Around the Big Sky

Big Sky Scramble: Wins set up huge rivalry matchups in final week

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All the Big Sky’s frontrunners won over the weekend, setting up pivotal rivalry games in the final week between Montana and Montana State, and UC Davis and Sacramento State. Elsewhere around the Big Sky, Eastern Washington got its groove back, Southern Utah got vaporized, and Cal Poly got the bounce of a lifetime. This is the Big Sky Scramble, featuring analysis of every game from around the conference.

6. Montana State all but wrapped up a playoff seed, no matter what happens against the Griz, with a surprisingly difficult 20-13 home win over Idaho.

With star running back Isaiah Ifanse, his backup Elijah Elliott and starting quarterback Matt McKay all out injured or shaken up by the end of the game, freshman quarterback Tommy Mellott of Butte ran for three scores, former Huntley Project standout Lane Sumner rose to the occasion and Touchdown Tommy’s game-winner with just over two minutes left helped MSU punch a post-season seed and a chance to seal it’s first Big Sky title since 2012 if they beat a surging Griz team Saturday in Missoula.

As their in-state rivals are getting healthier after a midseason run of injuries, the Bobcats are losing key players at the end of the season. Ifanse and McKay are expected to play against Montana. If they do, attention will shift to the offensive line, where right tackle T.J. Session is also out. MSU’s depth chart had freshman Rush Reimer in that spot, but the Bobcats could also bump all-conference guard Taylor Tuiasosopo outside.

No matter what the offense looks like, Montana State’s defense looks like it can win any game by itself right now. One week after shutting down Eric Barriere and Eastern Washington’s high-flying receivers, the Bobcats turned around and gave up just two scores to Idaho’s option offense with Zach Borisch at the quarterback controls. MSU senior captain Troy Andersen was credited with 17 tackles, 10 more than anyone else on MSU’s defense.

Speaking of Borisch, it says something about the way things have gone recently for Idaho that a player listed as a running back is the Vandals’ best option at quarterback for the second season in a row. Credit to Paul Petrino for recognizing that and putting Borisch in a spot to be semi-effective. The redshirt sophomore threw for 157 yards on just eight completions against Montana State and added 70 yards rushing.

For more coverage of this game, check out Skyline Sports’ game story here.

5. Northern Arizona’s starting quarterback R.J. Martinez is a freshman and probably would have struggled against Montana anyway. But without the dynamic but inexperienced Martinez, the Lumberjacks had no shot at moving the ball against the Griz in Flagstaff in a 30-3 loss.

Backups Niko Haen and Cale Millen combined to throw three interceptions and the Lumberjacks gained just 154 yards. That makes two straight weeks of never-in-doubt wins and two straight weeks of dominant defensive performances for the Grizzlies after they shut down Dylan McCaffrey and Northern Colorado two weeks ago.

It also doesn’t mean much going into Saturday’s showdown against Montana State. For two straight weeks — and, honestly, for the better part of a month — Montana’s defense has had an advantage at every position, 1 through 11, against the offenses it was playing. That won’t be the case against the Bobcats.

Meanwhile, Montana’s offense struggled again, scoring one touchdown and settling for three field goals from Kevin Macias, two of which were close in. The Griz are sixth in the conference in red-zone scoring percentage (32 of 41), but only 21 of those scores have been touchdowns.

Montana’s offense has been effective recently when throwing the ball to Cole Grossman, Sammy Akem or Mitch Roberts, and Ryan Simpson also had a nice game against NAU with three catches for 66 yards.

Everything else has been a struggle, including the entirety of the running game. Even with Xavier Harris and Isiah Childs back, the Griz averaged 3.1 yards per carry against the Lumberjacks. Their presence does allow Junior Bergen to go back to his natural role at slot receiver. The freshman didn’t have a carry Saturday but did have two grabs for 30 yards.

For more coverage from this game, check out Skyline Sports’ game story here.

4. The game which most accurately described the state of the bottom of the Big Sky this year — that is, bordering on farcical — was Cal Poly’s 32-29 win over Idaho State. The Mustangs went up two scores in the third quarter, ISU came back to tie it late, and the game was going to overtime until, with under a minute left, a Cal Poly punt bounced off the head of one of Idaho State’s blockers and the Mustangs recovered. Three plays later, Jaden Ohlsen nailed a 41-yard field goal to win it for the Mustangs.

