As Americans from coast to coast waited anxiously for the results of the most contentious presidential election of this century, the Big Sky Conference released its football schedule for the spring of 2021 the morning after election day.
The six-game slate gives two weeks — March 20 and April 17 — as bumper weeks in case rescheduling is needed. Every team in the league will play at least one home game and at least one away game in each the first three and the last three weeks of the season.
The first two weeks of the schedule feature contests at the league’s two California schools in UC Davis and Cal Poly — Sac State elected to opt out of the 2021 spring season — or played inside the Big Sky’s three domes: Idaho, Idaho State and Northern Arizona.
The schedule is set to begin on February 27. The much anticipated annual rivalry game between Montana State and Montana is slated for March 27.
The league usually features 13 teams and has played eight league games since the last expansion in 2012. Each year over the last eight, teams have not played four other conference opponents, causing plenty of controversy when it comes to the league title and playoff positioning.
That criticism is likely to heighten even more with each team only playing half the league, the FCS playoff field for the spring shrinking from 24 to 16 teams and 11 conferences receiving auto bids.
“We’re excited about the opportunity to play football,” said Montana State coach Jeff Choate in an MSU press release. “We’ve never backed away from competition and we look forward to playing a tough schedule in the spring.”
“Announcing the schedule is one more step toward football in the spring, and I am excited our student-athletes will have the opportunity to compete,” Montana athletic director Kent Haslam said in a UM press release.
“Late-February is an early start, but this schedule does allow flexibility to complete the season while navigating potential impacts from COVID-19. I look forward to watching our team play.”
Weber State is the defending Big Sky champions after winning a share of the league title for the third straight year. The Wildcats shared with Sac State. The Hornets, the Bobcats and the Grizzlies all earned seeds and first-round byes in the 2019 FCS playoffs.
Here’s a look at the most intriguing game each week of the season’s first half of the prospective 2021 spring schedule plus a few notes about each proposed matchup.
Game of the Week — Eastern Washington at Portland State — Every single team in the Big Sky could have a new starting quarterback this season compared to last, other than these two teams. Eastern Washington senior Eric Barriere is back for his third season as a starter and hoping to regain the dual-threat form that helped lead the Eagles to the national championship game two years ago. Quarterback Davis Alexander enters his third season as a starter and has his Vikings as a dark horse to make a run at a playoff berth.
This is the annual rivalry game for these two schools. PSU head coach Bruce Barnum has had a hard time recapturing the magic that helped him guide the Vikings to the No. 6 seed in the 2015 FCS playoffs in his first season at the helm. But he’s also overhauled Portland State’s entire recruiting strategy, deemphasizing the pipeline of transfers, FBS or otherwise, that PSU relied on for so long. This Viking team should be strong on both lines, explosive on the perimeter offensively and employing a flex defense that at the very least will be confusing for opponents.
Eastern Washington is entering its fourth year under head coach Aaron Best. Last season, the Eagles led the league in scoring (40.6 points per game) and total offense (525 yards per game). Barriere threw for 3,712 yards, 31 touchdowns and four interceptions. But a 1-3 start that included a surprising 35-27 loss at Idaho along with a 34-17 loss at Montana kept the Eagles out of the playoffs.
EWU did post a 53-46 win over Portland State in the “Battle for the Dam Cup” to finish the season 7-5, including 6-2 in league. The winner of this showdown will have an early leg up in the race for playoff positioning.
Montana at Northern Arizona — Back in 1993, Bobby Hauck took his first full-time assistant coaching job on Steve Axman’s staff coaching outside linebackers at Northern Arizona. Ten years later, he took his first head coaching at Montana. His Griz teams have largely dominated the Big Sky Conference, winning 57 of the 69 league games he’s coached in entering this season over a total of nine seasons in the conference.
The Griz are coming off a 10-win campaign in the second year of Hauck’s second stint leading his alma mater. In the first year since 1997 that any coach other than Jerome Souers led the Lumberjacks, NAU found little success. The Lumberjacks gave up yards and points in spades during a 4-8 season that concluded with four consecutive losses.
NAU gave up 49 points in a loss at Montana State, 51 points on the back of a 328-yard rushing performance by Weber State All-American Josh Davis, 66 points and 468 yards of total offense to Barriere in a loss to EWU, and 60 points in a season-ending overtime loss to Idaho.
