The Big Sky Conference’s spring football schedule has been public since the day after Election Day. But this week, the nostalgia for a fall that never happened is stronger than most.
The third week of November normally brings with it primetime matchups across the league, including the always highly anticipated clash between the fiercest rivals in the league in Montana and Montana State.
Instead, observers will have to wait until at least the spring, although coaches across the league, including Montana head coach Bobby Hauck and Montana State head coach Jeff Choate have talked openly about all the challenges that will go into executing games in February and March for a variety of reasons including the COVID-19 pandemic, winter weather, county health department regulations, lost revenue and more.
“We are going to have to figure out the whole winter season,” Hauck said in an interview in November. “The key for us is, in order to play this winter-spring season, we are going to have to do with our guys what we normally do in August. We have to determine how much work we can get done to safely put our guys out there to go out and play.
“It can be pretty treacherous in terms of the preparation. We are going to have to get in a certain amount of work to make sure our guys can safely compete. And I’m not sure when that first game can be.”
The tentative spring schedule is a six-game slate with two Saturdays — March 20 and April 17 — serving 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 games 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 hosted by the league’s three teams that play in domes: Idaho, Idaho State and Northern Arizona.
The schedule is set to begin on February 27. The 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 consistent controversy when it comes to the league title and playoff positioning.
That narrative is likely to heighten even more with each team only playing half the league, the spring FCS playoff field 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.”
Here’s a look at the most intriguing games of the first week of the second half, a slate that includes the Montana-Montana State rivalry game along with the rivalry matchups between Weber State and Southern Utah along with Eastern Washington and Idaho.
Game of the week – Montana State at Montana — When the schedule was first released, this is the game that grabbed eyeballs around the league, in the Treasure State or otherwise.
The ramifications around Big Sky Country and the Big Sky Conference from this game are huge no matter the circumstances. The next matchup between age-old rivals, which will serve as the 120th in the rivalry, will be filled with a particular amount of intrigue.
The Bobcats have won four straight against the Griz for the first time since Sonny Holland was the head coach in the mid-1970s. And even though MSU has dominated the rivalry as of late, the upward trajectory of the Griz entering Hauck’s third season back at the helm for his alma mater has the attention of everyone in the league, including Choate and his team.
Montana State posted its most resounding victory in more than a generation last season, drilling the Grizzlies 48-14 in Bozeman. The margin of victory was MSU’s largest since a 41-18 win over UM in 1985, the victory that capped MSU’s last three-game winning streak until the 2018 victory in Missoula.
The 2019 margin marked the second-largest Bobcat rivalry win since a 38-0 win over the Griz in 1966. Only 11 times in the last 119 matchups had a larger margin of victory; only three times had the Cats win by 34 points or more against the Grizzlies. The 48 points were the most Montana State has ever scored against Montana.
In his four seasons guiding the Bobcats, the most consistent element of success Choate’s teams have experienced have come against the Grizzlies. In Choate’s first season, the Bobcats navigated a mid-season quarterback change and a six-game losing streak in Big Sky play. Yet Montana State ended that 2016 campaign with a 24-17 win over Montana despite completing only two passes. That win, MSU’s fourth of Choate’s first season, also kept the Griz out of the playoffs for just the third time since 1993.
The following season with the game played in Bozeman, the Bobcats earned their first rivalry victory on their home field since 2005 with a 31-23 victory that ultimately was the final factor in Griz head coach Bob Stitt not being retained.
Hauck, who led the Grizzlies to 80 wins and seven consecutive Big Sky titles between 2003 and 2008 in his first stint as head coach, returned before the 2018 season. That season’s rivalry game came to an end that was strikingly symbolic for both sides.
The 2018 Bobcats were an unorthodox group, a tough and hard-hitting squad with a defensive mindset and one of the great anomalies in a quarterback in league history. Troy Andersen, the Big Sky Freshman of the Year as a running back and linebacker in 2017, assumed quarterback duties as a sophomore. Despite his limited throwing ability, Andersen annihilated the Big Sky with his big-play and short-yardage abilities in the quarterback run game.
Against the Griz, the run game hit a bit of resistance, at least comparatively — MSU rushed for 365 yards in 2016 and 322 yards in 2017. The Bobcats rushed for 229 yards in 2018, including 107 yards and three touchdowns by Andersen. But a Griz blitzkrieg on both sides of the ball gave the hosts a 22-0 lead at halftime.
Thanks to a game-plan to force feed eventual NFL talent Travis Jonsen — the former Oregon transfer caught 11 passes for 101 yards — and a pair of Andersen fourth quarter rushing touchdowns, the Bobcats stormed back.
Trailing 29-25, the Grizzlies drove down to the MSU 3-yard line in the final minute of the game. The primary trend of that season’s Griz team was a talented, revitalized squad that could score in bunches but also could not stop shooting itself in the foot. The inability to convert short-yardage downs and the inability to hang on to the football meant Montana was 6-4 entering the rivalry game.
