All-Conference

Skyline Sports mid-season All-Big Sky defensive selections

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Every team in the Big Sky Conference has played at least seven games, which means it’s officially past the halfway point of the football season. It’s been an unpredictable season as usual in the Big Sky. Unknown players have broken out, and some stars have gone down to injury or other unforeseen circumstances. With everything that’s changed, there’s no better time to update the preseason all-conference team.

This is Skyline Sports’ midseason all-conference team, looking at who would be in for recognition if the season ended today (before games on October 27). For each position, we’ll look at who was the preseason pick, if that’s changed, and the reasons why or why not, taking into consideration both individual production and team performance.

Defensive line

Preseason: Jay-Tee Tiuli, Eastern Washington; Tucker Yates, Montana State; George Obinna, Sacramento State; Jonah Williams, Weber State

Now: Tiuli; Jalen Goss, Northern Arizona; Bryce Sterk, Montana State; Adam Rodriguez, Weber State; Tyrone Fa’anono, Montana State

Montana State buck end Bryce Sterk (37) and end Tyrone Fa’anono (57) sack Wagner quarterback TJ Linta (9)/by Brooks Nunaez

The sack leaderboard is so dominated by Montana linebackers it’s hard to stand out, but in Bozeman, the Washington drop-down Sterk has turned heads. After sharing a sack in MSU’s 34-24 loss at Weber State, Sterk leads Montana linebacker Dante Olson for the league lead with 5.5 sacks. Sterk also has a Big Sky-best 11 tackles for loss. Sterk has brought a blend of power, speed and length that Big Sky linemen have been ill-equipped to deal with. And perhaps the key to his production has been the relentless effort and diverse skill shown by Fa’anono, perhaps the best true strong end playing on an odd-man front in the league. Fa’anono wears out offensive linemen from opening kickoff to final buzzer, often setting up one-on-one opportunities for Sterk.

It’s been business as usual in Cheney as Tiuli has held down the middle of the line for Eastern Washington’s second-ranked scoring defense. His physical prowess was on full display in a 34-17 win at Montana State. He had just one tackle, a sack, but his ability to disrupt the interior helped the Eagles hold explosive MSU dual-threat quarterback Troy Andersen in check.

Tiuli joined at defensive tackle by Northern Arizona’s athletic marvel Jalen Goss, who, at 300 pounds, has 20 total tackles, nine tackles for loss and a 30-yard fumble recovery for a touchdown.

Weber’s conference-best defense gets a representative at the other defensive end position with Rodriguez, a junior whose eight tackles for loss are fourth in the conference. He also has 3.5 sacks. The Wildcats allowed just seven first downs to Montana State on Saturday.

Apologies to: Mitchell Johnson (Eastern Washington), Elijah Chambers (Sac State), Yates

Linebackers

Preseason: Josh Buss, Montana; Kaden Elliss, Idaho; LeGrand Toia, Weber State; Chinedu Ahanonu, Southern Utah

Now: Buss; Toia; Mason Moe, UC Davis; Dante Olson, Montana

Montana junior linebacker Dante Olson coming off the edge/ by Brooks Nuanez

The drama here came down to whose spot Olson was going to take. The junior Montana linebacker has been undeniable this season, leading the country in tackles with 106 in seven games. He’s also second in the Big Sky in sacks (5), third in tackles for loss (9.5) and is tied for the league lead with three forced fumbles despite Montana not playing last week.

In the end, it was Elliss missing out, despite a fine season. The Idaho senior is one of the best true edge players in the league, playing the Buck end/linebacker spot in Idaho’s 3-4 defense. He had 24 tackles and four sacks, using his long arms to disrupt plays on the edge both with deflections and an ability to track down ball carriers.

Buss, the preseason Big Sky Defensive MVP, has returned in fine fashion from off-season shoulder surgery to notch 52 tackles, including 4.5 sacks, tied for fourth in the league.

Toia is the thumper and the enforcer on the top defense in the league, arguably one of the top units in the FBS. Toia has 41 tackles and 4.5 sacks, but its his tone-setting hits that make the biggest difference for Weber.

Moe is having a breakout season in his final campaign. He has five sacks and 10 tackles for loss, totals that rank second in the league to Sterk, for the league-leading Aggies.

