The premise of a regular season contest serving as an elimination game becomes more real as the Big Sky Conference enters its final month of competition for 2018.
Weber State’s come from behind 34-24 win over Montana State gave the Wildcats their highest national ranking ever this week at No. 4 following the program’s 18th Big Sky victory in its last 22 league outings on Saturday. Idaho State lost a hard-fought battle in Lynchburg, Virginia 48-41 at Liberty. The losses pushes both teams to 4-3 and on the brink of the FCS playoff bubble entering Saturday’s showdown at Holt Arena.
North Dakota stayed on the inside track by winning its third game in four tries against Big Sky competition. UND is playing as an FCS independent this season but is playing an eight-game Big Sky schedule. UND’s 41-14 win over Montana two weeks ago pushed the Grizzlies to 4-3, making Saturday’s battle with No. 6 UC Davis a crucial game for Montana.
A 7-4 Bobcat or Griz team could get in but an eight-win UND squad might steal a spot for the league, particularly if the three teams in the Top 10 — Weber, Eastern Washington and UC Davis — hold, each securing playoff berths.
EWU will hope to keep pace in the league title race with the renewal of a rivalry. Idaho plays in Cheney for the first time since 1994. Northern Arizona (3-4) will have to win out and get help to get into the 24-team tournament, meaning Saturday’s game against Cal Poly (2-5) is a big one.
This week marks the fifth 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.
For the rest of the season, Skyline Sports will include North Dakota in its now 14-team weekly power rankings. The Fighting Hawks are going to continue having a profound influence on the league race and have an inside track to steal a playoff spot from a league striving to consistently get four bids.
PICKS FOR BIG SKY GAMES OCTOBER 20
*Montana State at Weber State (ROOT)
*UC Davis at Cal Poly
*Northern Arizona at Northern Colorado L
Southern Utah at Idaho**
$North Dakota at Sacramento State
Idaho State at Liberty
* league games, $ UND games count as Big Sky games for opponent
SKYLINE SPORTS 2018 PICKS FOR PRESEASON POLLS
BIG SKY PLAY: 20-10
PICKS FOR BIG SKY GAMES OCTOBER 27
*Montana State at Idaho State (ROOT)
*UC Davis at Montana
$Weber State at North Dakota
*Cal Poly at Northern Arizona
*Portland State at Sacramento State
*Idaho at Eastern Washington (ROOT)
*Northern Colorado at Southern Utah
BIG SKY POWER RANKINGS
1. UC Davis (4-0 in Big Sky play, 6-1 overall)
Unlike their fellow former Great West Conference members who joined the Big Sky in 2012, the Aggies have received national recognition right away during their rapid rise. Behind a high-powered offense that is averaging nearly 48 points per game against FCS competition, UC Davis is the lone undefeated team in conference play at the midpoint of the Big Sky season. And that surge — including an FBS win over San Jose State and a win over a San Diego team that ousted a Big Sky team in the FCS playoffs each of the las two seasons — has Davis ranked No. 6 in this week’s STATS FCS Top 25 poll.
Southern Utah won the Big Sky title outright in 2015 behind a roster featuring future NFL Draft picks safety Miles Killebrew and cornerback LeShaun Sims along with future NFL defensive end James Cowser. Yet the T-Birds didn’t break into the Top 25 until November and had to go on the road to Sam Houston State in the first round of the playoffs.
Cal Poly started 7-0 in the 2012 seasn, shared the league title with Eastern Washington and Montana State and finished the regular season 9-2. The Mustangs climbed as high as No. 11 and also had to play at fifth-seeded Sam Houston State team on the road in the first round of the FCS playoffs.
North Dakota got snubbed from the 2015 playoffs despite a 7-4 record that included a win over FBS Wyoming and Big Sky wins over ranked Big Sky teams No. 16 Portland State and No. 19 Montana State. The following season, UND went 8-0 in Big Sky play yet did not break into the Top 10 until the week after the regular-season ended. North Dakota took the No. 8 seed into the playoffs before losing in the second round at home to Richmond.
The point is that UC Davis’ talent, production and brand-name head coach in second-year mentor Dan Hawkins have thrust the Aggies to the forefront of the FCS this fall. Now Davis will have to prove it belongs in the conversation of a playoff seed and a first round bye with a tough final month that starts with Saturday’s matchup at Montana. Davis hosts Northern Arizona, a team that boasts one of the most athletic and experienced secondaries in the league, before playing at No. 5 Eastern Washington on November 10. UCD finishes its season with the Causeway Classic against rival Sac State.
2. Weber State (3-1 in Big Sky play, 5-2 overall)
A horrendous break might’ve sparked the Wildcats to their best offensive stretch of the season.