And in that final moment, Adam Eastwood’s dive play at the goal line that resulted in a fumble symbolized Hauck’s entire first season back encompassed in a single moment.
It also was perfectly affirming for MSU that season. Defensive tackles Tucker Yates and Chase Benson, a pair of Treasure State natives who took to Choate and defensive line coach Byron Hout’s coaching style instantly, helped set the stage for one of the most memorable moments in rivalry history. Yates and Benson their Griz offensive line counterparts off the ball, collapsing the line of scrimmage and setting up a big hit of Eastwood by Yates and MSU senior linebacker Grant Collins, a four-year starter and a Bozeman native.
Belgrade native Derek Marks recovered the fumble and the Griz had one of the most unlikely, thrilling and pivotal victories in the 123-year rivalry.
Then came last year, yet another feather in Choate’s cap and the resounding affirmation of a second straight loss for Hauck against the Bobcats, the first time he’s experienced such a fate.
Who knows what the narrative surrounding the spring matchup will encompass? Will fans take it seriously? Is it a built in excuse for the losing side? Will it count as the 120th matchup in one of the oldest rivalries in all of college football? It all remains to be seen. But it doesn’t take away the sting of the November without a rivalry game since World War II.
Idaho at Eastern Washington — This would be the rivalry game of the week if it didn’t fall the same week as Cat-Griz. And it’s a matchup rich with intrigue after the 2019 feast or famine Vandals feasted on Eastern Washington a year ago.
Last year, Idaho built leads of 28-0 and 35-13 before giving up 20 fourth quarter points, yet still waltzed to a 35-27 victory to drop EWU to 1-3 in the final non-conference game for each team. The irony is that Eastern Washington consistently beat Idaho when Idaho was an FBS member yet the Vandals won the first matchup in the Kibbie Dome with both teams as Big Sky members in more than 20 years despite the fact that UI would go on to finish the season 5-7.
EWU, led by senior All-American candidate quarterback Eric Barriere, will certainly have revenge on its mind. And the Vandals are still trying to prove they can re-ascend the ranks of a league they dominated in the 1980s and early 1990s before skipping town for greener pastures.
Weber State at Southern Utah — A few seasons ago, this was a burgeoning in-state rivalry with Big Sky championship repercussions. But Southern Utah has fallen on hard times and Weber State has continued to affirm itself as one of the nation’s elite programs under head coach Jay Hill.
In 2015, Southern Utah destroyed Weber State, blanking the Wildcats in a 44-0 rout that was a high mark for the Thunderbirds during their first run to a share of the Big Sky title. It was also a turning point in the Hill era, one of the more embarrassing losses under the highly regarded head coach.
In 2016, DeMario Warren’s first at the helm at SUU, Weber got revenged, squeezing out a 37-36 victory. Yet the Wildcats rallied to made the playoffs for the first time under Hill, marking the first of four straight postseason appearances.
In 2017, Southern Utah earned a 32-16 as quarterback Patrick Tyler continued his breakout season by throwing three touchdowns. That win helped SUU on its way to its second league title in three seasons.
The Thunderbirds earned their first playoff seed in program history while Weber State had to play in the first round. But the Wildcats outlasted Western Illinois in the first round 21-19 before drilling SUU 30-13 in the second round to eliminate the Thunderbirds.
The Wildcats took top-ranked James Madison down to the wire in the first quarterfinal appearance in program history before falling 31-28.
Since then, Southern Utah has faded from the ranks of the league’s top teams while Weber State has consistently been ranked in the top five in the country. The Wildcats have won or shared each of the last three Big Sky titles, advancing to the semifinals of the FCS playoffs for the first time in program history thanks to a 17-10 win over Montana in the quarterfinals last season.
Since that 2017 league title, Southern Utah is 4-19.
Northern Arizona at Cal Poly — Northern Arizona’s rebuilding defense will get another test against an offense that, just a month into this speculative spring season, will still be largely unknown. It’s hard to analyze this matchup as no one knows what Northern Arizona will look like in Chris Ball’s second season or what the NAU offense might hang its hat on with quarterback Case Cookus finally graduated.
The same goes for Cal Poly under Beau Baldwin. The Mustangs certainly won’t still run the triple option. The rest is up in the air.
UC Davis at Portland State — Depending on how the upstart Vikings start the season, this could be a pivotal game for both teams to try to keep playoff hopes alive in a shortened season where even a single loss could cost a Big Sky team a playoff spot.
Idaho State at Northern Colorado — Mystery surrounds these two programs as well. Who will play quarterback for Idaho State? What will Northern Colorado look like in their first season under former NFL star Ed McCaffery, a recognizable name but a complete unknown as a first-year college head coach?
Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.