Apologies to: Elliss, Landon Stice (Weber State), Kody Graves (Idaho State)

Cornerbacks

Preseason: Khalil Dorsey, Northern Arizona; Jalen Russell, Southern Utah

Now: Dorsey; Keilan Benjamin, Weber State; Greg “Munchie” Filer III, Montana State

Weber State senior Keilan Benjamin, pictured here earlier this season against South Dakota, had a second half interception against Montana State on Saturday/ by WSU athletics

Dorsey is the No. 1 cover corner for the most prolific secondary in the Big Sky. NAU leads the league with 13 interceptions, including three by Dorsey, an All-Big Sky hurdler in the spring for NAU championship track team.

Benjamin had an interception in WSU’s win over Montana State, giving him three picks this season, tied with senior linebacker Landon Stice for the most on the Wildcats. The continuity of Benjamin and fellow senior secondary members corner Jordan Preator and safety Jawain Harrison has helped boost Benjamin’s production. The Wildcats are third in the league in passing yards allowed per game (202) and second to NAU in opponent passer efficiency rating (106.3).

Montana State fortified its secondary over the last two years, adding talented prep recruits Tyrel Thomas and Jalen Cole before last season, then bringing in Filer III, a transfer from Compton Community College and safety Jahque Alleyne, a Virginia Tech transfer. Filer has risen to the starting spot opposite Thomas and has been MSU’s best play-making corner, benefiting from Thomas’ shutdown ability. Filer had a pick against Eastern Washington, then snared his second interception and returned it 27 yards for a touchdown in MSU’s loss to Weber State last week.

Apologies to: Nzuzi Webster, Eastern Washington; Jordan Praetor, Weber State; Tyrel Thomas, Montana State; Dareon Nash, Montana; Josh Lewis, Eastern Washington.

Safeties

Preseason: Wes Sutton, Northern Arizona; Mister Harriel, Sacramento State

Now:; Kam’ron Johnson, Northern Arizona; Jahque Alleyne, Montana State; Vincent White, UC Davis

Northern Arizona senior safety Kam’Ron Johnson/ NAU athletics

If you want to see why Northern Arizona has stayed dangerous after losing quarterback Case Cookus, look all the way to the back of the defense, where Sutton and Johnson are the best safety pair in the Big Sky. Sutton had played in just five games but has two interceptions, four pass breakups, a sack and 20 total tackles. Johnson has played in all six for the Lumberjacks and picked up the slack with his partner out, recording 39 total tackles and three interceptions.

Montana State’s inept offense has caused the Bobcat defense to spend far too much time on the field. But when fresh, the unit is one of the most talented in the league, particularly on the defensive line and in the secondary. Alleyne, a transfer from Virginia Tech, helped stake MSU to an early lead at Weber State with a first quarter interception, his league-leading fourth of the season.

UC Davis is running so many offensive plays per game — nearly 88 before Cal Poly’s triple option held the ball enough to limit the Aggies to 59 plays on Saturday — that UCD’s defensive statistics are slightly skewed. But the Aggies are second in the league in third down defense, allowing opponents to convert just 33.4 percent of their tries. White has been a key element of the Aggies getting off the field. He leads the league with 12 pass breakups, four more than anyone in the league.

Apologies to: Sutton; Harriel; Robby Hauck (Montana), Vincent White (UC Davis), Keifer Glau (Northern Colorado); Jawain Harrison, Weber State

Punter & Punt returner

Preseason: Punter – Cade Coffey, Idaho

Punt returner: N/A

Now: Punter – Roldan Alcobendas, Eastern Washington

Weber State redshirt freshman running back Josh Davis/ by WSU athletics

The double duty specialist is taking advantage of his sixth year of eligibility after receiving a hardship waiver in the off-season. Alcobendas has made all nine of his field goal attempts, becoming EWU’s all-time kicking scoring leader in the process. He’s been even better as a punter, averaging 51 yards per punt in Big Sky play and 48.3 yards per punt overall, both the best marks in the league.

Apologies to: Coffey; D.J. Arnson, NAU; Eric Williams, Montana; Jered Padmos, Montana State

Punt returner – Josh Davis, Weber State

Davis has been one of the best running backs and one of the Big Sky’s most important offensive players for the Wildcats. He has rushed for 699 yards and four touchdowns despite not playing in Weber’s season-opener at Utah.

The former Utah Gatorade Player of the  Year leads the Big Sky in all-purpose yards with 161.5 yards per game. He leads the league by averaging 17.8 yards per punt return, including a 75-yard return for a touchdown against Eastern Washington, one of just three returns for touchdowns in the Big Sky this season and one of just two returns for a score in a league game in 2018.

Apologies to: David Ungerer, Idaho; J.J. Koski, Cal Poly

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Colter Nuanez contributed to this analysis. Photos by Brooks Nuanez and attributed. All Rights Reserved. 

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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