER 20
*Montana State at Weber State (ROOT)
*UC Davis at Cal Poly
*Northern Arizona at Northern Colorado
Southern Utah at Idaho**
$North Dakota at Sacramento State
Idaho State at Liberty
BIG SKY POWER RANKINGS
1. UC Davis (3-0 in Big Sky play, 5-1 overall)
UC Davis offensive coordinator Tim Plough calls the Aggies’ offense “an NFL offense at no huddle at a fast tempo.” Most of that responsibility falls on Maier, the league’s Newcomer of the Year last season and a real All-American candidate this fall.
“Jake is calling the protections, he’s calling all the plays, he’s making all the checks,” Plough said. “He is doing everything you would see guys in the NFL doing on Sundays. I ask a lot of the quarterbacks every day of the week and Jake is playing as well as anyone I’ve ever coached. And that includes Case Cookus when we were rolling at NAU.”
Plough was the offensive coordinator at Northern Arizona in 2015 when Cookus earned National Freshman of the Year honors. He’s in his second year calling the plays for Dan Hawkins at his alma mater. Maier’s ability to push the tempo combine with the talent that surrounds him have the Aggies running 86 plays for 526 yards per game in Davis’ five FCS games, all victories. Maier has thrown for 1,960 yards and 16 touchdowns all told, including throwing for 353 yards per game against FCS opponents.
NFL prospect wide receiver Keelan Doss, the reigning Big Sky Offensive MVP, has received all sorts of extra attention this season yet still leads the FCS with 56 catches. He has 545 yards and three touchdowns.
UC Davis enters this week’s rivalry game at Cal Poly with a No. 10 national ranking, the highest ever for the program as a Division I member. The trip to San Luis Obispo is the first game in a challenging stretch that also includes games at Montana and Eastern Washington along with home games against Northern Arizona and Sac State.
2. Weber State (2-1 in Big Sky play, 4-2 overall)
The Wildcats bounced back from a turnover-ridden loss at NAU — Weber’s first Big Sky defeat in a calendar year — to smother Eastern Washington, climbing up in these rankings and back to No. 7 in the national rankings as well.
Montana State head coach Jeff Choate said the Wildcats’ defense “looks more like a Mountain West defense than a Big Sky defense” as Choate’s Bobcats prepare to play at Weber on Saturday. Choate has a good idea what Mountain West defenses look like, having spent three seasons as an assistant at Utah State and six more as an assistant at Boise State.
The Wildcats held Eastern Washington’s exception offense to six points, nearly 40 below EWU’s season average entering the game. Eastern had rushed for an average of 312 yards per outing during its 3-0 Big Sky start. Weber surrendered 62 rushing yards on 36 carries, an average of 1.7 yards per carry.
What WSU lacks in offensive production — Weber has scored 12 touchdowns offensively — the team more than makes up for with its relentless defensive attitude and superb special teams play. All-American kicker Trey Tuttle has scored 44 points while All-American return man Rashid Shaheed is averaging 43.4 yards per kick return, including a 100-yard score on the first play of the second half to break a 21-21 tie in a 45-28 win over Northern Colorado.
“We play really good defense and we have great special teams,” WSU fifth-year head coach Jay Hill said. “Our offense has done a pretty good job of not turning it over for the most part. When people have to go the full length of the field on our defnse, it’s hard on them. We play good team defense and the offense has a huge role in that. They believe in what we are doing.
The Wildcats lead the Big Sky and rank among the best in the FCS with 20 takeaways entering Saturday’s showdown with the Bobcats.
3. Idaho State (3-1 in Big Sky play, 4-2 overall)
After three straight quality wins, the Bengals finally stubbed their toe. Ty Flanagan’s 58-yard touchdown run with four minutes to go in the first half at UC Davis staked Idaho State to a 23-7 lead. ISU had built 35-14 halftime leads in wins over Northern Arizona and Idaho each of the previous two weeks, so it looked like Idaho State might just march to another decisive victory.
The Bengals rushed for 243 yards and totaled 562 yards of offense but Maier and the relentless Aggie offensive attack helped Davis rally for a 44-37 overtime win. Still, six games into the season, ISU’s revamped offense under the direction of first-year offensive coordinator Mike Ferriter is a force to be reckoned with. Flanagan has rushed for 485 yards and five touchdowns while All-Big Sky fellow senior James Madison has rushed for 650 yards and 10 touchdowns. That potent ground game has forced teams to stack the box defensively, allowing senior quarterback Tanner Gueller to throw bombs over the top to his brother, Mitch, who is second in the league with 760 receiving yards and is averaging a league-best 24.5 yards per catch.
ISU steps out of conference this week to play former FCS power Liberty, a first-year FBS squad located in Lynchburg, Virginia. Idaho State returns to conference play next week hosting Montana State, the first game in a crucial four-game stretch to determine if the Bengals can make the FCS playoffs for the first time since 1983.