Weber’s stout, speedy defense and its sharp, talented special teams have been the key factors to WSU chasing a second straight Big Sky title this season. The offense has largely struggled and that was the story again Saturday night against Montana State. Jake Constantine threw two early interceptions that helped MSU build a 10-0 lead. After his second pick, the junior was pulled in favor of redshirt freshman Kaden Jenks. Following a Weber interception. Jenks scored a touchdown to cut the lead to 10-7.
Troy Andersen’s long touchdown run pushed the visitors’ advantage back to 10 when disaster struck for Jenks. The physical runner was met by a host of Bobcats after a six-yard run, the force of the pile of MSU defenders causing Jenks’ right foot to turn completely backward. Brett Hein of the Ogden Standard-Examiner confirmed Jenks’ gruesome injury today.
No compound. Broken fibula and dislocated ankle is the official word.
— WeberHQ 🏈 Brett Hein (@WeberHQ) October 24, 2018
Following the stomach-churning play, Constantine reentered the game with a revitalized ability and led Weber State to a torrid comeback. Constantine threw for 176 yards, Treshawn Garrett scored three one-yard touchdowns and Weber State out-scored MSU 27-7 over the final 36 minutes of the game, a 34-24 WSU victory.
The return of Garrett, a senior captain and three-year starter, bolsters an already dangerous Weber State backfield which has been led by breakout redshirt freshman Josh Davis, one of the top five rushers in the league. That duo behind a veteran offensive line anchored by All-American tackle Iosua Opeta and a quarterback in Constantine that no longer has to look over his shoulder could be a turning point for the Wildcats.
Last season, Weber sat at 4-2 coming off a 32-16 home loss to Southern Utah. The following week, WSU posted a 17-3 win over Cal Poly, the first of seven straight wins to ignite a run to the quarterfinals of the FCS playoffs. This season, WSU lost 28-24 to Northern Arizona due in large part to five turnovers. Weber bounced back by handing Eastern Washington its first Big Sky loss, then rallying against the Bobcats. If the MSU win is a similar launch point, Weber State could be an increasingly dangerous national threat down the stretch.
3. Eastern Washington (3-1 in Big Sky play, 5-2 overall)
The Eagles did not play last week, yet still moved up four spots in the national poll to No. 5. That upward movement could be particularly accurate if All-American senior quarterback Gage Gubrud returns from the injury that has cost him his last two starts.
The three-year starter suffered an undisclosed injury in EWU’s 34-17 win at Montana State on September 29. He missed Eastern’s next two league games, a 55-17 win over Southern Utah and a 14-6 loss at Weber State. Eastern had its bye week last week and could know that Gubrud will return to the lineup after his physical evaluation on Wednesday.
EWU QB Gage Gubrud is back in full pads and taking reps with first-team offense.
Aaron Best said he’ll know about Gubrud’s status tomorrow.
— Ryan Collingwood (@SR_Collingwood) October 23, 2018
Sophomore Eric Barriere looked good against Southern Utah and overwhelmed against Weber State. Gubrud’s savvy and arm talent both will instantly thrust Eastern Washington back into the inside lane for the Big Sky title. If EWU can get past Idaho in the Vandals’ first trip to Cheney since 1994 and win at Northern Colorado, it will set up a showdown with playoff ramifications with UC Davis in Cheney on November 10. Gubrud will certainly need to be healthy by that point if Eastern hopes to keep up with the surging Aggies.
4. Idaho State (3-1 in Big Sky play, 4-3 overall)
A pair of heartbreakers have all of a sudden forced the Bengals’ backs against the wall. But ISU is playing at such a high level offensively and the last two losses were so close, it feels like Idaho State is still very much alive in the playoff picture despite possessing just three Division I wins with four games to play.
ISU’s 25-21 win in Grand Forks looks better and better with each passing week and each impressive performance by North Dakota. Northern Arizona and Idaho’s position in the middle to lower half of the Big Sky standings doesn’t do much for the Idaho State resume. But the Bengals have a chance to get rolling this week with a Montana State team in a similar situation coming to town. After that, road trips to Portland State and Cal Poly precede a rivalry game that could have serious playoff implications attached to it in Pocatello against Weber State.
Despite falling 44-37 in overtime at UC Davis and 48-41 at FBS Liberty last week, Idaho State will still be a dangerous opponent down the stretch. Having a fifth-year senior quarterback in Tanner Gueller behind a physical offensive line that paves the way for a devastating run game highlighted by the best 1-2 punch in the league (James Madison, Ty Flanagan) AND Gueller has two of the hardest perimeter players in the league to guard in his brother Mitch and junior speedster Michael Dean to chuck it to and ISU will keep pace with anyone offensively.
