Analysis

Pressuring the passer might be the paramount factor of success in the Big Sky

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In the wide-open, high-flying Big Sky, a dominant pass rush has been the key factor to dominating one of the wildest league’s in the West.

Since 2000 — the first season sacks became an official statistics — nine of the league’s Defensive Most Valuable Players have doubled as the league’s best pass rusher. The team that has led the league in sacks has at least shared the Big Sky championship in 10 of the last 15 seasons. Even in the years the league champs did not lead the league in sacks, all but the 2005 and 2009 Montana Grizzlies had one of the top four sack producers in the league.

In a league known for high-scoring offenses, being able to consistently pressure the quarterback, particularly without a necessity to blitz, has been the most important determining factor in who hangs a championship banner each season.

“When I think of pass rush, I think of physicality,” said Northern Arizona defensive coordinator Andy Thompson, a former Montana linebacker who has helped the Lumberjacks lead the league in 2008 and 2010 despite never winning a league title. “I think of four guys beating five guys. If you have four guys beating someone’s five guys, you have an advantage. Physicality travels wherever you go. It travels on the road, it lives at home. It goes against FBS teams. If you are really physical and you can dominate your one-on-one matchups, you will dominate consistently in this league.”

PSU defensive end Davond Dade celebrates a sack/by Brooks Nuanez

PSU defensive end Davond Dade celebrates a sack/by Brooks Nuanez

This year, the formula is holding true. Montana (36), North Dakota (27), Northern Arizona (26), Southern Utah (22) and Portland State (22) are the top five teams in the league in total sacks. Each is still alive for a playoff berth. The top three sack producers — Montana’s Tyrone Holmes, Southern Utah’s James Cowser and Portland State’s Davond Dade — have each of their respective teams alive for the Big Sky title entering the final week of the season.

“If you have to blitz all the time, there’s going to be holes in blitzes and in a league like this where offenses score so much, you can’t have that,” Southern Utah defensive line coach Ryan Hunt said. “There are good quarterbacks in this league. If you have to blitz to get pressure to get to the quarterback, your chance for success will go way down. Getting that four-man pass rush cranked up is critical. Having a guy likes Cowser makes my job easy. Here’s our weapon, here’s what we are going to use, stop us.”

If Southern Utah can earn a win over rival NAU in Cedar City, Utah on Saturday, the Thunderbirds will secure the first outright Big Sky championship in program history. While the Thunderbirds will not lead the league in sacks unless they have a record-shattering day, Cowser’s ability on the edge has produced one of the most successful runs in school history. In 2013, Cowser notched 11.5 sacks as SUU made the FCS playoffs for the first time ever. This season, Cowser has 10 sacks. Against Montana State, his sack of Dakota Prukop gave him the Big Sky and FCS all-time record for tackles for loss in a career with 73. Last week, he notched a sack against Portland State’s Alex Kuresa, helping him break Jared Allen’s Big Sky record for sacks in a career. Cowser now has 39.5.

“The fact that our defensive players have been capable of getting a pass rush without extra people on the blitz, that’s the key to being able to play defense like we do,” Southern Utah eighth-year head coach Ed Lamb said.

UM defensive end Tyrone Holmes sacks EWU quarterback Reilly Hennessey/by Evan Frost

UM defensive end Tyrone Holmes sacks EWU quarterback Reilly Hennessey/by Evan Frost

Holmes’ ability to rush the passer has produced seven combined sacks in crucial UM wins over Northern Arizona and Eastern Washington. Holmes leads the FCS with 14 sacks entering this weekend’s showdown with Montana State as the Grizzlies are in the thick of the playoff hunt once again.

“It’s of the utmost importance to our success since I’ve been here,” said Montana defensive coordinator Ty Gregorak, an assistant for 12 of the last 13 seasons at UM. “The last few years, we’ve been very fortunate enough to have some of the best pass rushers to come through the conference let alone the schools with Tyrone and (Zack) Wagenmann. Since the 2000s, you can just start naming names. And Tyrone is right there among the records.”

Holmes enters his final regular season game with 30.5 sacks in his career, eight sacks away from Wagenmann’s school record. Wagenmann capped his career with a 17.5-sack senior season as Montana went to the playoffs for the second year in a row.

