After eye-opening week, Big Sky looks to continue rise
(STATS) - Say this for the Big Sky: It's been anything but boring.
In fact, if the conference continues to perform the way it did the first two weeks, straight-up impressive might end up being the better description.
High-powered offense and clutch defense carried Big Sky schools to several stunning performances last weekend as the league added two more teams to the STATS FCS Top 25, giving it six total. Faced with a major challenge in the form of its first full-week schedule, the Big Sky exceeded expectations and firmly established itself as a conference to be reckoned with.
"This was a good win and a big step for our program," North Dakota coach Bubba Schweigert said after his team's 24-13 victory over FBS member Wyoming - perhaps only the third-most eye-opening effort by the league Saturday.
"We have to keep things in the proper perspective though. We'll enjoy this one tonight, but will get back to work tomorrow because we have not accomplished anything yet."
Portland State's shocking upset of Washington State in coach Bruce Barnum's college coaching debut, along with Eastern Washington's 61-42 loss at FBS No. 7 Oregon in which the Eagles rolled up 549 yards of offense, cast light on a league that proved it can score with most opponents - and sometimes shut them down too.
''They were a real mature team,'' Washington State coach Mike Leach said of the Vikings, who moved into the FCS poll at No. 24. ''They hung together, and we got impatient.''
North Dakota's win was its first over an FBS opponent as it outgained the Cowboys 276-41 on the ground and scored two touchdowns in the fourth quarter.
The Big Sky also distinguished itself within the FCS. Northern Arizona won 34-28 at then-No. 24 Stephen F. Austin, and Cal Poly pulled off a 20-19 victory at Montana - which, of course, previously upset then-No. 1 North Dakota State in what's proved to be a tone-setting opener for the conference.
Southern Utah also played Mountain West member Utah State tough before falling 12-9.
All of it points to a conference on the rise - and one getting national notice.
Then again, it would be difficult for the FBS not to have noticed Eastern Washington receiver Cooper Kupp, who torched the Ducks for 246 yards and three touchdowns on 15 catches.
"I'd be shocked if you could show me a better receiver at any level in the country," Eastern coach Beau Baldwin said after his team gave the College Football Playoff finalists and former Eagles quarterback Vernon Adams Jr. a tough game.
"Usually I don't talk like that, but that's how I feel right now and think that we have. We are very fortunate to have him as a leader and player on this football team."
The challenge now is for the conference's schools to put aside the big weekend and focus on a slate of games that isn't nearly as high-profile nationally. Still, there are more opportunities for the Big Sky to further distinguish itself Saturday, with Sacramento State (vs. Washington) and Cal Poly (vs. Arizona State) facing FBS teams that are coming off losses in their openers.
Big Sky teams also have four matchups with schools from the Missouri Valley Conference, a fellow top-level FCS league. Seventh-ranked Eastern Washington visits No. 14 Northern Illinois in an intriguing showdown, Weber State plays at No. 2 North Dakota State, Southern Utah heads to No. 9 South Dakota State and UC Davis hosts South Dakota.
"We're gonna learn a lot about our team as we get out on the practice field ... to see if we're focused and have a lot of energy getting ready for our next opponent," Schweigert said in advance of North Dakota's home opener against Drake.
Cal Poly's road matchup with the Sun Devils - the Mustangs' first game against a Pac-12 opponent - is another one to watch. Arizona State allowed 178 yards on the ground in a 38-17 loss to Texas A&M on Saturday, dropping from 15th in the FBS Top 25 to out of the poll. Now it will have to prepare for Cal Poly's triple-option offense, which rolled up 330 rushing yards last week.
"Physically, they're gonna be much bigger and much stronger, and there's not a question, they're probably faster," coach Tim Walsh, whose team leaped into the FCS poll at No. 18, said of the Sun Devils. "But we've played against teams that are bigger and faster before, and I hate to say anything, that's one of the reasons why we run the (triple) option, because we're not the biggest team in the United States of America, but we're good at what we do.
"And defensively, if we can build and play as fast as we played the other day, we'll be alright. ... let's see what happens Saturday night, and any given night, you never know."
That's certainly been the case in the Big Sky so far in 2015.