By SKYLINE SPORTS & NEWS SERVICES
History was made with the release of the Big Sky Conference’s all-league awards and teams on Tuesday.
For the first time in conference history, a pair of teammates share the Big Sky Offensive Player of the Year as Eastern Washington sophomore quarterback Gage Gubrud and senior wide receiver Cooper Kupp split the accolade. Kupp is the reigning FCS Offensive Player of the Year and this marks the second straight season he won the Big Sky accolade. Gubrud and Kupp join 11 other Eagles who have claimed the Big Sky Offensive MVP
Each was a unanimous first-team All-Big Sky selections with Kupp becoming just the fourth player in the 53-year history of the league to earn first-team honors four separate times.
History was also made in another way: for the first time in 32 years, the Montana Grizzlies did not have a single first-team All-Big Sky selection. UM senior defensive end Caleb Kidder, the Big Sky preseason Defensive Player fo the Year, earned second-team All-Big Sky honors, one of 10 Grizzlies named to the teams, including one of six named to the second or third teams.
Eastern Washington and North Dakota shared the Big Sky Conference championship by each posting 8-0 records against league competition. Each placed 11 players on the all-conference teams. EWU put seven players on the first team, including four on the first-team defense. North Dakota had four players take up five first-team spots — running back/return specialist John Santiago earned first-team recognition at two positions — and UND’s junior safety Cole Reyes earned Big Sky Defensive Player of the Year honors.
Montana State quarterback Chris Murray only started five games this season, yet performed well enough to earn the league’s Freshman of the Year honors. Murray rushed for 142 yards and two touchdowns in Montana State’s 24-17 upset win at Montana, the second straight victory to end a 4-7 campaign for the Bobcats. Murray finished his true freshman season with 860 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns. He also threw for 760 yards and six scores.
Weber State tight end Andrew Vollert earned first-team All-Big Sky honors and the league’s Newcomer of the Year award after leading the Wildcats with 757 receiving yards in his first season since transferring from San Jose State.
With four teams preparing to represent the Big Sky in the postseason, the conference’s individual award winners reflected the teams at the top of the standings. Big Sky co-champions Eastern Washington and North Dakota led the league with 11 all-conference selections, followed by Weber State and Cal Poly with ten, each. It is of no coincidence those four programs will represent the Big Sky Conference in the FCS Playoffs.
EWU led the league in total offense, passing offense and scoring offense so it was no surprise Gubrud and Kupp share the Big Sky’s Offensive Player of the Year award. Kupp caught 91 passes for 1,297 yards, to go along with 12 touchdowns. The senior also threw a pair of touchdowns. Kupp was a unanimous first-team selection at wide receiver, along with being a second-team selection at return specialist. He is the FCS all-time leader in catches, receiving yards and touchdowns in his career and will have at least one more chance in EWU’s second-round playoff game on December 3 to add to those totals.
Gubrud, a sophomore from McMinville, Oregon, set the Big Sky Conference on fire, throwing for 4,071 yards, and 40 touchdowns, in the regular season. He led the Eagles to a Big Sky co-title, and a 10-1 record. Gubrud also rushed for 463 yards and four scores, proving to be yet another quarterback with mobility in the EWU quarterback lineage.
North Dakota powered to a 9-2 record, playing one of the Big Sky’s stingiest forms of defense. Additionally, the Fighting Hawks were one of the top teams in the FCS at forcing turnovers, specifically interceptions.
UND’s defense was celebrated, both as a team and individually, as safety Cole Reyes was named as the Big Sky Conference’s Defensive Player of the Year. The junior made 58 tackles, five tackles-for-loss, and had three interceptions, along with forcing two fumbles. He also broke up eight passes, and had a safety.
Junior Deion Harris led the Big Sky with five interceptions, including three he returned for touchdowns to join Reyes on the first-team defense. Offensive tackle Michael Coe joined Santiago on the first-team offense. Junior kicker Reid Taubenheim and senior inside linebacker Dylan Bakker earned second-team honors while sophomore guard Demon Taylor, sophomore running back Brady Oliveira, sophomore defensive tackle Tank Harris and senior defensive end Noah Johnson all landed on the third team for UND.
