Sans Weber State, the nonconference schedule has come to a close. There’s a ton we don’t know about the mid-to-lower tier teams, but the four playoff favorites have separated themselves and begin the hunt for signature wins—starting with UC Davis and Montana. As always, votes come from the many Big Sky Podcast Network contributors and Brian Marceau fills in the rest.
- Montana State
Last Week: Win vs. Norfolk State (56-21)
This Week: vs. NAU
Coach Jeff Choate pulled the plug on freshman quarterback Casey Bauman with a last minute substitution of sophomore Tucker Rovig, who rewarded MSU with the type of performance (21/27, 221 yards, 4 TDs) that—if repeated—will transform the Bobcats from playoff-lock to championship contender. We’ll have to see if Rovig can deliver against real competition—Norfolk State is a lower tier FCS program—but if MSU’s already elite defense and special teams is now paired with a strong offense, the Bobcats shouldn’t see a close game until the last two weeks of the season (vs. UC Davis and Montana). Montana State was already a heavy favorite this week against NAU, but if the quarterback question is solved and both Troy Anderson and Isaiah Ifanse can return to something around 100 percent, the Bobcats will be the most complete team in the Big Sky, and maybe the entire FCS outside of North Dakota State.
- Weber State
Last Week: Bye
This Week: vs. Northern Iowa
Weber State has looked good in their one FCS win (nonconference over Cal Poly) and two single-score FBS losses. It’s unclear what to think of the Wildcat offense, which scored 41 against Cal Poly, but only 13 combined in their FBS losses. What is clear is how dominant the Weber State defense has been in allowing 43 total points and an average of 345 yards against mostly FBS competition. Coach Jay Hill expects injured quarterback Jake Constantine to return from a knee injury to start this week against top 10 brethren Northern Iowa in a game with playoff seeding implications.
- UC Davis
Last Week: Loss at North Dakota State (27-16)
This Week: vs. Montana
The Big Sky’s best showing this week might have been UC Davis outgaining North Dakota State (422 yards for UC Davis to 354 for NDSU), and trailing by four at the end of the third quarter. Jake Maier’s three interceptions held the Aggies from pulling the upset, but UC Davis more than held their own in Fargo and proved their top five ranking is more than deserved. The Aggies open up Big Sky play hosting Montana in what should be a matchup of two top 15 teams. Montana has not yet underperformed against an FCS team the way UC Davis did in their season opener at San Diego, but their close loss at NDSU has erased concerns about whether the Aggies’ rocky first two weeks would carry into the conference season.
Last Week: Win vs. Monmouth (47-27)
This Week: at UC Davis
The worst we can say about Montana heading into conference play is they haven’t been tested the way Weber State, UC Davis, and Montana State have, though again, Montana looked strong in a convincing 20 point win over Monmouth en route to the Grizzlies’ third FCS win. Dalton Sneed was electric through the air (334 yards, 4 TDs), but maybe more importantly, the immergence of running back Marcus Knight (21 carries, 148 yards, 1 TD) gives Montana one of the league’s better threats on the ground. This week, Montana faces their first FCS elite on the road at UC Davis. A win would catapult Montana into the top 10, but even staying competitive in their first real test of 2019 would go a long way in proving the alleged Return to Dominance has truly begun.
Last Week: Win vs. EWU (35-27)
This Week: at Northern Colorado
Maybe the narrow loss at Wyoming was a turning point for Idaho. After opening with an embarrassing 72 point loss at Penn State and an uninspiring 10 point win over DII Central Washington, it appeared the Vandals were giving the Big Sky an encore performance from last season’s disappointing squad. Instead, Idaho dominated EWU for three quarters and gave fans a look at what could be the Big Sky’s biggest turnaround team.
It didn’t hurt that five EWU defensive starters were out with injuries, but the Idaho offensive line dominated from start to finish. The Vandals rushed for 223 yards and three touchdowns, though more importantly, by controlling the line of scrimmage, Idaho was able to consistently find themselves in short yardage situations on second and third down. Not only did this allow quarterback Mason Petrino’s short yardage accuracy to become a weapon for the Vandals in a way it never has been in the senior’s two years as a starter, it enabled Idaho to keep EWU’s offense off the field by manufacturing long clock burning drives featuring a ton of easy third down conversions (10/16 on 3rd down). With Northern Colorado on the schedule next week, Idaho should find itself on the right side of .500 for the first time since returning to the Big Sky.