The Griz will be locked and loaded on offense this year. The unit will be led by arguably the best pair of wide receivers — seniors Samori Toure and Samuel Akem — in the league and maybe the country. But this will be the first start not provided by injury for Cam Humphrey or any other Griz quarterback who earns to start the opener.
Meanwhile, the Lumberjacks will need to turn a major corner to get Chris Ball’s second season at the helm off to a promising start. And at long last, the Case Cookus era is finally over at NAU. The ‘Jacks will certainly be among the BSC teams with a new signal caller.
Montana State at UC Davis — In 2018, UC Davis rose up in Dan Hawkins’ second season to share the Big Sky title, the first in program history for the Aggies. Last season, the final nail in the coffin of their title defense ending came when Montana State came to Davis and posted a 27-17 victory the second-to-last week of the regular season.
This season will see the Aggies operate with a quarterback not named Jake Maier at the offensive controls for the first time since Hawkins took over at his alma mater.
Choate’s fifth season at the helm is one filled with intrigue for a variety of reasons. The Bobcats return the best offensive line in the league, a unit that features four returning starters and a pair of all-league seniors in Lewis Kidd and Taylor Tuisosopo. MSU’s ranks are littered with talent across the board despite the fact that Montana State graduates two All-Big Sky defensive linemen, two All-Big Sky wide receivers, one All-Big Sky linebacker and two all-league safeties.
Much of the intrigue around the Bobcats centers upon two central points. First, Troy Andersen and Isaiah Ifanse are each expected to redshirt during the spring season. Andersen, a senior who has earned awards and all-league honors at running back, linebacker and quarterback in his unprecedented career, is arguably the most talented player in the FCS. Despite battling injuries, Ifanse has rushed for 1,870 yards and 13 touchdowns over the last two seasons.
Each player scored touchdowns against Davis last season.
The second point of intrigue is that, despite returning Tucker Rovig at quarterback, MSU will once again have a quarterback battling heading into the season. Rovig started a few games in 2018 while Andersen guided MSU to the first of two straight playoff berths. Rovig started the final 12 games of last season, helping MSU to nine wins in those starts, including a six-game winning streak down the stretch to propel MSU to the semifinals of the FCS playoffs for the first time in 35 years.
With the departure of offensive coordinator Matt Miller, MSU will have its fifth offensive play-caller in as many years in Justin Udy. The Bobcats have also had five different starting quarterbacks during that span. And if Matt McKay, an NC State transfer who started five games as a sophomore for the Wolfpack, beats out Rovig, it will be six starting QBs in the Choate era.
UC Davis’ quest for revenge and to get back into the top half of the league will begin against a physical, hungry Bobcat team that harbors league title aspirations.
Northern Colorado at Idaho — Former NFL standout wide receiver Ed McCaffery has a recognizable name, particularly around the Rocky Mountain region, after starring for the Denver Broncos. Now he’s the head coach at Northern Colorado and will make his college head coaching debut at the Kibbie Dome against a Vandal team that will have a quarterback who is not head coach Paul Petrino’s son, Mason, for the first time since returning to the Big Sky.
Weber State at Idaho State — Weber State has won or shared the last three Big Sky championships. The Wildcats outlasted Montana 17-10 in the quarterfinals of the playoffs to advance to the FCS Final Four for the first time in program history.
In the off-season, quarterback Jake Constantine graduate transferred out of the program, first landing at Towson before ultimately settling on Washington State. Kaden Jenks has starting experience at Weber while Randall Johnson, a 6-foot-5 transfer from Middle Tennessee State, has also received strong reviews.
Idaho State saw Matt Struck transfer out of the program during the off-season. The Bengals brought in Wyoming transfer Tyler Vander Waal. Finding the right trigger man for the run-pass option system run by head coach Rob Phenicie and offensive coordinator Mike Ferriter will be a key of ISU wants to rebound to the form that saw a winning record in 2018 rather than a 3-9 mark last year.
Southern Utah at Cal Poly — Southern Utah’s defensive regression has been profound since the Thunderbirds won their second Big Sky title in three seasons in 2017. Since then, SUU hasn’t been able to stop anybody.
