Around the Big Sky

Offensive variety in the Big Sky continues giving defensive coaches headaches

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Dan Hawkins compares the variety of offenses sprinkled throughout the 13-team Big Sky Conference to the “Indy musician banging away at the local pub”. Each attack is unique and filled with originality just like the talented but not so famous guitar player at the bar on the corner.

“I love the creativity we are seeing in college football,” said Hawkins, UC Davis’ second-year head coach and an offensive guru who rose to great success at Boise State before five seasons as the head coach at Colorado. “I’m an out of the box guy. I never liked Top 40 music. Give me the guy who thinks outside the box.”

Creativity has played a factor in the vast array of offenses that exist in the Big Sky Conference currently. But the sheer number of teams also contributes to one of the most diverse leagues in terms of offensive style of any conference in the country.

On one side of the spectrum, Cal Poly operates an old-school triple option offense that puts a priority on running the ball between the tackles relentlessly. Until Montana State used its spread option attack to league the league in rushing in 2017, Cal Poly led the conference in rushing yards per game every season since joining the league in 2012.

On the other side of the spectrum, there’s Eastern Washington, the offensive juggernaut featuring a seemingly endless string of All-American quarterbacks. Erik Meyer and Bo Levi Mitchell won Walter Payton Awards while Matt Nichols, Vernon Adams and current starter Gage Gubrud all claimed Big Sky Offensive Player of the Year honors thanks to a spread offense that has consistently been near the top of the FCS since Beau Baldwin took over as offensive coordinator in 2003 and head coach in 2008.

Montana State defenders tackle Cal Poly running back Joe Protheroe (5) in 2015/by Brooks Nuanez

“Preparing defensive game plans in this league reminds me a little bit of when you are a high school coach when you are playing a Wing-T team one week and a triple option team the next and then you are playing a run-and-shoot team,” Montana State third-year head coach Jeff Choate, a high school coach for eight seasons in Idaho before jumping to the college ranks in 2002, said at the Big Sky Kickoff in July. “There is a lot of diversity in the offensive styles.”

EWU and Cal Poly occupy the opposite sides of the offensive gamut but the influx defensive minded coaches like Choate, Weber State fifth-year head coach Jay Hill and Southern Utah third-year head coach Demario Warren have influenced the assortment two-fold. Not only are the Bobcats, Wildcats and Thunderbirds trying to win with defense but the accompanying offensive attacks that prioritize controlling the clock also fill in the spaces between the triple option and the air raid.

“There is no question this is a diverse league offensively,” Cal Poly 10th-year head coach Tim Walsh, now in his 20th season counting his 10 years at Portland State, said at the Big Sky Kickoff. “It’s explosive and if you ain’t ready, you ain’t winning any games, man.”

Tim Plough’s version of the spread West Coast offense with some run-pass option principles has helped turn two different teams into explosive attacks over the last handful of years. First, the former UC Davis quarterback helped Northern Arizona scrap the pro-style offense longtime head coach Jerome Souers had favored for years and replace it with an offense where Case Cookus threw the ball down the field so often to Emmanuel Butler, Cookus earned FCS Freshman of the Year honors and Butler earned an All-American nod in 2015.

UC Davis quarterback Jake Maier (15)/by UC Davis Athletics

Following the 2016 season, Plough went back to his alma mater to join Hawkins’ staff. With former junior college quarterback Jake Maier at the controls of an offense that was as pro-style as any Big Sky team under previous head coach Ron Gould, Plough’s revamped attack helped Keelan Doss earn Big Sky Offensive MVP honors. Maier was the league’s Newcomer of the Year after ranking fifth in the FCS with 336 passing yards per game. Doss led all of college football with 136.5 yards and 10.5 receptions per game on the way to earning consensus All-American honors.

This season, the attack has been just as prolific if not more dangerous because of the emergence of redshirt freshman tailback Ulonzo Gilliam and sophomore running back Tehran Thomas. The Aggies are still throwing for 334 yards per contest, but Gilliam’s 132-yard, two-touchdown effort in Davis’ season-opening 44-38 win at San Jose State proved crucial, as did Tehran’s 119 yards during a 256-yard team outing in last week’s 44-21 win over Idaho to open Big Sky Conference play.

The Aggies are into the Top 25 — at 3-1, UC Davis is ranked No. 19 in this week’s poll and have a bye — thanks to an attack that is averaging 38 points and 475 yards per game, each second in the league behind EWU.

“In our officiating meeting, I think they said we are running about 50 more plays in our conference than the rest of the country,” Hawkins said in July. “That’s exciting for the fans and exciting for the coaches.

“But I’ll tell you, I’m not sure why you want to be a defensive coach anymore.”

Sac State running back Elijiah Dotson (33) vs Montana in 2018/by Jason Bacaj

The emergence of RPO offenses — Sacramento State, Southern Utah, Northern Colorado and, to a certain extent under second-year head coach Aaron Best, Eastern Washington, each employ versions of the style — has put an inordinate amount of stress in both pre-game preparation and in-game execution on Big Sky defenses.

Last week against Sac State, Montana’s secondary consistently lined up 10 and 12 yards off the ball, giving a cushion to Jaelin Ratliff and Andre Lindsey, the consensus fastest receiver duo in the Big Sky. The Hornets in turn answered by giving the ball to running back Elijah Dotson early and often.