Tanner Gueller is currently averaging 17 yards per completion. He threw for 492 yards and eight touchdowns on 19 completions in a 62-28 win over Idaho. Mitch Gueller has 40 catches for 885 yards and six touchdowns. Madison is a leading candidate for All-American honors, Flanagan is the best complimentary back in the Big Sky and the Bengals are averaging 41.3 points and 543 yards per game.
The Bengals will have to keep up its offensive pace to win the four straight it will likely require to get into the playoffs for the first time since 1981, beginning Saturday against an equally hungry Bobcat squad.
5. North Dakota (3-1 in Big Sky play, 5-2 overall)
The Fighting Hawks enter the rankings for the first time because, well, they are already having an impact on the Big Sky race. Although UND left the league following last academic year. But North Dakota is playing eight consecutive Big Sky opponents. The UND players and coaches are familiar to the rest of the league.
That influence will be even greater if the Fighting Hawks can knock off No. 4 Weber State in Grand Forks, North Dakota on Saturday. A UND win would knock the Wildcats off of the inside track to both a second straight Big Sky title and a third straight berth in the FCS playoffs. North Dakota, the unbeaten co-Big Sky champions in 2016, already has a powerful resume that includes a win at No. 5 Sam Houston State and two blowout victories in a row to enter the final weekend of October on a three-game winning streak. North Dakota forced four first-half turnovers and built a 41-0 lead in a 41-14 win over No. 22 Montana, then rushed for 480 yards in a 41-15 win over Sac State.
With five wins, including two ranked opponents, North Dakota likely needs to split its remaining four games, a slate that also includes trips to Idaho and Northern Arizona sandwiched around a home finale against Portland State. UND is ranked behind Idaho State this week because of the Bengals’ win at the Alerus Center.
6. Montana State (2-2 in Big Sky play, 4-3 overall)
The Bobcats have won all the games they were supposed to win, lost all the games they were supposed to lose. Now the most pivotal four-game stretch of the Jeff Choate era begins in Pocatello on Saturday. Will Montana State find a way to rise and win the three games it needs to stay in the playoff picture? Or will an experiment offense featuring running back/linebacker Troy Andersen at quarterback that has soured keep the Bobcats out of the postseason for a fourth straight season?
Choate made headlines this week with the reorganization of his staff, the end result meaning former wide receivers coach Matt Miller will call plays on Saturday. It remains to be seen who plays quarterback, although Choate said he would’ve made a change under center instead of on his staff if he thought that would cure MSU’s offensive woes.
The Bobcats have been either a big play (mostly made by Andersen with his legs) or completely irrelvant the last three weeks. The Bobcats beat Idaho despite possessing the ball for just 21 minutes and eanring just 12 first downs. Last week, MSU managed just seven first downs and got all of its 24 points in the 10-point loss to Weber on either capitalizing on short fields from MSU takeaways, Andersen’s long run and Munchie Filer’s pick-6.
MSU will likely be favored in consecutive home games against Cal Poly and Northern Colorado, respectively. So a win in Pokey on Saturday could then give the Bobcats chance to enter its annual brawl with rival Montana already with seven wins instead of needing a victory in Missoula to get to seven wins. That could be the difference if MSU hopes to snap a playoff drought that goes back to 2014.
7. Montana (2-2 in Big Sky play, 4-3 overall)
First-year head coach Bobby Hauck has not hesitated to express his opinions and frustrations when it comes to his team’s unbalanced roster and their recent inability to hang on to the football. Analyzing a Montana team that put the league on alert with a scorching 4-1 start but that lost consecutive games entering last week’s bye week is actually simple. If the Griz offense can mask the massive deficiency that is the offensive line and in turn help win the field position battle, Montana’s aggressive defense can light up opponents.
But when the offensive line is confused, ineffective, or irrelevant as it has been at times this season, Montana’s offense becomes stagnant, the defense has to play too many snaps and implosions like the offensive disaster that trademarked UM’s 22-20 loss to Portland State occur. Entering the bye, UM no-showed in Grand Forks, letting the hosts race to a 34-0 halftime lead. Seven lost fumbles in the last two weeks hasn’t helped the Griz.
When asked if he changed anything over the bye week, Hauck deadpanned Monday “Yes, we are going to hang on to the football. That will be a change.” If will have to if Montana wants to have any chance against a UC Davis offense averaging 48 points per game against FCS competition on Saturday.
8. Northern Arizona (2-2 in Big Sky play, 3-4 overall)
Northern Arizona lost to the last-place team in these power rankings last week. But the Lumberjacks don’t plunge out of the top 10 because of a 28-24 win over Weber State earlier this month. But falling out of the top 10 of these rankings might not be far way. And another loss will certainly eliminate a team that entered the season with high exceptions from the playoff race.