- Sacramento State
Last Week: Loss at Fresno State (34-20)
This Week: Bye
Sacramento State again looked fantastic in hanging all four quarters with another FBS team that will undoubtedly make a 2019 bowl game. Against both Arizona State and Fresno State, the Hornets received no production from 2018 All-Big Sky running back Elijah Dotson, who will unquestionably find more room to run during the conference season. More concerning for the rest of the Big Sky should be the play of quarterback Kevin Thomson, who has thrown nine touchdowns and completed 61.8 percent of his passes in Sacramento State’s three Division I games.
Last Week: Loss at Idaho (35-27)
This Week: vs. North Dakota
Last year’s national runner-up will begin Big Sky play with zero FCS wins thanks to an upset loss at Idaho. The defensive struggles present in the Eagles’ DII win over Lindenwood (31 points allowed) and in their second half collapse at Jacksonville State returned for all four quarters against the Vandals, where the generally tepid Idaho offense gained 463 total yards including 223 on the ground. Missing five defensive starters aided in EWU’s poor defensive outing, but that does little to explain how Idaho’s defense was able to keep the Eagles from moving the ball the entire first half and much of the third quarter. Without question, EWU owns the Big Sky’s most disappointing opening month, and for the Eagles to make a return trip to the FCS playoffs, they may have to finish no worse than 7-1 through the conference season.
Last Week: Loss at Illinois State (40-27)
This Week: at Montana State
Northern Arizona could not move past its dark horse status in a road loss at Illinois State in a game that could have given the Lumberjacks their second FCS win. On the year, quarterback Case Cookus (12 TDs, 4 INTs) has shaken any rust from missing most of last year, but without a top tier defense or any semblance of a rushing attack, NAU will have to win a lot of shootouts if they’re going to threaten for an at-large playoff berth.
The Know Nothings
- Portland State
Last Week: Win vs. Eastern Oregon (NAIA, 59-9 )
This Week: at Idaho State
Beyond learning that Davis Alexander would be an elite NAIA quarterback (25/34, 366 yards, 5 TDs), throttling Eastern Oregon tells us nothing about the Vikings. A month into the season, Portland State owns two sub-FCS wins and two FBS losses, meaning no one on Earth has an idea what to make of the Vikings.
- Idaho State
Last Week: Loss at Northern Iowa (13-6)
This Week: vs. Portland State
Idaho State turned in one of the week’s surprising performances in their one-score loss on the road at No. 9 Northern Iowa. Backup quarterback Gunnar Amos (13/26, 134 yards, 3 INTs) struggled while leading Idaho State to 209 yards of total offense, but the Bengals’ defense shined in holding an FCS elite to 234 total yards and 13 points. ISU’s defense was weak in 2018, but if coach Phenicie and company have made strides on that side of the ball, the (eventual) return of quarterback Matt Stuck and some semblance of an offense would push the Bengals back to where they were in 2018—a dark horse for an at-large playoff berth.
- Cal Poly
Last Week: Bye
This Week: at Southern Utah
If big play passing is now part of the Mustangs’ arsenal (quarterback Jalen Hamler has passed for three touchdowns and 403 yards on 25 total attempts), it might compensate yards Cal Poly purges on defense (496 yards per game vs. two FCS teams).
The Known Quantities
- Southern Utah
Last Week: Loss at South Dakota State (43-7)
This Week: vs. Cal Poly
Aside from their week three win over one of the worst FCS teams (Stephen F. Austin), Southern Utah has scored almost no points until trailing by 30 or more in 2019. Those blowouts did come against two top 10 FCS teams (Northern Iowa and South Dakota State) and FBS UNLV, but at the close of nonconference play, Southern Utah joins Northern Colorado as the Big Sky’s two nights off.
- Northern Colorado
Last Week: Loss at South Dakota (14-6)
This Week: vs. Idaho
In two FCS games (Sacramento State and South Dakota), Northern Colorado has scored six points and gained 390 total yards. Yes, they kept it close at South Dakota, but until the Bears have something resembling an offense, Northern Colorado will threaten no one.