(STATS) – The Big Sky got 2015 off to an auspicious start, with Montana knocking off top-ranked and four-time defending FCS champion North Dakota State in the college football season opener. The conference will be in the national spotlight again this week thanks to an FCS-FBS matchup highlighted by a major subplot.
Eastern Washington’s visit to Oregon headlines the league’s first full week of action that starts Thursday night.
A big season could be in store for the Big Sky after Montana stunned the visiting Bison 38-35 in the FCS Kickoff on Saturday. Joey Counts scored on a 1-yard fourth-down run with 2 seconds remaining to lift Montana before a record crowd of 26,472 at Washington-Grizzly Stadium.
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The victory came against a powerhouse from the Missouri Valley Conference, which entered the season with an FCS-high six ranked schools.
”Here’s my statement: How about that?” Grizzlies first-year coach Bob Stitt said. ”That was unbelievable. It was pretty crazy how calm I was and everybody all around us was. The players, man, they were so focused.”
Brady Gustafson was 30 of 55 for 434 yards and three touchdowns in his first start for Montana, and he and the Grizzlies now turn their attention to Cal Poly on Saturday night. The Mustangs return 16 starters, including quarterback Chris Brown and running back Kori Garcia – the top two rushers on a team that led college football with 351.8 yards per game on the ground last year.
"Big congrats to Bob Stitt and the entire Montana football team," Cal Poly coach Tim Walsh said. "That’s a great win for the Big Sky as well."
A much bigger win, of course, could be earned courtesy of Eastern Washington on Saturday night. The Eagles, ranked sixth in the STATS FCS Poll, visit seventh-ranked Oregon of the FBS, and they won’t lack for motivation with their former star quarterback Vernon Adams Jr. now leading the Ducks’ offense.
Adams, a graduate transfer, accounted for 11,670 total yards (10,438 passing, 1,232 rushing) and 121 touchdowns (110 passing, 11 rushing) with the Eagles from 2012-14.
This will be the first ranked FBS opponent Eastern Washington has faced since its 2013 season opener, which it won 49-46 over then-No. 25 Oregon State on the road.
"At some point you have to go keep score against somebody else," said coach Beau Baldwin, whose team is seeking its fourth straight Big Sky crown. "That’s just the bottom line. You get tired of going against each other in fall camp – it’s that way everywhere in the country. Everybody is ready to go play somebody else and we’ll be ready to do that on Saturday."
A look at the other Week 1 games in the Big Sky (all times Eastern):
Southern Utah at Utah State, 9 p.m.
Southern Utah (3-9, 3-5 in 2014) allowed 525.6 yards per game last season – ranking 123rd out of 124 FCS schools – and opens against a Utah State team that went 10-4 and beat UTEP in the New Mexico Bowl. The Thunderbirds, who averaged 23.2 points last season, should take a step forward with Ammon Olsen back to run the offense. Olsen is the top returning passer from the Big Sky, throwing for 3,049 yards with 21 touchdowns and 11 interceptions a year ago. Southern Utah is 0-3 all-time against the Aggies, losing the last meeting 34-3 in 2012.
Montana State vs. Fort Lewis, 9:05 p.m.
Before a showdown with sixth-ranked Eastern Washington, No. 11 Montana State (8-5, 6-2) eases into 2015 with a matchup against Fort Lewis, which has been outscored 101-17 in losses to Big Sky teams Southern Utah and UC-Davis the past two seasons. Led by quarterback Dakota Prukop, the Bobcats are expected to challenge the Eagles for conference supremacy. Prukop threw for 2,559 yards and 18 touchdowns and rushed for team highs of 946 yards and 13 TDs a year ago. Montana State is 3-0 all-time against the Skyhawks, winning the last meeting 59-20 in 2010.
UC Davis at Nevada, 10 p.m.
UC Davis (2-9, 1-7) will have its hands full in the opener, facing a Nevada team that went 7-6 a year ago and is picked to finish third in the West Division of the Mountain West. The Aggies return nine starters on defense, but it remains to be seen if that’s a good thing after that unit allowed a Big Sky-worst 37.8 points in 2014. Quarterback Ben Scott takes the reigns of the offense from the get-go after taking over the starting job halfway through 2014, and averaging 279.0 yards and totaling 18 touchdowns in six starts. Nevada holds a 28-21-3 advantage against UC Davis, winning 36-7 in the last meeting in 2013.
