San Diego, Dixie State getting familiar with the Big Sky in non-conference play


Dale Lindsey and Paul Peterson coach at schools in two different conferences, 450 miles away from each other.

Lindsey is a 78-year-old legend who played for years in the NFL before starting his coaching career in 1974.

Peterson got one year as a quarterback in the CFL, and has only been coaching for about 15 years.

But the two coaches do have something in common.

Outside of the coaches in the conference itself, it’s likely that nobody in the country knows as much about Big Sky football this year as Lindsey and Peterson.

Lindsey’s San Diego team played its entire three-game non-conference schedule against Big Sky teams, going 0-3 against Cal Poly, UC Davis and Montana State before starting its Pioneer Football League slate last week against Davidson.

Peterson’s Dixie State is playing as an independent this year as the Trailblazers wait to join the WAC after moving up from Division II, but they also started the season with three losses to Big Sky teams, dropping games to Sacramento State, Weber State and UC Davis. Dixie State will also play at Montana on Saturday

Combined, that’s nearly half the conference covered between the two.

“A lot of it just made sense to play, obviously regionally,” Peterson said. “I’m really familiar with these Big Sky teams and we would love to play as many as we could. I know it’s a strong conference and it’s definitely the best conference here in the West. With us being part of the WAC, I hope we have a chance to continue to play Big Sky teams every year.”

Look at a map, and you’ll quickly realize that scheduling non-conference games against other FCS teams in the West is like dating in a small town — options are limited. Teams only have a couple of choices — schedule the same handful of opponents every year, or travel halfway across the country to get a game.

Until recently, San Diego and a few Southland Conference schools in Texas were the only non-Big Sky FCS programs west of the Mississippi River, where the Missouri Valley Football Conference begins with the four Dakota schools all piled up on the eastern border of their respective states.

That’s led to some Big Sky Conference teams playing non-conference games against each other, like Weber State and Cal Poly did in 2019. San Diego, whose closest conference rival in the non-scholarship Pioneer Football League is Drake, located smack in the middle of Iowa, has played one of UC Davis or Cal Poly every year going back to 2016.

The Toreros got both of them this year, losing their season opener 28-17 against Cal Poly and getting smacked 53-7 by Dan Hawkins’ Aggies a week later. Davis remains undefeated after taking down Idaho last week.

UC Davis head coach Dan Hawkins/ by UC Davis athletics

“Well, I’ve known Dan a long time,” Lindsey said. “He used to come to training camp when I coached with the Chargers, and he’s put together, I think, his best edition. They’ve got the size, the speed and the strength at every spot that I saw. I didn’t see any weaknesses in their team.”

Lindsey was also the first person to coach against Beau Baldwin this fall as the former Eastern Washington coach tries to revamp Cal Poly’s triple-option offense into the more modern spread he used to win a national championship with the Eagles.

“Well, they do have a good team,” Lindsey said. “I don’t think they had the size or speed that Davis has, but they’re very physical. I thought his defense was better than they presented to us in the past. And I think they’re doing a good job with Poly.”

Montana State linebacker Troy Andersen (15) tackles San Diego wide receiver Vance Jefferson (87)/by Brooks Nuanez

And to complete the hat trick, the Toreros went to Bozeman to play Montana State the week after, giving Lindsey looks at two Big Sky title contenders in back-to-back games.

“Well, I see a very physically talented team that’s very tough,” Lindsey said in the days before USD’s 52-10 loss to the Bobcats. “Love their offensive line. I think their quarterback is extremely talented. Their running back same way, wide receivers. It looks like the quarterback gets bored every now and then drops back and says I’m just gonna throw it 50 yards, somebody run and catch it. And they do. I think it’s a very good outfit that will be very competitive in the Big Sky.”

Peterson knows all about that competition Lindsey referenced.

After playing collegiately at Boston College and briefly in the CFL, Peterson took assistant jobs at Snow College, BYU and North Carolina State before latching on as the quarterbacks coach at Southern Utah.

He coached Brad Sorenson, who set the Thunderbirds’ single-season and career records for passing yards and became the school’s first-ever NFL draftee when the Chargers picked him in the seventh round in 2013.

That got Peterson the offensive coordinator job at Sacramento State — “We played Sac that year and Brad had a really good game … and they obviously remember the performance the quarterback had,” Peterson remembered — where he coached another of the great Big Sky quarterbacks of the 2010s, Garrett Safron.

Former Sacramento State quarterback Garrett Safron threw for nearly 10,000 yards and rushed for nearly 2,000 yards in three years as the Hornets’ starting QB.

“He was fantastic,” Peterson said about Safron (who, by the way, is still playing professionally in Japan). “I mean, I think we had some games where we had over 500 yards of total offense against Montana, and Montana State. He had some really good games. He was a gamer man, he could run and throw it.”

Peterson went on to take the head coaching job at Snow for two years before being hired at Dixie State.

The Trailblazers’ jump to Division I, along with Southern Utah leaving the Big Sky to join them in the resurrected WAC, will be the biggest jolt to Big Sky non-conference scheduling at least since North Dakota left the league to join the Missouri Valley in 2018.

The moves give the Big Sky two non-conference teams in Utah to schedule against — and vice versa, Dixie State will have ready-made non-conference matchups already on the table.

Peterson and the Trailblazers are already leaning heavily on that advantage. Faced with the challenge of building an entire schedule out of non-conference games in 2021, Dixie State scheduled four Big Sky teams, along with teams from the MVFC, Southland, CAA and WAC.

“(The Big Sky) is good ball, man,” Peterson said. “They’re really good coaches, good kids. They’re recruiting pretty much the same types of kids and so you get into some of those recruiting battles. … And really, there’s so much consistency with every team as far as being able to knock off somebody every weekend. You got to be ready to go, whether you’re at the top or the bottom, with these teams in the Big Sky.”

Peterson’s Dixie State team is 0-3 against Big Sky teams so far, with a 19-7 loss to Sac State, his former team, in the opener and blowout losses to nationally-ranked Weber State and UC Davis.

The Trailblazers come to Missoula on Oct. 9 for their fourth out of seven matchups against teams ranked in the preseason top 25.

“Bobby (Hauck) is awesome and he’s a Big Sky staple,” Peterson said. “He’s a great person and he’s got a great staff up there, and he’s gonna put a tough football team together. That’s what he does, those Montana kids, and he’s got a culture of that type of toughness and getting the ball to his playmakers. I know that’s definitely going to be a challenge for us.”

Peterson better get used to that kind of challenge. Dixie State’s future schedule is also littered with Big Sky teams.

The Trailblazers are set to play Sacramento State, Weber State and Idaho State in 2022, and Montana State, Montana, Northern Arizona and Idaho in 2023.

And for as long as they remain one of the only non-Big Sky teams within the conference’s footprint, why would they look anywhere else?

It’s a chance to measure up against one of the top conferences in FCS football — and maybe create some out-of-conference rivalry as well.

“Yeah, we hate purple,” Peterson said, jokingly referring to the colors of Weber State, the Trailblazers’ closest Big Sky rival. “You got to have those rivalries, I mean, that’s what college football is all about. They don’t think we’re a rival, I’m sure, with us just making this jump … but it should be a fantastic atmosphere and we hope it grows into something where we can compete at their level.”

About Andrew Houghton

Andrew Houghton grew up in Washington, DC. He graduated from the University of Montana journalism school in December 2015 and spent time working on the sports desk at the Daily Tribune News in Cartersville, Georgia, before moving back to Missoula and becoming a part of Skyline Sports in early 2018.

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