By Lance Berndt
College Sports Journal
PHILADELPHIA, PA. — We may be midway through the Football Championship Subdivision season, but things are heating up in the Big Sky Conference, with several compelling games set for this weekend, topped by the showdown between the No. 4 and No. 7 ranked teams nationally in the College Sports Journal poll as Montana State hosts Eastern Washington in a game that could ultimately decide the league title.
(The ranking figures are my current power rankings for the conference)
No. 12 Northern Colorado (1-4, 0-2) at No. 3 Cal Poly (5-0, 3-0)
Last Meeting: 2007 – Cal Poly 56 Northern Colorado 21
The struggling Bears come into this game on a 14 game losing streak when facing D-I opponents.
Things won’t be any easier against undefeated Cal Poly as some key statistics work in strong favor against the UNC Bears.
The Mustangs’ rushing attack currently ranks third in the nation in yards gained per game. Northern Colorado’s rush defense ranks 89th in rushing yards allowed. Also working in the Mustangs’ favor is turnover margin.
Cal Poly has forced 11 turnovers on the season while only giving up three. Northern Colorado has given up 13 turnovers and only forced seven.
Cal Poly’s game plan is to methodically wear down their opponents with their option run attack. It’s looking like this will be a perfect set up for one of those games.
Prediction: Cal Poly 48 Northern Colorado 17
No. 4 Northern Arizona (4-1, 2-0) at No. 7 North Dakota (3-3, 1-2)
Last Meeting: 1985 – Northern Arizona 41 North Dakota 0
After a week off, Northern Arizona will look to add to its four-game winning streak.
In their last game, the Lumberjacks proved that they can win even when top rusher Zach Bauman isn’t on his game.
Showing this versatility will cause opponents to need to prepare for both the rushing and passing attack equally.
On the other hand, North Dakota struggled greatly in their last game allowing 55 points.
If UND doesn’t get its act together on the defensive side of things, it’s going to be an uphill road with the brutal Big Sky conference slate.
The key matchup in this game will be Northern Arizona’s elite rushing attack against North Dakota’s poor rush defense.
This could result into an over emphasis on stopping the run and NAU quarterback Cary Grossart taking over the game.
North Dakota will look to utilize their home crowd to their advantage.
Prediction: Northern Arizona 38 North Dakota 31
No. 9 Southern Utah (2-4, 1-2) at No. 5 Montana (3-3, 1-2)
Last Meeting: 2008 – Montana 46 Southern Utah 10
Off to one of their worst conference starts in recent history, the Grizzlies are hoping to right the ship with a key home game against Southern Utah.
Montana started Big Sky conference play with two straight losses, but picked up a win last weekend.
Turnovers have been the biggest struggle this season for the Griz, but last week they finally picked up their first fumble recovery of the season and also forced four interceptions.
Keeping that up will be key against Southern Utah’s strong passing attack.
The Thunderbirds have shown a flair for the dramatic so far in conference play with all three games coming down to the final possession.
They are on a two-game losing streak but they are doing moderately well on the road this season.
They’ll have one of the most talented quarterbacks in the FCS in Brad Sorenson leading them into the raucous Washington-Grizzly stadium.
Sorensen has underperformed so far this season, but he has a chance to turn that around against Montana’s struggling pass defense.
This game will come down to who can keep the other offense off the field more. Both teams’ offensive strengths will face the opposition’s weakness on defense.
Prediction: Montana 34 Southern Utah 31
No. 11 Weber State (0-6, 0-3) at No. 6 Sacramento State (4-2, 2-1)
Last Meeting: 2011 – Weber State 49 Sacramento State 17
Sacramento State has been quite the enigma so far this season.
Not many people expected the Hornets to be 4-2 halfway through the season, especially after a struggle in their home loss to North Dakota.
However, they’ve righted the ship and kept their playoff hopes alive.
After this week, SSU will face the top three teams in the conference, but the Hornets have set themselves up for a chance at reaching their first-ever trip to FCS playoffs if they finish the season strong.
Weber State, on the other hand, has faced a vicious schedule and comes into this game as probably the best team without a win in the FCS.
The Wildcats were able to move the ball well last weekend against Cal Poly, but they were only able to turn their 528 yards of offense into 23 points.
They’ll need to improve on execution if they hope to win on the road against the Hornets.
The key factor in this game will come down to the Hornets’ rushing defense.
Sacramento State has faced mostly pass oriented teams so far, but North Dakota ran all over Sacramento State.
Weber State will look to take advantage of this to have a chance in this game.
Prediction: Weber State 27 Sacramento State 21
No. 8 UC-Davis (2-4, 1-2) at No. 13 Idaho State (1-4, 0-2)
Last Meeting: This is the first meeting between these two schools.
To say Idaho State’s defense has struggled again this season is a major understatement.
The Bengals have given up a combined 204 points in their last three games, an average of 68 points per game.
They are coming off an embarrassing 77-10 loss to Portland State.
QB Kevin Yost and the ISU receiving corps has been about the only bright spot for the Bengals this season.
Only three teams have completed more passes than Yost this season, but he has only thrown for 10 touchdowns.
Much like Weber State, UC-Davis has faced a difficult schedule so far this season.
The Aggies' record may be 2-4, but they are a highly competitive 2-4 team.
UCD has been staying in games with its stout defense.
Although the Aggies had a slight slip up last weekend giving up 48 points against MSU, they still forced four Bobcat turnovers.
The Aggies have forced 14 turnovers on the season, but UCD struggled a little on the offensive side.
That shouldn’t have a problem against Idaho State’s exceptionally porous defense.
The key stat here will be execution.
ISU needs to execute early to change its trend of playing catch up all game.
Prediction: UC-Davis 34 Idaho State 13
Game of the Week
No. 2 Eastern Washington (4-1, 3-0) at No. 1 Montana State (6-0, 3-0)
Last Meeting: 2011 – Montana State 36 Eastern Washington 21
In what could be a game to decide at least a co-champion of the Big Sky, this matchup pits two of the top 10 teams in the FCS.
Much like their in-state rivals, Montana State has struggled in the turnover department, with eight turnovers combined in their last two games.
The Bobcats' late game pass defense has improved as their defensive line has come up with several big fourth quarter sacks lately.
This has been key to winning the past couple games.
Eastern Washington came into the season with an expectation that another SMU transfer quarterback, Kyle Padron, would lead them back to greatness.
However, redshirt freshman quarterback Vernon Adams has taken over the role quite impressively with the ability to run the ball as well.
The Eagles run defense has had some struggles this season and will face a major test against MSU.
The key factor in this game will be the line of scrimmage.
The Bobcats need to control the line for their rushing attack, and need to have a strong presence on the defensive side to keep the high powered Eagle offense under control.
Prediction: Montana State 31 Eastern Washington 24