Weber State at Oregon State, 8 p.m.
Weber State (2-10, 2-6) has a brutal start to the season, with the program’s first matchup against Oregon State followed by a road trip to top-ranked FCS squad North Dakota State. The Beavers went 5-7 last season with only two wins in Pac-12 play and aren’t expected to do much this year, picked to finish last in the conference’s North Division. However, expectations aren’t particularly high for the Wildcats, either. Weber State, outscored 115-21 in losses to Pac-12 opponents Utah and Arizona State the past two seasons, is picked to finish 10th by the media and 11th by the coaches. Jadrian Clark won the quarterback competition after throwing for 902 yards in six games last year.
Portland State at Washington State, 2 p.m.
Bruce Barnum makes his coaching debut at Portland State (3-9, 2-6) against a Washington State team that racked up 706 yards in a 59-21 victory over the Vikings last season. Despite Portland State’s poor 2014, the Cougars are predicted to finish fifth in the Pac-12’s North Division. Quarterback Kieran McDonagh is back for his senior season having totaled 5,865 yards with 41 touchdowns and 37 interceptions in 31 career games.
Northern Colorado vs. Western State, 3:35 p.m.
Northern Colorado (3-8, 2-6) is coming off its 11th consecutive losing season and has been given little chance to end that string, having been picked to finish last in the Big Sky in the coaches’ and media polls. Despite those low expectations, the Bears have the advantage in their opener against Division II school Western State. Northern Colorado won the last matchup 44-3 in 2003.
North Dakota at Wyoming, 4:05 p.m.
Led by star linebacker Will Ratelle, North Dakota (5-7, 3-5) returns eight starters to a defense that allowed a Big Sky-low 354.4 yards per game and had more than 100 tackles for loss last season. Things weren’t quite as positive on the other side of the ball as the offense averaged a league-low 15.9 points. UND is 0-7 against FBS opponents since making the transition to Division I in 2008. This will be the school’s first meeting with Wyoming, which is picked to finish fifth in the Mountain Division of the Mountain West.
Idaho State vs. Black Hills State, 6:05 p.m.
Idaho State (8-4, 6-2) has announced Michael Sanders as the replacement at quarterback for Justin Arias, the 2014 Big Sky co-offensive player of the year, but the junior who has never attempted a pass at the FCS level doesn’t have to carry the offense by himself. He’s joined by All-Big Sky running back Xavier Finney, who rushed for a league-best 1,519 yards and 14 touchdowns last season, and all-conference receiver Madison Mangum, who had 83 catches for 1,234 yards and 10 TDs a year ago. The Bengals, picked to finish third by the media, beat Black Hills State 38-5 in the schools’ only meeting in 2012.
Stephen F. Austin vs. Northern Arizona, 7 p.m.
This matchup of Lumberjacks features a Northern Arizona (7-5, 5-3) team that topped the FCS in pass defense last season at 176.8 yards per game and returns six starters on defense, including 2014 All-Big Sky first-team cornerback Marcus Alford. Northern, though, faces plenty of uncertainty under center with redshirt freshman Case Cookus taking the reins against 24th-ranked Stephen F. Austin of the Southland Conference.
Eastern Oregon vs. Sacramento State, 9:05 p.m.
The Hornets closed 2014 with three consecutive wins to finish 7-5 – 4-4 in the conference – but they’ll have to overcome the graduation of FCS All-America receiver DeAndre Carter (1,321 yards, 17 touchdowns) and All-Big Sky quarterback Garrett Safron (3,490 yards and 34 TDs passing, 751 yards rushing). That probably won’t present a problem in the opener, as the Mountaineers of the NAIA lost 40-28 to College of Idaho last week. Sacramento State linebacker Darnell Sankey is on the STATS preseason defensive player of the year watch list, as the senior recorded 100 tackles in nine games last year before a knee injury derailed the season.