Big Sky Conference

BIG SKY PREVIEW: Second half of league play begins


For the first time since league play opened, the Big Sky Conference slate is full this week with all 13 teams in the league in action.

No. 21 Montana State is the only Big Sky team not playing a conference game; the Bobcats host fledgling FCS independent East Tennessee State, a school that revived it’s football program this season after cutting the team in 2003.

Read Montana State game preview here.

No. 19 Montana hosts North Dakota in a matchup between two teams trying to find their footing. A loss would be the fourth for either squad, meaning the game is dripping with playoff implications.

Read Montana State game preview here.

The league slate also includes No. 13 Portland State trying to stay red-hot after enduring an 850-mile bus ride to San Luis Obispo to take on a desperate Cal Poly team looking to stay alive in the playoff picture. Upstart Northern Colorado will endure its first true test with No. 7 Eastern Washington in Greeley. Weber State will look to stay hot at in Flagstaff as Northern Arizona hopes to stay undefeated at Walkup Skydome this season. Southern Utah will look to extend its winning streak to five games with a trip to UC Davis. And Sac State will try to snap a six-game losing streak with reeling Idaho State in town.

 No. 13 Portland State at Cal Poly — For most that follow the Big Sky, Portland State has been the season’s biggest surprise. Don’t count Cal Poly head coach Tim Walsh as one of them.

PSU helmet“Portland State has always had some of the best athletes in the league and Coach (Bruce) Barnum has done a tremendous job to getting them to where they are right now,” Walsh said. “I know their players are excited. I can see that by watching them play. The confidence they are playing with and the enthusiasm they are using to win says a lot of what Bruce has accomplished. We are going to have our hands full.”

Walsh helped lay the foundation for Division I success at PSU. He spent 14 seasons as the Vikings’ head coach, helping Portland State usher in the D-I era. He left in 2006 to become the offensive coordinator at Army. He’s been at Cal Poly since 2008.

“It’s always emotional to play a team that you were a part of for so long and that makes it that much more special and I am excited,” Walsh said. “I’m excited to see what they’ve accomplished. I think it has solidified their program and their athletic department probably in the university’s eyes. Now Bruce knows he has a five-year deal. I’m very proud of what they are accomplishing but it’s like anything else. Once we get to Saturday and the ball is kicked off, they become the opponent and we will do everything in our power to beat them.”

Portland State enters the game with six wins and just a single loss, a 19-16 misstep against North Dakota three weeks ago. Since then, the Vikings offense has caught fire. PSU put up 66 points in a historic win over FBS North Texas. Last week, Portland State followed it up by running Montana State out of the City of Roses. The Vikings rushed for a program record 465 yards and scored on eight straight possessions in a 59-42 victory over the preseason league favorites.

Like a handful of teams in the Big Sky, Cal Poly entered the season with high expectations only to find its back pressed against the wall at the midpoint of the campaign. Cal Poly is 2-4 after playing a brutal first half that included wins over Montana and Idaho State plus losses to nationally ranked MSU, EWU, Northern Iowa and FBS Arizona State. CP is fresh off a bye. The Mustangs’ triple option offense rushed for 500 yards two straight times before taking the week off.

IMG_5982“Cal Poly, Tim Walsh, option, homecoming again…there’s been a lot of pageantry and we’ve taken a lot of pictures,” Barnum said. “I’m trying to figure out how to put together a home coming business. I’m going to be a lot of people’s date this week. Tough football team. We haven’t beaten them in many moons. But we will be ready. We will throw the football on the ground on Saturday and see what happens. I like my guys’ attitude right now. They seem ready to kick someone’s ass.”

When Walsh was hired at Cal Poly, he gave Barnum a call to ask if the longtime offensive coordinator knew anything about running the option.

“Why don’t we run it? Honestly, it bores me to watch. I want my fans to want to come to the game. Our fan base, it’s a boring offense. But it’s very productive. It’s a different niche in college football. Not a lot of guys know it. I talked to Coach Walsh when I got the job at Cal Poly. He said, ‘Barny, do you know the option?’ He hadn’t hired an offensive coordinator. I said no. I can’t learn it, don’t know it, not my world. I don’t fly fish, I bass fish. It’s a whole other world. Certain guys are good at it. That’s what they’ve invested their career at as far as studying,” Barnum said.

The showdown pits the two top rushing teams in the league. Cal Poly is averaging 387 yards per game on the ground. Portland State is averaging 276 yards per game and has scored a league-high 23 rushing touchdowns for an offense averaging 38.5 points per game. PSU is also second in the league in scoring defense (16.5 points per game) and total defense (318.5 yards per game).”