4. Eastern Washington (3-1 in Big Sky play, 5-2 overall)
With Gubrud on the shelf for the second straight week, Eastern Washington’s offense finally hit a wall. The Wildcats stuffed the EWU run game by completely bottling up quarterback Eric Barriere. WSU notched four sacks and held the athletic sophomore to 18 rushing yards on 14 carries.
Although the offense could not find its footing, Eastern Washington’s defense continued to show its improvements against the Wildcats. EWU is allowing 23 points per game this season, including 18.2 against its six FCS opponents. Washington State scored 59 points and threw for 524 yards on the Eagles. Take out those statistics along with the stats compiled in EWU’s 58-13 win over Division II Central Washington and the Eagles are on par with Weber statistically this season. Eastern is allowing just 191 passing yards per game to FCS opponents and its 17 sacks ranks fourth in the league.
It’s unknown the timetable for Gubrud’s return, but a source from inside the Big Sky Conference said he will likely be out for the rest of October at least. EWU has a bye this week so a return on October 27 against rival Idaho in Eastern’s first game in Cheney since 1994 could be a possibility.
5. Northern Arizona (2-1 in Big Sky play, 3-3 overall)
In recent years, the Lumberjacks seem to earn a win in a big game only to have a let down against an unlikely opponent. NAU will have to be on upset alert this week in Greeley. Northern Arizona entered its bye with a 28-24 win over No. 8 Weber State thanks to forcing five Wildcat turnovers.
After a week off, the Lumberjacks will take on a Northern Colorado team in the midst of a nightmare season. Quarterback Daniel Bridge-Gadd has been good at times, but his struggle handing the ball off in the run-pass option elements of NAU offensive coordinator Aaron Pflugrad’s scheme has resulted in a total of nine lost fumbles since the Washington transfer took over for Cookus.
The Lumberjack defense has swarmed all season, snaring a Big Sky-high 13 interceptions and trailing only Weber in total takeaways with 19. If Bridge-Gadd can continue finding his groove in the offense, a schedule that does not include, Eastern Washington, Montana State or Montana could give the Lumberjacks the inside track on a second straight playoff berth.
6. Montana State (2-1 in Big Sky play, 4-2 overall)
Choate has expressed his disappointment in his team’s inability to play competitive football against the nation’s best teams. MSU dug itself a 31-0 hole in a 45-14 loss at No.3 South Dakota State. Mistakes and turnovers resulted in a 24-10 halftime deficit in the 34-17 loss to No. 4 Eastern Washington.
Now the Bobcats get another shot, this time against a less offensively proficient but more defensively menacing Weber State outfit. The last time MSU traveled to Ogden, a barrage of turnovers resulted in a 42-7 Weber State halftime lead in an eventual 45-27 WSU win. Montana State will have to be a lot more careful with the football and capitalize at ever turn to earn its second win over a Top 25 team in three seasons under Choate.
7. Portland State (2-2 in Big Sky play, 3-4 overall)
Portland State vaults ahead of Montana in this week’s rankings not because of the prestige of a 35-14 victory over Northern Colorado but simply because a two-game winning streak that includes a 22-20 win over the Griz in Missoula two weeks ago combined with UM’s lackluster performance in a 41-14 loss at North Dakota is enough to give the Vikings the nod.
8. Montana (2-2 in Big Sky play, 4-3 overall
The Griz have fumbled eight times in two weeks. Aside from a struggling offensive line, the rest of what ails Montana is hard to analyze in the midst of the plague of turnovers.
9. Idaho (1-3 in Big Sky play, 2-4 overall)
In a homecoming for most of Idaho’s coaching staff, the Vandals laid it all on the line at Montana State from an effort standpoint. A missed PAT by Cade Coffey proved to be the difference in a 24-23 loss that could’ve served as a turning point victory this season. Now the Vandals will look to right the ship against a largely unknown foe with Southern Utah coming to Moscow.
10. Cal Poly (1-2 in Big Sky play, 2-4 overall)
Cal Poly looked like a cellar dweller early on. Then the Mustangs looked like a juggernaut while rushing for 462 yards in a 41-27 win over Sac State. A similar performance this week could throw a wrench in UC Davis’ Cinderella story. Cal Poly will be fresh coming out of a bye.
11. Southern Utah (1-2 in Big Sky play, 1-5 overall)
Southern Utah finally broke through, rushing for 255 yards in a 48-27 win over suddenly struggling Sacramento State. SUU could take another step against a downtrodden Idaho team but the Thunderbirds will have to hope for the break through while on the road for the fifth time in six games.
12. Sacramento State (0-3 in Big Sky play, 2-4 overall)
The injuries to key players are piling up for the Hornets. It’s looking less and less likely that All-Big Sky defensive end George Obinna will play this year. Defensive tackle Dariyn Choates has just four assisted tackles this season after notching 9.5 tackles for loss as a sophomore. And now Thomson might be in the shelf for a period of time, another blow to the Hornets.
13. Northern Colorado (0-4 in Big Sky play, 0-7)
There seems to be no reprieve for the Bears. Northern Colorado hosts a hungry Northern Arizona team this week. UNC will not get a week off until the last week of the season, meaning chances to snap the losing streak are now entering the final month.
Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.