Around the Big Sky

BIG SKY ROUNDUP: NAU, Bobcats, Grizzlies post big wins

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Every week of the Big Sky football season, Skyline Sports will bring you a rundown of all the games involving Big Sky teams. It’s difficult to tell much of anything after Week 1 because so many teams are playing much tougher or weaker competition, but several Big Sky teams got good wins to start the season.

Thursday, August 30

Montana State 26, Western Illinois 23

What happened: Troy Anderson’s nightmare first half turned into a dream in the second and Tristan Bailey hit four field goals to give the Cats a comeback win.

Why it happened: No matter whether he’s playing running back or quarterback, Anderson is one of the best ballcarriers in the conference. As quarterback Thursday, he ran for 145 yards and two touchdowns. Montana State was down 13-6 at halftime after Anderson threw for four yards in the first half, but when he showed even the slightest threat of being able to throw it in the second half, things opened up for the Cats’ offense. Western Illinois also could not block Bryce Sterk, who finished with two sacks and four tackles for loss, including this sack on a speed rush to clinch the win.

What it means: It was a good, not great win for the Bobcats at home over a middling Missouri Valley team in Western Illinois. The defense looked good, but the quarterback question is still far from settled due to Anderson’s struggles throwing the ball. They’ll face a much tougher test next week on the road against South Dakota State, the No. 2 team in the MVC preseason poll.

Andersen settles in, new additions come up big as Bobcats outlast Leathernecks

UC Davis 44, San Jose State 38

What happened: Jake Maier threw for 446 yards on 55 attempts and the Aggies got the first FCS-over-FBS win of the year in a shootout.

Why it happened: Simply put, San Jose State couldn’t stop Maier and the offense. The Aggie QB had 354 yards at the half. That aerial threat opened up running lanes for Ulonzo Gilliam in the second half and the redshirt freshman running back finished with 132 yards. The Aggies finished with 589 yards and 31 first downs. The defense wasn’t good, exactly, giving up 509 yards of its own, but in a shootout like that, extra possessions make the difference. Maier threw just one interception, while Tiger Garcia and Isiah Olave had picks for UC Davis, along with a fumble recovery by Montell Bland. In a game in which both offenses were scoring almost every time, that turnover margin made the difference.

What it means: A shootout win over an FBS team sounds impressive, but UC Davis was actually favored in this game. The Aggies, with Maier and Keelan Doss, had a potent passing attack last year as well, but if they can’t do anything else well, they might struggle for wins again. So far, the jury is still very much out on the defense.

Utah 41, Weber State 10

What happened: No upsets in this one, as Utah recovered from an early 10-0 deficit to stomp the Wildcats.

Why it happened: No points for guessing this one — the Utes were just clearly better than Weber State, as is expected when a Power 5 team plays a FCS team. Two good field-position situations got the Wildcats their early 10 points. Without that, they might not have scored at all. Utah outgained Weber State 609 to 58.

What it means: While a loss — even a blowout — was expected, this was in no way a good look for Weber State, the defending Big Sky co-champions. Look at those yardage numbers again. They didn’t even belong on the same field as the Utes, and that makes this one of the worst performances of the week. Jay Hill, a former Utah player and coach, will have a tough task trying to salvage momentum and belief after that.

Friday, August 31

Nevada 72, Portland State 19

What happened: Another FBS opponent, another not great performance for a Big Sky team.

Why it happened: Portland State was hanging around, with a 9-0 lead at one point and just a 30-19 deficit at halftime. Then Nevada scored 28 unanswered points in the third quarter. The Vikings couldn’t stop the big play — Nevada’s four scoring drives in the quarter comprised just 12 plays between them, and the longest was only four plays. Davis Alexander, who had started decently under center, went just 2-for-10 passing and was sacked three times in the fateful third quarter as the Vikings offense stalled.

What it means: Nothing, really. Portland State is a bad Big Sky team and didn’t do anything to challenge that view Friday.

