Big Sky Conference

Second week filled with playoff implications for Big Sky

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After an upset of paramount importance over a power conference in-state rival, the road does not get any easier for the Eastern Washington Eagles. EWU ninth-year head coach Beau Baldwin would not have it any other way.

Fresh off a 45-42 win over Washington State, No. 8 Eastern Washington now travels to Fargo to face off with top-ranked and five-time defending national champion North Dakota State. It’s just the most recent powerhouse matchup Eastern has embarked on during Baldwin’s nine seasons at the helm.

“I love it and our guys love it,” Baldwin said of playing one of the most difficult schedules in the country year in and year out. “I know your record could suffer some years from it but if you never schedule tough opponents, it never gives you the opportunity to do something really special.”

Eastern Washington senior wide receiver Cooper Kupp leads his Eagles against North Dakota State Saturday/ courtesy of EWU athletics

Eastern Washington senior wide receiver Cooper Kupp leads his Eagles against North Dakota State Saturday/ courtesy of EWU athletics

EWU’s win over the Cougars in Pullman was the second in four seasons over a Pac 12 opponent. In 2012, EWU toppled No. 25 Oregon State 49-46 in Corvallis, marking just the fourth time an FCS team had taken down an ranked FBS foe. EWU’s trip to Fargo is just the next step in arguably the most grueling non-conference schedule in the country. Next week, Eastern hosts No. 3 Northern Iowa in Cheney, Washington.

The formidable slate is a trend under Baldwin, who took over as EWU’s head coach in 2008 after serving as the team’s offensive coordinator from 2003 until 2006. That first season, the Eagles played at No. 12 Texas Tech and at Colorado in back-to-back weeks, only losing by a touchdown to the Buffs.

In 2009, EWU played at No. 10 Cal. In 2010, EWU played at Nevada to open the season and played Central Washington, a team Baldwin helped reach No. 1 in the nation in Division II two years earlier, on a neutral field in Seattle during a season that ended in the school’s first national championship. EWU’s 2011 schedule included conference games at Washington (a 30-27 loss), as well as at South Dakota and at home against Cal Poly. In 2012, EWU played at Idaho and Washington State in back-to-back weeks, losing by just four points to the Cougs. The Eagles also played No. 15 Cal Poly in Cheney that season.

The year of the Oregon State win also included a trip to Toledo (a 33-21 loss) and a non-conference game against No. 4 Sam Houston State, a team that advanced to the FCS championship game three seasons in a row. In 2014, EWU hosted Sam Houston State in the FCS Kickoff on ESPN before losing 59-52 to Washington in Seattle and winning at No. 14 Montana State 52-51 during a trying non-conference slate. Last season, EWU opened at Oregon (a 61-42 loss) before playing at No. 7 Northern Iowa (a 38-35 loss) and hosting No. 11 Montana State (a 55-50 win) during a season that ended with the Eagles outside the FCS playoffs for just the third time in Baldwin’s eight completed seasons.

Eastern Washington and Montana State, two Big Sky teams, have played in non-conference games each of the last two seasons/ by Brooks Nuanez

Eastern Washington and Montana State, two Big Sky teams, have played in non-conference games each of the last two seasons/ by Brooks Nuanez

“Our conference is so tough, I like the idea of playing tough non-conference games,” Baldwin said. “You can argue does that always position you for the playoffs if you end up 7-4? I don’t think about it like that. I like to put our guys in tough situations and challenge them. In the long run, it prepares you for the rigors of the Big Sky schedule and if you want to do anything nationally.”

Now the Eagles turn their eyes to the Bison, a team that lost to EWU in the quarterfinals of the FCS playoffs in 2010 before going on an unprecedented spurt that has included 20 straight postseason wins, five straight national titles and a 72-5 record since the beginning of the 2011 season.

“They are the reigning national champions for a reason,” said EWU sophomore quarterback Gage Gubrud, who threw for 474 yards and five touchdowns and rushed for 77 yards and another score in the Eagles’ win over Washington State. “They don’t have any weaknesses. It will be a hostile, fun environment to play in against a good football team. We just have to make sure we fix the mistakes we saw on film last week and go in there with the mentality we are going to win.”

Gubrud and FCS National Player of the Week Cooper Kupp, who had 12 catches, 206 yards and three touchdowns to break David Ball’s all-time FCS TD grab mark, lead an Eastern offense that looks as explosive as ever with new passing coordinator Troy Taylor bringing his ideas to the table.

The Bison counter with a stout defense led by All-America candidates defensive lineman Greg Menard, linebacker Nick DeLuca and defensive back MJ Stumpf. NDSU opened the season on the FCS Kickoff on ESPN two weeks ago with a 24-17 overtime win over No. 7 Charleston Southern before taking the last week off.

The No. 8 Eagles at the top-ranked Bison is one of a handful of crucial FCS crossover matchups sure to influence the 24-team playoff field in December. No. 14 Montana plays at No. 3 Northern Iowa, No. 19 Northern Arizona plays at No. 18 Western Illinois and Weber State plays at South Dakota as the Big Sky and the Missouri Valley, two of the three premier conferences in the FCS, continue to battle for supremacy out West.