The offensive system employed by Cal Poly is undefined but will certainly be different under Beau Baldwin. Tim Walsh retired after 13 seasons at the helm. Cal Poly has run the triple option since Rich Ellerson was the head coach.
Baldwin is one of the great offensive minds of this century in the Big Sky. During his nine seasons as the head coach at Eastern Washington (he was the offensive coordinator from 2003 until 2007 as well), the Eagles produced a seemingly endless string of Big Sky Offensive Players of the Year at quarterback, signal callers who guided one of the most prolific passing offenses in all of college football.
This game will be the first glimpse of just how quickly Baldwin can implement those offensive philosophies given the unorthodox nature of the off-season.
Game of the Week — Montana State at Weber State: It’s no secret and no surprise that Choate hates to lose. He was particularly frustrated, however, following the first time he led the Bobcats against the Wildcats in Ogden during his debut season in 2016.
A calamity of errors and turnovers caused MSU to fall behind 21-0 before the game was 10 minutes old. MSU scored two second quarter touchdowns but still trailed 42-14 at halftime in a 45-27 loss.
The following year, the Wildcats gutted out a 25-17 victory in Bozeman. The two schools have not played since. Choate has only that disappointing debut to reference when it comes to planning to play at Stewart Stadium.
This game might be the best game on the entire Big Sky schedule, period and certainly the marquee matchup of the first half of the league slate. It’s certainly among the toughest on Weber’s trek; the Wildcats don’t play Montana, Eastern Washington, Portland State, Cal Poly or Idaho.
Choate and Weber State head coach Jay Hill have similar make-up, spending time at powerhouse schools as special teams coordinators and working for influential head coaches.
Choate worked for Chris Petersen at Boise State and Washington along with stints on Mike Leach’s staff at Washington State and Will Muschamp’s staff at Florida. Hill played for Ron McBride and started his career under his former head coach at Utah before working for Urban Meyer in 2003 and 2004. He worked under Kyle Whittingham from 2005 until 2013 coaching the Utes.
A clash between these two teams at the height of their powers should be a treat for fans across the Big Sky Conference.
Montana at Eastern Washington — Listening to Hauck in the post-game press conference following his team’s 34-17 win over EWU despite the absence of senior captain quarterback Dalton Sneed was to hear a man with great satisfaction in his delivery. That’s about all you need to know about the renewal of this rivalry.
Idaho at Idaho State — Idaho made scoring defensive touchdowns look like it was the job of the Vandals’ defense last year in a 45-21 rout in the Kibbie Dome. Neither team has forgotten about the result of that in-state rivalry rout.
Portland State at Northern Arizona — Because NAU plays at Walkup Skydome, the Lumberjacks drew two consecutive home games to start the season. A split could bode well for a resurgence of a team that has a proud tradition in the Big Sky. A 2-0 start could make NAU a contender.
Meanwhile, Portland State could give itself some momentum with a win at one of the venues in the Big Sky that seems to brew unpredictability.
UC Davis at Cal Poly — UC Davis and Sacramento State have played the Causeway Classic rivalry game 67 times. That game won’t take place this year.
But the 46th edition of the Battle for the Golden Horseshoe will provide the only FCS rivalry game in the Golden State in the spring and give an early gage for both the Aggies and the Mustangs.
Southern Utah at Northern Colorado — Barring major rebuilds, this could be one of the better opportunities for each of these teams to break into the win column.
Game of the Week — Cal Poly at Montana: Since the first wave of teams leaving the Big Sky began in 1993 and completed in 1996, Montana assumed the role as the premier program in the conference and among the most dominant programs in the subdivision.
The Griz won the national title in 1995 and 2001 and played in five other title games between ’95 and 2009. Montana won 119 games the first decade of the 2000s, including 80 games under Hauck between 2003 and 2009.
Following Montana’s undefeated run to its second straight national title game in 2009 that abruptly ended with a 23-21 loss to Villanova in the title game, Hauck left for UNLV.
In 2010, Baldwin helped Eastern Washington start to overtake the Griz. Baldwin helped orchestrate an offensive assault on the rest of the league under the guidance of eventual Walter Payton Award winning quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell that culminated in an epic hot streak that EWU rode all the way to the first national title in school history. That run also marks the last time a team from the Big Sky has won a national title.