Montana built the foundation for a run of 12 straight conference championships thanks to a tenant of toughness and a string of stud defensive ends like Andy Petek, Ciche Pitcher, Tim Bush, Lance Spencer, Mike Murphy, Kroy Biermann and Zack Wagenmann. Each was an individual Big Sky sack champion at some point over the last 15 seasons.

Montana won or shared the league title every season between 1998 and 2009 and the Grizzlies led the league in sacks in each year except 2003, 2005, 2008 and 2009. Montana State produced a collection of the best pass rushers in the league between 2009 and 2012, leading the league in sacks three times and claiming shares of three Big Sky crowns. Dane Fletcher won a Big Sky MVP and turned himself into an NFL veteran. Defensive ends like Caleb Schreibeis and Brad Daly each claimed Buck Buchanan Awards, the first two Bobcat defenders to garner the nation award in school history.

Former UM defensive end Kroy Biermann/by Big Sky Conf.

Former UM defensive end Kroy Biermann/by Big Sky Conf.

“We’ve only been a member of this conference for the last four years but being at Southern Utah as long as I have and playing the teams we have, I played against (Idaho State legend) Jared Allen my very last year (2003) my very last game of my senior year,” said Hunt, a three-year starter at his alma mater who has been the Thunderbirds’ defensive line coach for 10 seasons. “They were Big Sky champs that year. Kroy Biermann at Montana, the Daly kid at Montana State. There’s a whole legacy of those type of guys who have gone through the league. They’ve made a mark in the NFL too. It’s what this league is really all about.”

In 2003, Montana State shared the league title behind a league-best 43 sacks in an atypical fashion. The Bobcats gave up 16.5 points per game by bringing pressure from all three levels of its defense. First-team All-Big Sky defensive tackle Rey Sebestyen led MSU defensive linemen with 4.5 sacks. Kane Ioane notched four sacks from his strong safety spot to win league MVP honors.

That same year, Allen piled up 17.5 sacks and 28 tackles for loss as Idaho State shared the league title. Portland State head coach Bruce Barnum was the offensive coordinator at ISU then. He helped recruit Allen and during Allen’s first season in Pocatello, Barnum, in his final season as the Bengals’ defensive coordinator, pulled Allen’s redshirt and began his eligibility.

“My wife still keeps in touch with Jared,” Barnum said. “He knew we were going against Cowser when Cowser was gunning for his records. He’s a hell of a football player.”

Southern Utah defensive end James Cowser celebrates a sack, which broke the Big Sky Conference tackles for loss record/by Brooks Nuanez

Southern Utah defensive end James Cowser celebrates a sack, which broke the Big Sky Conference tackles for loss record/by Brooks Nuanez

Cowser broke Allen’s sack record last week in a 24-23 loss at Portland State. Although Cowser looks like the next Big Sky defensive end destined for the NFL Draft, he reminds Barnum more of a former Grizzly than of Allen, an All-Pro who is a surefire NFL Hall of Famer.

“He turns the corner — there’s a kid, I think his name is Ciche Pitcher, he played at Montana a few moons ago and he got banged up — but Ciche Pitcher had the best ability to turn the corner once you get past a tackle,” Barnum said. “Cowser has that. They are right off the turf before they zap the quarterback”

The years the trend has not held true, most often the champion still featured a special defensive weapon. In 2005, MSU’s Nick Marudas finished second in the league with 8.5 sacks as the Bobcats shared the league title with Montana and Eastern Washington.

In 2008, NAU led the league with 42 sacks with a blitz-heavy defense as Michael Battisti led the balanced effort with six sacks. Montana and Weber State shared the league title despite finishing fourth and sixth, respectively, in the league in sacks. Weber’s Kevin Linehan finished second to Eastern Washington defensive end Greg Peach. The Buck Buchanan Award winner was one sack shy of breaking Petek’s single-season record of 19 sacks set in 2000. Jace Palmer’s 8.5 sacks led a Montana team that notched 32 sacks during a run to the national championship game.

In 2009, MSU’s Dane Fletcher won the league MVP as the Bobcats led the league in sacks. But for the third time in four seasons, the Grizzlies posted a perfect league record despite notching just 23 sacks. The Griz led the nation with 26 interceptions during the national runner-up campaign.