“They are going to figure out what we are doing against it at some point so we are trying to make a few stops to make it a game before that,” Barnum said. “If you don’t have a plan B, you are in trouble and they are going to score. It’s a question of when they can dial you up and when they make adjustments.”

“You can’t have your team standing around because that’s when it goes from a G-rated to an R-rated movie.”

No. 7 Eastern Washington at Northern Colorado — Northern Colorado has won just 13 Big Sky games since joining the league in 2006. Take away the 2012 season in which UNC went 4-4 and the Bears have won multiple league games in a single season just three times. This season is one of those.

IMG_6046On Saturday, UNC will receive its toughest test as the three-time defending Big Sky champions come to town. EWU enters the game with an unscathed Big Sky record thanks to an explosive offense averaging 41.3 points per game. Quarterback Jordan West has thrown 22 touchdowns as EWU leads the country by throwing for 406 yards per game.

Junior Cooper Kupp remains the most important part of the EWU passing game. The All-America wide receiver has 64 catches for 941 yards and 12 touchdowns already this season. He is averaging 10 catches, 157 yards and two touchdowns per game.

“This kid is pretty special. I don’t know if you keep him in check but you try to hold him to as few as you can,” UNC head coach Earnest Collins said. “They have so many ways to get the kid the ball. It’s not like you can focus on him at one position. He can come out at any of the four spots on the field at any time. That’s the unique thing about him is he is smart enough to play all over the feel. You have some receivers who are great on the outside, some receivers who are great on the inside, some who have speed, some who don’t have speed but have quickness. Well, the kid has the package. You have to figure out ways to try to negate it or get the timing off with the quarterback. That young man is a special player.

“(EWU head coach) Beau (Baldwin) seems to get those special players a lot. We are going to do what we can do, slowly get down and go from there. That’s the unique thing about it. If you focus all your attention on Cooper, Kendrick (Bourne) will kill you. If you focus on those two, (sophomore) Nick Sblendorio will get you.”

Last season, Northern Colorado took EWU down to the wire before losing 26-18 last season. This season, UND has been stout during a 4-2 start thanks to a solid defense that is allowing 231 passing yards and 26 points per game. Senior safety Taylor Risner (58 tackles, three tackles for loss) and junior defensive end Mikhail Dubose (eight tackles for loss, three sacks) lead the unit.

IMG_6053“I think they have a couple of strengths,” said Baldwin, whose Eagles have won 30 of their last 33 Big Sky games. “They are obviously playing some new faces. When you look at last year’s film, there are new guys but they are continuing to come together as the season goes. Top to bottom on defense, they have some guys up front that have some size in the middle. They have a couple of defensive ends that are active with that size. They have great activity up front and that’s a lethal combination. They are very tough-minded and hard working at linebacker. The secondary is extremely athletic.”

UNC’s quick start includes league wins over Sac State and UC Davis, two squads that have combined for just one Division I win this season. UNC’s other two wins came over Division II Western State and Houston Baptist, an FCS program that added football in 2013. Saturday marks the first true test if the Bears want to affirm themselves as contenders.

“Eastern Washington has the best player in the country on any level playing for them,” Collins said. “We definitely have to be ready.”

Southern Utah at UC Davis — To many outsiders, Southern Utah is a surprise team in this season’s Big Sky. When UC Davis head coach Ron Gould looks at the Thunderbirds on film, he sees a barrage of talent.

IMG_5978“They have an unbelievable, unbelievable defense. I think I’m going to call Coach Lamb and see if they can have James Cowser stay home,” Gould said. “That guy is incredible, first-team All-Conference guy in my book. Their whole entire defense does a tremendous job of keeping the ball in front of him.

“Their safety, (Miles) Killebrew, he’s an NFL safety. He’s very, very physical. We have to make sure we do a great job of possessing the ball because they lead the league in forcing turnovers. They are physical, fast and athletic. We have to make sure we come out and play out with the physicality and mentality we need to play with to match it.”

Several scouting outlets have the 6-foot-3, 227-pound Killebrew as one of the top seven safety prospects in next spring’s NFL Draft. The 6-foot-4, 255-pound Cowser is a two-time All-America who broke Jared Allen’s Big Sky record for tackles for loss in a season with 28.5 stops behind the line in 2014. The defense also features All-Big Sky linebacker Matt Holley and borderline NFL cornerback LeShaun Sims. The sum total is a unit that leads the FCS in interceptions with 13 and has allowed just three points in Big Sky Conference play.

Davis will counter with a ball control offense that wants to milk the clock and run the ball to set up play action passes. Davis possesses the ball for almost 35 minutes per game, the most in the league. But the strategy has paid off just once, a 38-24 win over Northern Arizona two weeks ago. Davis gave up 42 unanswered points in a 56-27 loss to Northern Colorado last week.