Idaho State 45, Western State Colorado 10

Idaho State running back James Madison, pictured here last year against Montana State/ by Brooks Nuanez

What happened: The Bengals smacked around D-II Western State, scoring 45 points in the first three quarters before easing off a bit.

Why it happened: Idaho State stayed balanced, passing for 245 yards and running for 234. Eight different receivers had a catch, and four ballcarriers ran for at least 20 yards, led by James Madison with 114. The Bengals also shut down the run game, giving up 28 yards on 26 carries.

What it means: This is the flip side of playing an FBS team and getting destroyed. Idaho State certainly had a good day, but against a D-II school. That makes it tough to take anything away from this one.

Saturday, September 1

Eastern Washington 58, Central Washington 13

Why it happened: Eastern Washington is the Big Sky preseason favorites and played like it, putting up a lot of points in a hurry on an overmatched opponent. Gage Gubrud finished 19-of-23 for 337 yards and five touchdowns. Sam McPherson ran for 185 yards on 15 carries. Nsimba Webster might have had the best performance with 212 yards and two touchdowns on 10 catches, and looks set to mark his name among the upper echelon of Big Sky receivers. Look at how much space he’s getting and how easily he’s able to get open on his second touchdown catch.

What it means: As with Idaho State’s win, practically nothing.

McNeese State 17, Northern Colorado 14

Why it happened: Northern Colorado’s defense absolutely stepped up against McNeese State, the No. 17 team in STATS’ preseason FCS poll. The Bears racked up 10 tackles for loss, held McNeese to just 322 total yards, and scored a touchdown of their own on a fourth-quarter interception by Michael Walker. Unfortunately, the offense wasn’t quite as good, recording just 301 yards. Alex Wesley had one big 62-yard catch, but the Bears didn’t score until there were less than six minutes left in the game.

Northern Colorado quarterback Jacob Knipp

What it means: This game just reinforces the idea that the Big Sky is really, really deep. Northern Colorado wasn’t one of the eight teams in the league to receiver a postseason first-place vote, and the Bears finished 11th in the coaches poll and 12th in the media poll. For them to get this close to a win against a ranked team — and they absolutely could have won this game — shows just how competitive the conference will be.

North Alabama 34, Southern Utah 30

What happened: North Alabama scored a touchdown with 12 seconds left to upset the Thunderbirds.

Why it happened: This was a great, back-and-forth game, and Southern Utah just couldn’t get a stop when it needed to. North Alabama quarterback Christian Lopez savaged SUU for 350 yards passing and 105 rushing. Chris Helbig threw for 315 yards — 161 of them to Ty Rutledge — for the Thunderbirds, who led 27-23 with less than five minutes left. That set up a wild finish. North Alabama went 97 yards on six plays to take a 30-27 left with 4:47 left. SUU came right back with a 10-play, 75-yard drive, capped by a 1-yard touchdown run by James Felila. But the 2:02 they left on the clock was too much, and Lopez led a nine-play, 75-yard drive and hit Dexter Boykin in the end zone with 12 seconds for the win.

What it means: This was the worst loss of the week by a Big Sky team. The Thunderbirds split the league title with Weber last year and were an under-the-radar pick to do so again. North Alabama was in Division II last year. And the game was in Cedar City. That’s bad.

Sacramento State 55, St. Francis (IL) 7

What happened: The Hornets overpowered NAIA school St. Francis, going up 31-0 at halftime.

Why it happened: The Sac State offense was on one, gaining 630 total yards on 59 plays for an average of 10.7. That’s a first down every time the ball was snapped, give or take. That quick-strike offense kept the Sac State defense out on the field for a majority of the game, and they were good but not dominant against a much worse opponent. St. Francis gained 304 total yards and actually had 18 first downs to Sac State’s 24, but the Hornets mostly kept them out of the end zone.

What it means: Again, tough to take much from beating an NAIA school, but it looks like the Hornets might once again be explosive on offense but limited on defense.

