Big Sky Conference

Uncertainty under center defines most Big Sky teams entering 2021

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Byron Hout’s views are, to be fair, a little bit biased.

Hout was a standout linebacker at Lake City High School in Coeur d’Alene during his prep days before contributing to a four-yera run that saw Boise State go 50-3 during his college years. Hout has been a defensive line coach in the Big Sky Conference since 2016, holding that position on Jeff Choate’s staff at Montana State for four seasons.

So when he was asked what unit was most important to winning a Big Sky championship, Hout’s answer wasn’t unexpected.

“Any team that has made it to the Super Bowl, any team that’s won a national championship has two things in common,” Hout said at the press conference announcing him as Idaho State’s new defensive line coach the first week of July. “One is a great defensive line, right? … I think having a great defensive line is essential to winning a Big Sky championship, winning a national championship.”

Weber State, the four-time defending Big Sky Conference champions, has proven that notion to be true. From McKay Murphy to Jonah Williams, Adam Rodriguez to Jared Scheiss and George Tarlas (the latter two the stars of this year’s Wildcat front) WSU has out-manned the rest of the league at the point of attack during its recent run to conference titles and playoff runs under defensive-minded head coach Jay Hill.

Hout’s defensive lines with the Bobcats were nearly as stout. All-Big Sky talents Tyrone Fa’anono, Tucker Yates, Bryce Sterk, Derek Marks, Chase Benson…Hout coached them all. And Hout had the tutelage of Choate, himself a well-regarded defensive line mentor who most recently coached several NFL Draft picks on Washington’s defensive front before taking over at MSU.

Despite that honed acumen, Hout had to acknowledge that there’s another position that’s just as crucial.

“The No. 2 thing is a great quarterback,” Hout said. “Those are two constants. I think you also have to have a gunslinger back there.”

New Montana State coach Brent Vigen put it even more succinctly during his first league-wide mingling at the Big Sky Kickoff in Spokane, Washington on July 26.

“We all know that to be ultimately successful as you want,” Vigen said. “you have to play well at (quarterback).”

If Eastern Washington’s Aaron Best — sitting across the room from Vigen at the Davenport Grand Hotel in Spokane — had heard the MSU rookie skipper’s comment, Best probably would have smiled, or at least allowed himself a brief moment of congratulations.

The Eagles’ all-world redshirt senior signal-caller Eric Barriere was named the conference’s preseason offensive player of the year – not surprising considering explosive dual-threat has finished in the top five in the Walter Payton Award voting each of the two seasons he’s been a full-time starter, including a runner-up finish during the most recent truncated spring season.

Eastern Washington quarterback Eric Barriere (3) in the open field vs North Dakota State in the 2018 FCS National Championship/by Brooks Nuanez

At his best, Barriere gives the Eagles the advantage of impossibility. When he stops playing football, the 6-1, 210-pounder from Inglewood could transition right into a career as a magician in residence on the Vegas Strip. He escapes tackles that seem certain, extends plays that seem dead and makes throws from angles that seem incomprehensible.

“He does some things that some people, let’s just be honest, can’t do,” Best, EWU’s fourth head coach, said. “So those things we’re obviously excited about. I’d rather have a quarterback coming back than a competition at camp to find out who our quarterback is.”

Barriere, by himself, gives Eastern Washington an advantage. Although it’s an extension of EWU’s unrivaled string of award-winning QBs, that edge will be even bigger in comparison to the rest of the league’s unproven quarterbacks.

EWU Award-winning QBs
NameBig Sky MVP season(s)Walter Payton Award
Erik Meyer2004, 20052005
Matt Nichols2007, 2009
Bo Levi Mitchell20112011
Vernon Adams 2013, 2014
Gage Gubrud 2016
Eric Barriere 2021TBD

Eastern Washington has long held the distinction as the top quarterback factory in the league. But the 2021 fall season brings a newfound instability under center across the rest of the conference.

Just two players return who started under center for their teams for the duration of the 2019, the last time the Big Sky played a full schedule.

Barriere is one. Portland State’s gutsy senior Davis Alexander is the other. Players like junior Tucker Rovig at Montana State or senior Cam Humphrey at Montana have been in the starting lineup but will face competition in fall camp this month.

The rest of the league— from contenders like reigning co-champions Weber State and Sac State, trying to replace Jake Constantine and Kevin Thomson, respectively — to every other tier in the Big Sky, uncertainty at quarterback is among the most common threads in the league.

As opposed to Barriere, who stepped in and led Eastern Washington to the national championship game as a redshirt sophomore in 2018, Alexander is a museum-quality exhibit of the value of sticking with a player.