The speedy and powerful sophomore rushed for 179 yards and three touchdowns before halftime. UM adjusted and gutted out a 41-34 victory but not before the Hornets scored three touchdowns of 59 yards or more and piled up 510 total yards.

“On the reads, that’s my job: get the ball to him, fake and let him do his thing,” Sac State senior quarterback Kevin Thomson said after the loss.

During Mike Kramer’s tenure as the head coach at Idaho State, he used to joke that the only running the Bengals wanted to do was running the ball to the middle of the field. Even with Justin Arias’ prolific passing numbers, the 2014 Bengals — Kramer’s best team won eight games that fall — still featured a running back in Xavier Finney who amassed nearly 1,500 yards in former OC Don Bailey’s up-tempo offense featuring plenty of inside zone run schemes. In the second season under head coach Rob Phenicie, the Bengals continue to thrive on the inside zone. James Madison and Ty Flanagan each went over 100 yards rushing in ISU’s 25-21 win at North Dakota last week.

During its 2016 march to nine wins and a victory in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl, Idaho employed a sort of pro-style offense that led Isaiah Saunders and Aaron Duckworth pound between the tackles to set up play-action passes for All-Sun Belt quarterback Matt Linehan. Now that style is back in the Big Sky, although in Idaho’s lone FCS game this year against Davis, the Vandals averaged 3.7 yards per carry and rushed for 117 yards total.

Former Weber State quarterback Stefan Cantwell (11) hands off at the goaline vs Montana State in 2017/ by Brooks Nuanez

In 2015, Portland State’s version of the Pistol spliced with some gun-run elements for quarterback Alex Kuresa helped the Vikings win nine games and earn the second playoff berth in school history. In 2016, North Dakota’s bruising, plodding offensive style combined with a defense that led the league in takeaways helped UND claim a share of its first and only Big Sky title. Last season, Southern Utah’s talented offensive line and one-two punch of running backs James Felila and Jay Green helped the Thunderbirds share the league crown for the second time in three seasons.

Weber State’s offense under Hill could be described as ball control and pro style, but the unique fold is that the Wildcats use their tight ends with more variation than any team in the league. Not only did Andrew Vollert earned All-American honors each of the last two seasons and a spot on the Arizona Cardinals’ practice squad, but the deception with the pre-snap motions, multiple tight end sets and creative use of the position sets Weber State apart from the rest of the league. WSU shared the league title with SUU on the way to winning a pair of playoff games and setting a program record with 11 total wins.

“Some are quazi what you would call pro-style these days but some teams are doing it with one tight end, some are doing it with two tight ends, some are doing it with no tight end,” Walsh said. “So you have to have all your packages during camp, all our nickels and dimes and all the things we want to do to match them to your opponent. That is extremely important to how well you are going to play against them. As much as we are different (offensively), all these other teams are different too.

Northern Arizona running back Joe Logan (22) hurdles a Sac State defender in 2017/ by NAU athletics

“And I think there are some teams on defense that are really, really good right now. I think Weber State has a great unit. Defensively, they win with what they do on defense and they match it with what they do on offense as far as time of possession and scoring enough points. I think defensively, there are a lot of teams that don’t get enough credit for how good they are because the variety of offenses steal the show.”

Souers has been coaching in the Big Sky since moving from Portland State to Montana with Don Read in 1986. He served as Montana’s defensive coordinator from 1989 until 1997, including during UM’s 1995 national championship season, before taking over at NAU in 1998.

He has seen the league lose Nevada, Boise State and Idaho in the first half of the 1990s before adding Sac State and Portland State the second half of the decade. In 2006, Northern Colorado joined the league and in 2012, the Big Sky absorbed the Great West foursome of Davis, Cal Poly, Southern Utah and North Dakota. UND is transitioning out of the league but will still play eight Big Sky games this fall.

“Defensive strategies have been tough in recent years because it’s a response to all the offensive styles that we are seeing,” Souers said. “With the increase in the numbers of teams, not just the number but the increase in the style, from team one to team 13, you have triple option on one end and empty (backfield) on the other and then everything in the middle.

Montana wide receiver Samari Toure (82)/by Jason Bacaj

“The game has turned into how can we fool you by formation rather than knocking somebody off the ball. The game has just gone that way.

“You have offensive coaches who are drawing up every formation they can and they are fooling the defense into getting misaligned and taking advantage. Defensively, you have to be able to adapt to the things you are seeing but you don’t want to let go of your fundamental physicality. The defenses that are at their best stay closer to who they are rather than trying to morph each week.”

Photos by Brooks Nuanez and attributed. All Rights Reserved.

About Colter Nuanez

Colter Nuanez is the co-founder and senior writer for Skyline Sports. After spending six years in the newspaper industry with stops at the Missoulian, the Ellensburg Daily Record and the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, the former Washington Newspaper Association Sportswriter of the Year and University of Montana Journalism School graduate ('09) has cultivated a deep passion for sports journalism during his 13-year career covering the Big Sky Conference. In August of 2014, Colter and brother Brooks merged their passions of writing and art to found Skyline Sports.

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