“We like to stay myopic during the season and take it one game at a time, but when we are setting our goals in the spring and the summer, we knew this game would happen and we knew if we could get ourselves there, it would have playoff implications,” said NAU head coach Jerome Souers, who’s team missed the playoffs despite a 7-4 record last fall, a game better than playoff-qualifying WIU, who went 6-5. “Sometimes, we play a D-II team and it hurts us or doesn’t help us. So we are committed to getting an FCS matchup that can help us at the end of the year.

Montana scraped by thanks to an explosive offense in the second half to overcome three first-half turnovers in a 41-31 win over Saint Francis last week. Brady Gustafson threw three second-half touchdowns and rushed for a fourth as Montana overcame a 17-13 deficit late in the third quarter to win going away.

On the flip side, Northern Iowa topped Big XII member Iowa State 25-20 in Ames. The Panthers rushed for 232 yards as quarterback Aaron Bailey rushed for 114 yards and a touchdown while throwing for 135 yards and another score. Stud running back Tyvis Smith added 68 yards on 17 carries as UNI averaged 4.0 yards per carry against the Cyclones.

UNI’s defense proved formidable against ISU as well, giving up just 51 yards rushing on 25 carries. Northern Iowa forced four turnovers, three in the last five minutes to seal the upset. Karter Schult notched two sacks and three tackles for loss to lead the UNI defense.

Montana head coach Bob Stitt/ photo by Jason Bacaj

Montana head coach Bob Stitt/ photo by Jason Bacaj

“We are looking forward to the matchup this week, getting a top five opponent, which I think will really help us once we get into league,” second-year head coach Bobb Stitt said. “Early and on the road will be a challenge for our young guys playing in a hostile environment. We have our hands full with Northern Iowa. They are a fantastic team athletically and also very well coached.”

The Griz are 7-2 since 2009 against Missouri Valley teams, including a landmark 38-35 win over NDSU to begin the Stitt era and a 24-17 win over South Dakota State in the first round of the FCS playoffs. Montana’s season ended last fall in Fargo however, as North Dakota State defeated UM 37-9 in the second round of the 2015 season.

“I think this team is very comparable to the team that we saw twice last year,” Stitt said. “It’s a great test for us, it allows us to see where our young football team is, as far as the mental side of it goes.

“When you schedule teams you know you can beat early; it doesn’t help you when it comes time to play the tough teams in the Big Sky. We’ve got to be able to go there and face a little adversity.”

Reigning Big Sky champion Southern Utah also has a crucial non-conference as it hosts Southeastern Louisiana of the Southland in the second half of a home-and-home dating back to 2014. The Thunderbirds lost 41-14 at SLE two seasons ago but went on to qualify for the FCS playoffs for the first time.

“We talk to our players a couple of times about it already that it’s a big week for us and a big week for the Big Sky,” said SUU first-year head coach Demario Warren, the defensive coordinator for the Thunderbirds last year. “This is a huge week for not only us but for seven other teams in the Big Sky who are playing other FCS schools. We are wishing everyone luck and hopefully we can do our part on Saturday.”

Big Sky teams face four FBS matchups this week: Sacramento State plays at Fresno State, Idaho State plays at Colorado, North Dakota plays at Bowling Green and Portland State plays at San Jose State.

Portland quarterback Alex Kuresa will lead the Vikings in search of a third straight FBS win on Saturday /by Brooks Nuanez

Portland quarterback Alex Kuresa will lead the Vikings in search of a third straight FBS win on Saturday /by Brooks Nuanez

Portland State will try to continue its win streak against FBS foes. In Bruce Barnum’s first season, the Vikings upset Washington State 24-17 to spark momentum for a playoff run and later posted the largest margin of victory for an FCS over an FBS with a 66-7 win over North Texas. Barnum said preparing for a third straight upset is all between the ears.

“The physical prep doesn’t change but the mental part is fun. That’s why I watch the Star Wars trilogy,” Barnum said. “We are trying to get everyone thinking the same way and throw in a little bit of Yoda, the force, all that.”

The Hornets suffered the most stunning upset of the first week, losing to Division II Western Oregon, something head coach Jody Sears said he hopes is a wakeup call for his young team. Idaho State head coach Mike Kramer posted a win over Colorado as the head coach of Montana State in 2006, but said the game has no influence on the matchup this weekend. No. 25 UND will try to bounce back from a heartbreaking 13-9 upset at Stony Brook; the Seawolves won by blocking a punt and returning it for a touchdown. The Fighting Hawks face a Bowling Green team fresh off a 77-10 loss to Ohio State.

Northern Colorado plays at Abilene Christian for the second half of a home and home; the Bears beat ABU 40-34 last season. Cal Poly hosts rival San Diego after narrowly losing 30-27 in overtime to Nevada in Reno last week. UC Davis, who lost to Oregon last week, hosts Southern Oregon, the 2014 NAIA national champions and last year’s national runner-up.

“When you aren’t playing each other, I root for our teams to have great success,” Baldwin said. “This does wonders for the Big Sky in the FCS nationally. Just like Montana playing North Dakota State last year, we played Sam Houston, those early games, being involved in those type of big time non-conference games, I think it helps our level of football from a national standpoint.”

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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