Over his first two seasons as a freshman in 2017 and a sophomore in 2018, Alexander completed 54.6 percent of his passes with 16 touchdowns and 10 interceptions in 16 games for Portland State.

In 12 games as a junior in 2019, those numbers jumped to a 57.1 percent completion percentage, 25 touchdowns and just eight interceptions, even as he played through a dislocated shoulder. And, outside Barriere, he’s the most proven runner as a quarterback this side of Montana State linebacker Troy Andersen; Alexander has rushed for 1,094 yards and 19 touchdowns.

Portland State quarterback Davis Alexander (6) throws vs. Montana/by Brooks Nuanez

“I’ve got damn near 30 games under my belt, I feel like I’ve seen most of it all, prepared for it,” said Alexander, who will make his 30th career start in PSU’s opener at Hawaii on September 4.

Now, Portland State will reap the benefits of that preparation, and just like Eastern Washington, having an experienced quarterback will be an even bigger advantage than usual for the Vikings.

Everybody else — 11 out of the 13 teams in the league — are in various states of transition, mystery or disarray at the most important position on the field.

Some will bring back first-time starters from the spring season. Junior college transfers like Southern Utah sophomore Justin Miller (Snow) or UC Davis junior Hunter Rodrigues (American River) along with Weber State rising freshman Bronson Barron were fresh faces on the scene this spring. FBS drop downs like former Oklahoma State QB Keondre Wudtee now of Northern Arizona, former Wyoming gunslinger Tyler Vander Waal now of Idaho State or former UConn quarterback Mike Beaudry now of Idaho come to mind.

Those aforementioned got as many as six games in the spring, something no quarterback nor any player at Sac State, Montana, Montana State or Northern Colorado got to experience. UM did play two spring games, including one against Portland State.

Those who opted out or played exhibitions in the spring still have a presumptive starter from all the way back in 2019. Still others — like the ‘Cats and the Griz — will be holding open competitions in fall camp.

That’s a far cry from the state of the league the last time everybody gathered at the Davenport Grand before the 2019 season, when starting quarterbacks around the league included Barriere, Northern Arizona’s Case Cookus, UC Davis’s Jake Maier, Montana’s Dalton Sneed and Sac State’s Thomson. 

Former Montana quarterback Dalton Sneed/ by Brooks Nuanez

All went on to average at least 260 passing yards a game that year with at least 25 touchdown passes. Maier, Sneed and Cookus all finished their careers in the top 10 in league history in total offense per game. Thomson is 16th, and Barriere, who hasn’t finished his career yet, had the ninth-best Big Sky season of all time in terms of total offense in 2019.

Cookus and Thomson each had a cup of coffee in the NFL in its most recent off-season, while Sneed plays for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers of the CFL.

The close of the 2019 season was the culmination of a decade when numbers got bigger and quarterbacks increasingly became the face of the league. Perhaps it was the result of an unprecedented wave of talent. Perhaps it happened because play-callers, like prospectors chasing a gold rush, kept pushing the envelope after seeing Beau Baldwin succeed with a spread offense at Eastern Washington early in the decade.

Or perhaps head coaches and their staffs across the league realized just how much of a problem a running quarterback could cause a defense.

Six of the top 10 quarterbacks in Big Sky history in total offense started their careers in 2012 or later, and it seemed like every school in the conference — aside from Cal Poly’s trusty triple option under Tim Walsh — had a gunslinger who was a threat to put up 400 yards passing any given week.

Montana State quarterback Matt McKay (8)/by Brooks Nuanez

Bo Levi Mitchell, Adams, Gubrud and Barriere at Eastern Washington; Cookus at Northern Arizona, DeNarius McGhee and Dakota Prukop at Montana State, Maier at UC Davis, Brady Gustafson and Sneed at Montana, Thomson and Garrett Safron at Sac State; Justin Arias and Tanner Gueller at Idaho State — all drove the ball downfield and lit up the scoreboard.

They were the players who got the coverage and often predicted the conference. But Hill, the stoned-faced stalwart who has won 33 of his last 36 Big Sky games, has redefined the league title chase by winning defensively first. Montana and Montana State aren’t far behind.

The days of the quarterback arms race (old news at this point) as well as Shake A Day ( seems to be in the right spot?) days are over, or at least on hiatus for the 2021 season.

On paper, the Big Sky is no longer a quarterback-driven league — and being able to navigate that new state of affairs, whether that’s by developing a new star QB or finding a way to win without one, could determine a wide-open conference race this fall.

Check out Skyline Sports this weekend for our ranking of every quarterback situation in the conference.

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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