This season marks 11 years since Baldwin led the Eagles to that crown. If a Big Sky team does not go all the way this year, it will match the longest streak since the league joined formerly Division I-AA and now FCS that a Big Sky team hasn’t won the national title. Montana State won the 1984 title and the Griz broke through in 1995, marking the currently longest drought.
All of that is to say: Baldwin’s strong streak at EWU — a national title and four other Final Four appearances — coincided with Montana losing a step among the ranks of the conference and national elite.
Baldwin lost to Hauck 19-3 in 2008 and 41-34 in 2009. The next seven seasons, EWU posted a 5-2 record over Montana and assumed the place as the Big Sky’s premier program ahead of the Grizzlies, the Bobcats and everyone else.
Before the 2015 season, Montana made an honest run at hiring Baldwin. But the two-time Big Sky Coach of the Year declined the opportunity, instead leading EWU to its third FCS Semifinal in four seasons in 2016 with a team that featured future pros like Cooper Kupp, Kendrick Bourne and Samson Ebukam.
Now Baldwin is back in the Big Sky — following the 2016 season, he took the offensive coordinator job at Cal where he spent the last three seasons — and he will make his much anticipated return to Missoula to finish the first half of the spring schedule.
The renewal of the coaching clash between Hauck and Baldwin, two diametrically different figures, will be one to watch in the Big Sky moving forward.
Northern Colorado at Montana State — The Bobcats have one of the more difficult starts to the spring schedule in the league with road games at UC Davis and reigning league champion Weber State. Montana State will be hungry for a victory no matter how those first two contests transpire in their first home game of the spring with the rivalry game against Montana looming.
Eastern Washington at UC Davis — On November 10 of 2018, a No. 4-ranked Aggies team riding a seven-game winning streak got blown out by the fifth-ranked Eagles in Cheney, 59-20. The two teams played three weeks later and Eastern needed a Sam McPherson touchdown with 26 seconds left to play to earn a 34-29 victory.
That playoff victory was the second of three straight by the Eagles as they advanced to the national title game. The rubber match did not happen in 2019 as the Aggies and Eagles missed each other on last year’s schedule.
Portland State at Idaho — The Vandals pulled what was thought of at the time as an upset by beating Eastern Washington 35-27 in a non-conference team between traditional rivals. A 27-24 loss at Northern Colorado, a 41-35 loss to No. 4 Weber State and an embarrassing 24-0 loss at Portland State in which the Vandals gained just 230 yards of offense meant the Vandals’ season was in a tailspin.
This will be a prove it game for both teams, each who are among the top contenders to crack into the top half of the league this season based on the talent on their roster.
Idaho State at Southern Utah — The Bengals posted impressive wins over Portland State (51-24) and North Dakota (55-20) to begin league play. Then former ISU quarterback Matt Struck caught a turnover plague. It began when the Bengals lost 45-21 at rival Idaho thanks in large part to two pick-sixes and a Struck fumble returned for a score.
But the six-game spiral that turned Idaho State’s season on its head was sent into overdrive when a Southern Utah team that had scored only 98 points during a five-game losing streak hung 59 on ISU in a 59-34 win. The Bengals never got back on track. The Thunderbirds only got into the win column one more time.
Northern Arizona at Weber State — NAU’s defense had a tendency to wear down (and sharp critics would say quit) against the run late in games. But the opposite was on display when Davis rushed for 328 yards in a 51-28 Weber win. The Lumberjacks led the game 21-14 at halftime despite the fact that Davis rushed for 80 yards on the opening possession of the game and had 202 yards at the break. His fumble on a long run helped keep the margin close. In the second half, he pounded in his third and fourth touchdowns of the game on the way to the fifth-highest single-game rushing total in Big Sky history and the most ever by a Wildcat. Perhaps the most ridiculous statistic of the game is that Kris Jackson, Davis’ backup, rushed for 113 yards and three touchdowns as well.
NAU’s once-proud defense has much to prove whenever it takes the field next, but this will be a particularly important test given the level at which Davis and Jackson ran wild last season.
Photos by Brooks Nuanez or noted. All Rights Reserved.