IMG_5979“I have a high level of respect for the way they are doing things,” SUU head coach Ed Lamb said. “I told any of our team members who were around last season, I think Davis is very comparable (SUU went 3-9 last season). They have a good, capable team. You can look at any single one of their game results and there is nothing embarrassing about them.

“They are able to hold the ball and they are very intelligent the way they go about their defensive strategies. Offensively, they have an identity and they don’t turn the ball over. They don’t get themselves in third and long situations and they play the field position game. They kicked our butts two years ago with that exact philosophy.”

Southern Utah has given up just three points total in its three league victories. The Thunderbirds are yet to give up a third down conversion when the opponent has at least 10 yards to gain.

Weber State at Northern Arizona — Weber State hasn’t won more than two games in a season over the last three campaigns. This season, the Wildcats have won four of five games, all against Big Sky teams in moving to 3-1 in conference play.

IMG_6034The Wildcats are in their second season under head coach Jay Hill. The last two weeks, Weber has won in dramatic fashion; two weeks ago, the Wildcats forced an overtime fumble in a 24-21 win in Missoula, WSU’s first in the Garden City since 1987. Last week, Weber rallied from a 24-10 fourth-quarter deficit for a 25-24 victory over North Dakota.

“Opportunistic would be a great way to describe them and they are winning games, which is what we are all trying to do,” NAU head coach Jerome Souers said. “Coach Hill is doing a great job with his group.

“I’m very impressed with the progress they have made with their program in a short period of time. If you look at their win-loss record against Big Sky Conference opponents, they are as hot as any team as any team in the conference. They are playing very well.”

NAU has been up and down this season in a schedule that has included just two home games. The Lumberjacks began the season with a victory over a ranked Stephen F. Austin team on the road before earning its first road win at home over a Division II school. The ‘Jacks were whipped 77-13 at the University of Arizona before losing in Missoula to the Grizzlies, 24-13. NAU exploded offensively in a 49-41 win over Montana State before falling 38-24 last week to UC Davis. NAU finally returns home, a place the ‘Jacks are undefeated.

IMG_6063 copy“They get as many big runs as anyone we have faced and they have a big wide out (Emmanuel Butler) on the outside where when you throw the ball up to him, he comes down with it,” Hill said. “It’s maybe as good as any wide out I’ve seen at that. He comes down with the football every time. The quarterback (Case Cookus) is proficient. His passer efficiency rating is high and he makes smart decisions.”

NAU senior running back Casey Jahn has rushed for 579 yards and is averaging 116 yards per game. Butler has 30 catches for 697 yards (league-leading 23.2 yards per catch) and has scored nine touchdowns. Cookus, a true freshman, has an efficiency rating of 189.0 thanks to 15 touchdowns compared to two interceptions.

Weber counters with a swarming defense that has 71 tackles behind the line of scrimmage, including 16 sacks. Junior safety Josh Burton leads a back end that is one of the biggest and most athletically talented in the league.

“Their secondary is probably the largest back end we’ve gone against when you talk about height and range,” Souers said. “Those kids play really disciplined so they are able to play people in a lot of man-free, which isn’t easy to do. They match up well, they make plays and they cause problems. That’s a key matchup for us: how are we going to do when they come up in man-free and challenge you to beat them?”

IMG_5984Idaho State at Sacramento State — Idaho State entered the season with high expectations following last season’s 8-4 campaign. But head coach Mike Kramer expressed concerns all off-season about his team’s ability to excel because of an unknown quarterback situation.

Junior Michael Sanders has thrown 10 interceptions and fumbled the ball several other times during ISU’s 2-5 start. Other factors to the unpredictable start include outside linebacker Mario Jenkins, the 2014 Big Sky Freshman of the Year, and senior safety Taison Manu suffering season-ending knee injuries during fall camp. The struggles have prompted Kramer to make a change.

The simple fact is we got wounded during two-a-days on defense and we are not good enough yet at quarterback. Period,” Kramer said. “Everything else is on target, on time. We are just not good enough at quarterback. We hold the ball and we held the ball last week and the result is sacks, fumbles and interceptions. And this was a game where Michael came off of having such a great game against North Dakota. He held the ball last week and it hurt the ball really bad. He will not throw the ball fast enough to protect himself, so Tanner is going to start this week I think. We will see at game time.”IMG_6061

“The main thing about quarterback is it has nothing to do with arm strength or size. It’s how your brain works. It’s how you can perceive the play before the play begins. Right now, we are staggering in that concept.”

Saturday, Idaho State has a chance to get back on track against a reeling Sac State team still searching for its first Division I win. Sac is averaging just 11 points per game against Division I opponents and will start true freshman quarterback Nate Ketteringham for a second straight week.

Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.

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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