All-American quarterback Case Cookus suffered what will likely end up being a season-ending injury in NAU’s 31-26 non-conference loss to Eastern Washington. Last week, backup quarterback Daniel Bridge-Gadd was either suspended for the first several possessions against Northern Colorado or was injured. Either way, he entered the game in place of freshman Gino Campiotti and suffered what appeared to be a bad knee injury.
Man, #NAU football is really tempting their season this game. Suspending Daniel Bridge-Gadd the first three drives has led to two-three and outs which set up a blocked punt, muffed snap and just 11 passing yards on one completion
— Kade Gilliss (@KadeGilliss) October 20, 2018
1 of 2 things happened today at the QB position for @NAU_Football. Either the coaching staff decided to suspend Daniel Bridge-Gadd for a full half for “flight problems”, or they leaked that to the press to cover up a DBG injury, only to play him later. Either ain’t great.
— Matthew Jarecki (@matthewjarecki) October 20, 2018
Northern Colorado played without 12 suspended players, yet still ripped NAU for a 49-14 win, UNC’s first of the season.
Because of a 30-10 win over FBS UTEP to open the season and the Weber State win, if UND were to win this week against Cal Poly, then run the table in a November schedule that includes games against playoff contending UC Davis and North Dakota, wins over three ranked teams and seven total wins might still get the Lumberjacks into the postseason for the second straight season.
9. Portland State (2-2 in Big Sky play, 3-4 overall)
Despite not playing last week and Idaho winning, Portland State holds at No. 7 because PSU’s best win (Montana) is better than Idaho’s best win (Southern Utah). Although Idaho did beat Portland State 20-7 in Moscow the first weekend of October.
Sac State is all of a sudden in a spiral, meaning if PSU can pull out a win in Sacramento this weekend, the team picked to finish last in the Big Sky could take a .500 record into November.
10. Idaho (2-3 in Big Sky play, 3-4 overall)
Mason Petrino has operated Idaho’s offense well since becoming the Vandals’ only quarterback after Colton Richardson went down with a head injury. UI might’ve pushed the Bobcats to overtime in Bozeman if a game-tying extra point would not have been called no good in a 24-23 loss. That defeat came on the heels of a 62-28 whipping at the hands of Idaho State.
The Vandals bounced back in impressive fashion against struggling Southern Utah, racing to a 31-0 lead in a 31-12 victory. In their first year back in the league since 1995, UI can make a statement this weekend if they can win in Cheney. Easier said than done.
11. Cal Poly (1-3 in Big Sky play, 2-5 overall)
Cal Poly has not really rebounded from a 35-21 home loss in the first round of the 2016 FCS playoffs. That Cal Poly team lost three of its last four games. The Mustangs went 1-10 last season, meaning CP has won just five of its last 22 games. Fullback Joe Protheroe’s quest for his second Big Sky rushing title — he has 935 yards and nine touchdowns — has been one of the bright spots.
12. Northern Colorado (1-4 in Big Sky play, 1-7 overall)
Despite senior standouts like wide receiver Alex Wesley, running back Trae Riek and defensive end Keifer Morris not playing — UNC head coach Earnest Collins suspended 12 players for their game against NAU but did not release their names — UNC raced past the Lumberjacks for their first win. The Northern Colorado forced four turnovers, Keaton Mott threw three touchdowns and Milo Hall rushed for 119 yards to lead the Bears to the 49-14 victory.
The Bears will have three more chances to earn win No. 2, including Saturday’s matchup at Southern Utah. UNC has its bye the last week of the regular season.
13. Southern Utah (1-3 in Big Sky play, 1-6 overall)
Southern Utah has had arguably the most success of the four teams that joined the league in 2012. SUU has had just one losing season while qualifying for the FCS playoffs in 2013, 2015 and 2017. SUU shared the league title in 2015 and 2017 as well. Last week’s 31-12 loss at Idaho clinched a losing season for the Thunderbirds. SUU and Northern Colorado in a matchup of the league’s two most desperate teams.
14. Sacramento State (0-4 in Big Sky play, 2-5 overall)
After pushing Montana in a 41-34 loss in Missoula to open Big Sky play, Sac has taken its lump as injuries have mounted. The most consequential losses have been the injuries suffered by senior All-Big Sky defensive end George Obinna and senior quarterback Kevin Thomson. Coming out of their bye, the Hornets gave up 492 yards rushing in a 41-27 loss to Cal Poly. The following week, Southern Utah snapped its five-game losing streak with a 48-27 win in Cedar City, taking out Thomson in the process. It didn’t get any better last week. The Hornets gave up 490 rushing yards, including 213 yards to James Johannesson and 171 more to Brady Oliveira, in a 41-15 homecoming loss to North Dakota. The Hornets host a Portland State team looking for its first three-game winning streak since 2015.
Photos by Brooks Nuanez or noted. All Rights Reserved.