Congratulations to Beau Baldwin for his first win back in the Big Sky. Cal Poly had been 0-9 before that under Baldwin, who had a stellar record at Eastern Washington before leaving to take the offensive coordinator job at Cal. It was also the first conference game the Mustangs have played all year that was decided by fewer than 10 points, as they’ve generally been a punching bag for the rest of the Big Sky this year. They’ll have a chance to make it two wins in a row as they host Northern Arizona this week.

As for Idaho State, the Bengals put up 500 yards — 149 more than Cal Poly — with their third quarterback and still lost. That’s the same old story for ISU, which comes out of another close call with some encouraging things to point at (Tanner Conner caught a touchdown, freshman running back Tyevin Ford had 138 yards and two scores, transfer receivers Shane Dailey Jr. and Jared Scott came up big late) and plenty of mitigating circumstances (have you ever seen a punt bounce perfectly off a blockers’ helmet?) but no W. ISU fell to 1-9 and hosts Idaho next week. The home team has won all three matchups in that rivalry since the Vandals returned to the FCS.

3. Southern Utah wasn’t going to have a triumphant exit from the Big Sky anyway, given the Thunderbirds were 0-7 in conference. Weber State made sure their in-state rivals left with their tail between their legs, whipping SUU 62-0 in Cedar City. It was the fourth-highest margin of victory in Weber State’s history behind a 76-0 romp over Montana Western in 2017 and two games from the 1960s.

Weber State return man/wide receiver Rashid Shaheed (22) in 2018/by Weber State Athletics

One week after their offense let them down in a loss to Portland State, the Wildcats got whatever they wanted, whether that was Rashid Shaheed’s 125 yards and two touchdowns on just three catches or their team total of 220 rushing yards. With one game to go against hapless Northern Colorado, Weber State is 5-5 but with a plus-98 point differential and a win over top-10 Eastern Washington. The Wildcats won’t make the playoffs, but they might be the best team not in the field.

Southern Utah gained just 76 yards. Quarterbacks Justin Miller and Tyler Skidmore were 10 of 20 for 61 yards and three interceptions, and the Thunderbirds averaged 0.6 yards per carry.

The Monday after the loss, SUU announced the mutual termination of head coach Demario Warren, who led the T-Birds to a Big Sky title in 2017 but had won just six games since. Once considered a rising young star, Warren will now have to look for a new job for the first time in over a decade after he’d been on the staff in Cedar City for 14 years.

2. Eastern Washington bounced back from a two-game losing streak with a 38-20 win over UC Davis that clinched a playoff berth for the Eagles no matter what happens in their season finale against Portland State, and clinches a seed if they beat the Vikings.

The win over the Aggies wasn’t even as close as the final margin as EWU, one week after being stymied by Montana State’s defense, went for 625 yards and held UC Davis to 283. Eric Barriere threw for 411 yards and had his second-biggest rushing day of the year with 42 yards on seven carries. That’s a weapon that the Eagles could utilize more against tougher defenses in the playoffs. Then again, Montana and Weber State couldn’t shut down EWU’s passing game, so maybe they won’t need to turn to Barriere’s legs unless they meet Montana State again.

UC Davis junior Hunter Rodrigues/ by UC Davis Athletics

Hunter Rodrigues’ absence for UC Davis has been one of the biggest under-the-radar storylines in the conference all year. The junior quarterback threw for over 300 yards in each of the first two games of the season, started struggling after that, sustained a concussion per the Sacramento Bee’s Cameron Salerno, and hasn’t played since Oct. 16 against Northern Colorado.

With early-season Rodrigues, the Aggies might be a national-title contender. Without him at all, it’s hard to put them in that group. Beat Sacramento State in the Causeway Classic this week, though, and they’ll almost certainly get a seed.

1. Those Sacramento State Hornets, by the way, casually shut down Portland State’s potential feel-good playoff run before it even got started, running up 543 yards of offense, forcing Davis Alexander into three interceptions and smoking the Vikings 49-20 in Sacramento.

Nobody has yet figured out the Hornets’ two-quarterback system. Actually, everybody’s figured it out — there’s one thrower and one runner — but nobody’s really stopped it. Jake Dunniway threw for 289 yards and Asher O’Hara ran for 102 against Portland State. Freshman running back Cameron Skattebo had another huge game with 85 yards on seven carries. Troy Taylor is now 15-1 against the Big Sky in two years. He’s facing tough competition from Brent Vigen and Bobby Hauck, but Taylor might be the favorite for his second straight Big Sky Coach of the Year Award.

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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