Big Sky title once again up for grabs
(STATS) - With three weeks to go in the regular season, the Big Sky title is once again up for grabs as the top seven teams are separated by just two games.
After the first Saturday of November, however, the playoff picture and race for the conference crown should become a bit clearer.
The logjam atop the Big Sky at the conclusion of October is the yearly norm for the FCS' largest conference. A year ago, six teams entered November with two or fewer league losses. There were five such teams in 2015 and seven in 2014 - the same number as this year.
"A lot unfolded while we were on our couches and other conference teams were on the football fields," said Eastern Washington coach Aaron Best, whose team was on a bye last week. "I think it makes for a better last third of the season where so many teams have a chance and are playing their best ball. You have to bring it - whether it's first quarter or fourth quarter, or whether it's home or away. There are a lot of teams who want a piece of the pie, and that makes it fun and interesting, as well as challenging and competitive. That's what we all want. The better this league is the better we are nationally in terms of people seeing and respecting the teams, players and coaches we have in the Big Sky."
No. 18 Northern Arizona (6-2, 5-0) is in the driver's seat but may have the toughest remaining schedule among playoff contenders.
The hottest team in the Big Sky outside of Flagstaff, 17th-ranked Southern Utah (6-2, 4-1) plays two of its final three games at home, including the season finale against NAU.
The league's other two teams with one conference loss - Eastern Washington and Weber State - square off this Saturday on the Eagles' red turf.
Eastern Washington (5-3, 4-1) had its five-game winning streak snapped with a 46-28 loss at Southern Utah on Oct. 21. The Eagles entered that one a top-10 team in total offense, averaging 574 yards during their win streak, but were held to 382 while turning the ball over four times against the Thunderbirds.
Gage Gubrud, second in the FCS in total offense, had just one touchdown while throwing three interceptions after totaling 23 TDs and five picks in the previous five.
"I think they are very well coached. I like the way they play, they play hard, they've got good talent on their team," Weber State coach Jay Hill said. "I love their quarterback, he's a heck of a player. He's a competitor. I think the quarterback makes everyone around him better cause of how hard he competes."
The Eagles' offense will have its hands full again facing a Weber State team which leads the Big Sky in total defense (337.9), scoring defense (17.4) and forced turnovers (20).
Nine of those takeaways have come in the last two games for the Wildcats (6-2, 4-1), with five in last Saturday's 41-27 win over then-No. 24 Montana - a game Weber State led 34-6 at the half. Jordan Preator had two interceptions, returning one 23 yards for a touchdown to be named the Big Sky Defensive Player of the Week.
"They fly around and gave Cal a lot of headaches early in the year," Best said. "I know they stumbled against Southern Utah at home, but Southern Utah is a great football team as we found out. It just goes to show that every week you have to bring your 'A' game, and this week will be no different. We expect nothing but their best shot when they come into town on Saturday."
The Grizzlies (5-3, 3-2) fell out of the STATS FCS Top 25 with that loss, but are still very much in the race with games remaining against NAU, Northern Colorado and rival Montana State.
Montana shot itself in the foot at Weber State with all its turnovers, essentially negating the 503 yards gained against the conference's No. 1 defense. The Grizzlies rank fourth in the FCS in total offense and are averaging 42 points in their seven games against FCS foes.
"Is the process going in the right way? Heck yeah, it is," Montana coach Bob Stitt said. "Our football team gets better every single week, and all the things that are thrown at us are going to make us stronger, and we truly want to win."
Stitt's team goes up against not only the conference's second-ranked defense but also one of the FCS' most dangerous offenses. Averaging 39.5 points during a six-game winning streak, Northern Arizona is seeking its first Big Sky crown since 2003.
Case Cookus, whose 2,631 passing yards ranks seventh in the FCS - 27 yards behind Gubrud in sixth place - matched a career best with 407 passing yards in last weekend's 37-17 win over Sacramento State.
"They are a great football team," Stitt said. "Their quarterback is fun to watch, me being a quarterback guy. He is so accurate. They do a good job offensively of moving him around, moving his launch points. And they have some nice receivers too."
While the showdowns at Eastern Washington and Montana this weekend have major implications in the conference race, Southern Utah appears to have a favorable matchup - but not one Thunderbirds coach Demario Warren is taking lightly.
Southern Utah hosts an underachieving North Dakota team which is near the bottom of the league standings, but plenty capable of pulling off an upset after being the preseason favorite to repeat as Big Sky champs.
"This is a huge game for us, a chance to try and get in the playoffs and a chance to play a team that knocked us out last year," Warren said. "We know how good this team is this year and we've got to make sure that we're ready to play on Saturday."