Senior Shaq Hill led the Big Sky by catching 15 of Gubrud’s 40 touchdown passes. Hill missed last season with a knee injury only to return and become one of just three wide receivers — along with fellow first-team All-Big Sky wide receiver Emmanuel Butler, a junior at Northern Arizona — to surpass 1,000 yards receiving. Hill also became the first EWU player to win play on four Big Sky title teams.
EWU junior defensive tackle Jay-Tee Tiuli along with Eastern seniors defensive end Samson Ebukam, middle linebacker Miquiyah Zamora and safety Zach Bruce all earned first-team All-Big Sky honors for EWU’s much improved defense. Senior wide receiver Kendrick Bourne and sophomore center Spencer Blackburn earned second-team all-conference honors for the Eagles.
Cal Poly landed four players on the first team, led by two-time selection Joe Protheroe. The fullback led the league with 1,212 yards rushing and 11 touchdowns. He produced seven 100-yard games this season. Senior offensive tackle and junior center Joey Kuperman earned first-team honors by plowing away for a Mustangs’ offensive line that helped its vaunted triple option attack lead the FCS in rushing yards.
Cal Poly senior inside linebacker Chris Santini earned first-team honors defensively while senior quarterback Dano Graves and junior defensive tackle Augustino Elisaia were named to the second team for the Mustangs.
Senior outside linebacker Tre’Von Johnson joined Vollert on the first-team for Weber State, while senior offensive tackle Calvin Steyn, senior offensive guard Cameron Young, junior cornerback Taron Johnson, senior safety Josh Burton and junior punter Jacob De Maio earned second-team honors for the Wildcats, who qualified for the FCS playoffs for the first time since 2009.
The rest of the first-team offense included: Montana State senior offensive guard J.P. Flynn, Portland State senior offensive guard Cam Keizur, Southern Utah senior running back Malik Brown, NAU freshman kicker Griffin Roehler, Northern Colorado special teams player Hakeem Deggs, Southern Utah junior defensive tackle Robert Torgerson, NAU senior defensive end Siupeli Anua, Southern Utah junior outside linebacker Mike Needham, Portland State senior cornerback Xavier Coleman and Southern Utah senior punter Tate Lewis.
Montana junior left tackle David Reese joined Kidder on the second team. UM senior right tackle Jackson Thiebes, senior defensive end Ryan Johnson, sophomore outside linebacker Josh Buss and junior middle linebacker Connor Strahm all earned third-team recognition. Senior offensive guard Devon Dietrich, senior quarterback Brady Gustafson, redshirt freshman wide receiver Jerry Louie-McGee and junior safety Justin Strong earned honorable mention recognition after Montana finished 6-5 and out of the playoffs for just the third time since 1993.
Montana State, which won its first two Big Sky games the last two weeks of the season, saw senior fullback Chad Newell, junior outside linebacker Mac Bignell and junior strong safety Bryson McCabe each earn recognition as second-team All-Big Sky selections. Senior Joey Michael earned honorable mention recognition as a special teams player while sophomore defensive tackle Zach Wright and senior cornerback John Walker earned honorable mention honors from MSU’s improved defensive unit.
All-Big Sky Second team:
Caleb Kidder, defensive end, senior
David Reese, offensive tackle, junior
All-Big Sky third team:
Josh Buss, outside linebacker, sophomore
Connor Strahm, inside linebacker, junior
Ryan Johnson, defensive end, senior
All-Big Sky honorable mention
Jerry Louie-McGee, wide receiver, redshirt freshman
Devon Dietrich, offensive guard, senior
Brady Gustafson, quarterback, senior
Justin Strong, safety, junior
MONTANA STATE SELECTIONS
First-team All-Big Sky
J.P. Flynn, offensive guard, senior
Second-team All-Big Sky
Chad Newell, fullback, senior
Mac Bignell, outside linebacker, junior
Bryson McCabe, strong safety, junior
Honorable mention All-Big Sky
Joey Michael, special teams, senior
Zach Wright, defensive tackle, sophomore
John Walker, cornerback, senior