Former MSU defensive end Caleb Schreibeis/by Kelly Groham

Former MSU defensive end Caleb Schreibeis/by Kelly Groham

During three straight Big Sky titles seasons, Eastern Washington has forged a new formula for consistent success. Montana State claimed the league title the first year the league expanded in 2012 behind Schreibeis’ Buck Buchanan Award campaign. The following year, EWU started winning with an explosive offense that overcame all defensive deficiencies.

Last season, Montana led the league with 45 sacks and made the FCS playoffs but EWU became the first team aside from the Grizzlies to post an 8-0 Big Sky record over the last 25 years. This season again, Montana will lead the league in sacks but will need to defeat Montana State and get some help to earn the Big Sky title.

The rest of the league has followed suit. Last season, five of the top 10 scoring teams in the FCS resided in the Big Sky. Idaho State led the country in total offense and averaged nearly 40 points per game, posting an 8-4 record in spite of an average defense.

Montana State is perhaps the best example of the importance of a pass rush. When the Bobcats had Fletcher, Schreibeis, Daly, Zach Minter or Dan Ogden, the Bobcats were among the top teams in the league, although MSU missed the playoffs the year Daly won the Buck. Without an elite pass rusher over the last two seasons, Montana State has gone from league-leader to one of the most porous defensive units in the conference. This season’s Bobcats enter Cat-Griz with the top scoring offense in the league but no chance to make the playoffs after losses on four separate occasions despite scoring between 38 and 50 points.

Former MSU defensive end Brad Daly/by MSU Athletics

Former MSU defensive end Brad Daly/by MSU Athletics

“Being able to manufacture (a pass rush) extremely important,” MSU ninth-year head coach Rob Ash said. “I think Southern Utah has done a nice job of that this year. We are hoping to get back to that because I do think it’s huge. It’s pretty simple mathematics really.”

This season, seven teams are averaging at least 30 points per game as Montana State (5th), NAU (7th), Portland State (15th) and Eastern Washington (18th) are among the 20 best scoring offenses in the country. The league features the top passing offense (Eastern Washington), the top rushing offense (Cal Poly) and the nation’s third-ranked total offense (Montana State) but is devoid of an elite pass rusher outside of Holmes and Cowser.

In the West, we face a dearth of defensive linemen from the 98th meridian over, from right down the center of the Dakotas to Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas,” Idaho State head coach Mike Kramer said. “You go West and you find hardly any guys who have the three-prong combination you need to play defensive line: big, runs fast and bad. Most kids in the West who are big and fast play basketball. In the East and the South, they are big and fast and BAD.

“To find any defensive linemen that are relentless, semi-sick individuals is almost impossible in the West because the lifestyle is too good. There’s not that hunger or the panic that great defensive linemen have.”

SUU defensive James Cowser/SUU Media Relations

SUU defensive James Cowser/SUU Media Relations

Cowser and Holmes are the only two players in the league with double digits in sacks. For comparison sake, the 2002 Grizzlies racked up 57 sacks as defensive ends Bush and Spencer and league MVP safety Trey Young all reached double-digit sack totals.

The Big Sky now features 13 teams, each with a distinctly different offensive attack. Montana State played Eastern Washington’s aerial attack, Cal Poly’s triple option and Northern Arizona’s run-pass option hybrid in successive weeks. Portland State went from Montana State’s spread read option to Cal Poly’s usual attack to Montana’s breakneck four-wide attack in consecutive weeks. Southern Utah will finish with the Bobcats, Portland State’s physical Pistol and Northern Arizona’s red-hot outfit.

Each coach in the Big Sky can agree that the paramount importance of a four-man pass rush is a crucial factor in having success within the league. But the numbers are down. Perhaps it’s because of the diversity of the league. Or perhaps there’s been a diametric shift in the way football is being played west of the Mississippi.

“I think it’s a generational thing. Things have changed all over the country. Coal miners and steal workers and people that have had to work very hard with their hands every day, that trickles down to your family and that’s no longer around,” Kramer said. “Ever since the settling of the West in the late 1800s from California to Washington to the Rocky Mountains, it’s always pretty much been the land of milk and honey. It’s always been pretty easy for a lot of people. So generation-to-generation, we are growing up a little easier, a little softer. You don’t really find the underlay that you will find in other parts of the United States where toughness is a key to survival every single day.”

Photo attribution noted. 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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