Montana 26, Northern Iowa 23

What happened: Montana stormed out of the gates with 26 unanswered points in the first half — only to have Northern Iowa nearly steal the game with 23 unanswered in the second.

Why it happened: Bobby Hauck had the advantage of surprise in his first game back with the Grizzlies and played it to the hilt. The Griz scored early and often before capping the first half with a trick-play touchdown. Montana’s defense looked scary early on, but UNI changed quarterbacks in the second half and stormed back into the game. Once the Panthers realized Montana couldn’t run the ball, the Grizzly offense ground to a halt, but the lead they had built was just barely enough to hold on.

Griz ride the momentum of Hauck’s return to electric first half

What it means: Bobby’s back? The first half must have had the Big Sky people who remember Hauck’s first tenure with the Griz quaking in their boots. The offense was rolling, the defense was dominant, and Washington-Grizzly Stadium was rocking. Then the second half came, and with it a reminder that this is a flawed Grizzlies team. There were a lot of good things, and it’ll go into the books as a win, but this just as easily could have been a devastating loss for Montana. It will be interesting to see if Hauck can stay ahead of the ever-expanding scouting report from week-to-week.

Fresno State 79, Idaho 13

What happened: Man, it’s getting tough to describe all these blowouts. Fresno State scored four touchdowns in the second quarter to kill Idaho’s chances of an upset.

Why it happened: Colten Richardson started at quarterback for Idaho but left soon thereafter after going 3-for-11 with one touchdown and three interceptions. Mason Petrino replaced him and went 11-for-22, which is a nicer line at first glance, but he actually managed to throw for less yards than Richardson and added two more interceptions. Idaho also lost two fumbles and didn’t cause any turnovers of its own, which is how you lose a game by 66 points despite only being out-gained 486 to 307.

Northern Arizona 30, UTEP 10

What happened: The Lumberjacks led wire-to-wire to rack up the conference’s second FBS win of the weekend.

Why it happened: NAU’s defense was great, allowing just 227 total yards to the Miners. UTEP didn’t score except for a three-minute passage of play at the end of the first half. On offense, the Case Cookus to Emmanuel Butler connection was enough for Northern Arizona, as the two hooked up for 138 yards and two scores. The former all-conference wide receiver appears to be back to his former self for NAU after missing last year with an injury.

Northern Arizona quarterback Case Cookus (15) in 2017/by NAU Athletics

What it means: On a week when Weber State and Idaho were blown out and Southern Utah had a tough loss, NAU joined Eastern Washington as the only conference favorite with a win, and the Lumberjacks were the only one of the five to beat a Division I opponent. That, added to Butler’s return, makes this a good week for NAU, which will actually play the Eagles next week in a non-conference matchup.

North Dakota State 49, Cal Poly 3

What happened: The Mustangs didn’t play an FBS team, but they might as well have. The defending FBS champions picked up right where they left off.

Why it happened: Uh, because North Dakota State is really, really good. Cal Poly gained 207 total yards and didn’t score for the last 52 minutes of the game. Lance Dunn ran for three touchdowns, Bruce Anderson two and Easton Stick one for the Bison. Look at how Dunn eliminates the whole Cal Poly defense with one cut here, looking like he’s just playing a different game:

Anderson, meanwhile, ran for 185 yards on just 11 carries.

What it means: Nothing, really. That’s what you’d expect from NDSU. The real big news is that Poly starting quarterback Khaleel Jenkins, who missed half of 2017 with an injury, was hurt again, and “he may be out for the remainder of the year,” according to Lucas Clark at the San Luis Obispo Tribune. If he’s is, the Mustangs’ season could be short-circuited by injuries again before it’s even really started.

About Andrew Houghton

Andrew Houghton grew up in Washington, DC. He graduated from the University of Montana journalism school in December 2015 and spent time working on the sports desk at the Daily Tribune News in Cartersville, Georgia, before moving back to Missoula and becoming a part of Skyline Sports in early 2018.

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