4 Big Sky teams seek automatic bid

BY foxsports • November 20, 2015

(STATS) - Montana and Northern Arizona each need three scenarios to play out in the final weekend of the regular season to clinch the Big Sky's automatic bid to the FCS playoffs.

While that sounds unlikely, the matchups are such that all those outcomes could easily unfold.

In what is shaping up to be a thrilling Saturday, three sets of games - Montana at Montana State, Northern Arizona at Southern Utah and Portland State at Eastern Washington - could play a huge role in shaping the playoffs.

Four teams have a shot at capturing the conference's automatic bid, with No. 20 Southern Utah, No. 11 Portland State, No. 17 Montana and No. 24 Northern Arizona in the mix. The Thunderbirds are atop the conference while the Vikings, Grizzlies and Lumberjacks are a game back. Another two teams, 18th-ranked Eastern Washington and North Dakota, can build their playoff resumes with season-ending wins.

"I'm too stupid to look at it, I'm a week-to-week guy," Portland State coach Bruce Barnum said of the playoff scenarios. "We're just trying to beat Eastern Washington, but it would be big. This is a big game. We're playing for first place in the Big Sky with a little help."

The Vikings (8-2, 5-2) don't need as much help as Montana or Northern Arizona, but they can't do it alone.

Southern Utah (7-3, 6-1), however, can. And that would take some of the drama out of the final weekend if the Thunderbirds were to beat Northern Arizona to clinch the conference and the automatic bid.

"It's a big game and I think the whole team knows that," Southern Utah quarterback Ammon Olsen said. "I feel like we'd be upset if we didn't win, I feel like we have more to prove, and especially me after the end of last game."

Olsen threw three interceptions to double his season total and missed an open receiver on a two-point conversion with 1:18 left in last Saturday's 24-23 loss to Portland State.

That opened the door for a potential wild final weekend.

The Vikings can secure the Big Sky title with a win over the Eagles in the annual Dam Cup, coupled with Northern Arizona knocking off Southern Utah.

If the Lumberjacks (7-3, 5-2) continue the trend of the road team winning the Hinton-Burdick Grand Canyon Trophy - the visitor has won the last five rivalry games - things could get interesting.

If Southern Utah and Portland State both lose and Montana beats Montana State in the 115th edition of the Brawl of the Wild, the Grizzlies get the automatic bid due to wins over Eastern Washington and Northern Arizona.

However, if the Thunderbirds, Vikings and Grizzlies all lose, the Lumberjacks would win the automatic bid behind victories over Southern Utah and Eastern Washington.

Northern Arizona enters the final weekend as the league's hottest team having won four in a row and also boasts the FCS' top quarterback.

Freshman Case Cookus leads the FCS in passer rating (196.9), completion percentage (71.1) and touchdowns (33) and has thrown three interceptions. By tossing six TDs in last week's 49-35 win over Sacramento State, he broke the FCS freshman record of 31 set in 2004.

"He always gives his receivers a chance, that's the biggest thing," Southern Utah defensive coordinator Demario Warren said. "He never overthrows anybody or throws one in the dirt, he always gives his receivers a chance and he has great receivers around him, so I think in that aspect he's one of the best we've gone against all year."

Cookus has thrown one interception since the start of October but faces a tough test against a Southern Utah defense that is tied for third in the FCS with 17 picks.

Portland State has 16 interceptions and must shut down the FCS' top-ranked passing offense to keep its chance of an automatic playoff berth alive.

Eastern Washington (6-4, 5-2), which averages 367.1 passing yards per game and has 35 touchdown throws, used three quarterbacks in last Saturday's 57-16 loss at Montana as coach Beau Baldwin planned on a rotation to best utilize their strengths. Jordan West was 7 of 19 for 119 yards with two interceptions, Reilly Hennessey was 7 of 12 for 113 yards in his first start and Gage Gubrud was 7 of 13 for 66 yards with a pick in his season debut.

Junior Cooper Kupp was held without a touchdown reception for the second time this season to remain three shy of the FCS career record of 58. He leads the FCS with 106 receptions, 1,506 receiving yards and 18 touchdown catches.

Picked to win the Big Sky in the preseason media poll, the Eagles seemed to be in good shape to make the playoffs after entering November riding a six-game winning streak. However, back-to-back losses have them in need of a victory if they have any hope of capturing an at-large berth and reaching the playoffs for a sixth time in seven years.

"It's huge," Baldwin said. "It's already the playoffs in a sense, and even then nothing is guaranteed if we win. I do know one thing, if we aren't able to earn a win we won't be playing again. But if we are able to earn a win we're at the mercy (of the selection committee). The bottom line is we have to find a way to put together a good last football game of the regular season. Whatever happens after that we'll see."

Although the Grizzlies can possibly win the Big Sky and earn a record 23rd appearance in the FCS playoffs with a win over Montana State, a loss would knock them out of the conversation entirely.

Montana (6-4, 5-2) has the Big Sky's third-ranked scoring defense (23.1 points per game), but the Bobcats are third in the FCS in total offense at 522.2 yards per game and fifth with 42.6 points per game. Montana State would love nothing more than to knock its rivals out of the playoff picture to wrap up what has been a disappointing season.

"They are a very good football team, a dangerous football team because they are very good and they haven't gotten out of the season what they expected and what they wanted," Montana coach Bob Stitt said of the Bobcats, who were picked to win the Big Sky in the preseason coaches' poll. "This is a way for them to finish their season on a positive note, have a winning season and beat their rival."

A win at Cal Poly may be enough for North Dakota (6-4, 4-3) to earn its first playoff berth since moving up to NCAA Division I in 2008.

''It's our most important game in the Division I era,'' coach Bubba Schweigert said.

It will be strength against strength for the newly named Fighting Hawks, who defeated Portland State on Oct. 3 and have won two in a row, as North Dakota leads the Big Sky in rush defense at 95.6 yards per game and the Mustangs have the FCS' top rushing attack at 412.9.

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