While the rest of the Big Sky Conference kicks off league play this weekend, Idaho State will continue to fight its way through its brutal non-conference schedule. The Bengals got Sacramento State to move their scheduled league opener this weekend so ISU could fulfill its obligation to the University of Utah. The Bengals play at Notre Dame Tuesday night, then take on the Utes in the Huntsman Center Saturday.
The rest of the league, however, will be fully engaged in what can only be described as some pretty important contests for this early in the year. On the top of the BSC fight card is a visit by undefeated Northern Colorado to the two Montanas in the first test of the newly-reimplemented Friday-Saturday league schedule. The Bears open league play in Bozeman Friday night, then travel to Missoula on Saturday to play the Griz who are fresh off a win over PAC-10 Oregon and a narrow road loss to No. 14-ranked Washington on Sunday.
The Griz will open their league play Friday night at home against Northern Arizona. The Axers then switch opponents with the Bears on Saturday, taking the bus trip down the road to Bozeman.
Also on the schedule Saturday are Eastern Washington at Portland State and Weber State at Sacramento State. The Bengals don't open their league slate until Dec. 19 at Sacramento.
Northern Colorado has been the early season surprise in the league, winning tournaments in Hawaii and at Air Force on their way to a 6-0 mark. The Bears are led by 5-9 PG Will Figures (above), who is averaging almost 17 points a game, and is shooting 47 percent from three point range. Figures is also getting to the free throw line a lot (over eight attempts a game), and making 78 percent of them. UNC, who leads the league in scoring and field goal shooting and is second in scoring defense, has nine players who are averaging 5 points a game or better.
The Bears will be tested by a Montana team that leads the league in scoring and field goal defense, and ranks No. 3 in stopping the trey. The Griz are led by pre-season league MVP Anthony Johnson who is averaging 20 points a game, gets to the line seven times a contest and makes 93 percent of those tries. None of that comes as a surprise, but the biggest development in Missoula has been the play of 6-11 junior center Brian Qvale. He's averaging 12 points and nearly 9 boards a contest, and has 13 blocked shots in six games. The Griz also enjoy good offensive depth with seven players averaging 5 points a game or better.
Probably the biggest negative surprise so far this pre-season has been the play of defending champion Weber State, who was a solid pick to repeat as regular season champs. The 1-4 Wildcats have played an admittedly difficult schedule, but they don't seem to be hitting on all cylinders yet offensively. Ironically, a WSU team that knocked down 19 three-pointers, including ten in a row, in an exhibition game earlier this year is really struggling from three-point range now that the games count. Weber is last in the league, hitting just 29 percent of their treys so far, and they're also near the bottom (eighth) in defending the three, yielding 38 percent to opponents.
The Bengals, meanwhile, have also been a disappointment, even given the very difficult schedule they are playing. They have not even been competitive in games against Iowa State, BYU and Utah State, and have struggled in contests against the two lesser teams on their schedule. The Bengals are last in the league in scoring (63 points a game), eighth in defense (75) and eighth in field percentage defense (47). Those last two numbers are particularly uncharacteristic for a Joe O'Brien-coached team. We'll see if the continued run through the non-conference gauntlet helps, or hurts those numbers in the end.
Some Things Never Change -- Especially in Big Sky Football
Montana came back from a 27-point third quarter deficit and outscored South Dakota 47-7 over the last quarter and a half to win their first round FCS playoff game Saturday. Meanwhile, the other two Big Sky playoff entrants -- Eastern Washington and Weber State -- lost, to Stephen F. Austin and William and Mary, respectively. Which means that, for the 15th straight season, there is no Big Sky school other than Montana with a chance to play in the national championship game.
The Griz were once again saved by the incredible play of receiver/kick returner Marc Mariani who, in my humble opinion, should have been the hands-down, unanimous choice for Big Sky Offensive Player of the Year. No disrespect to two-time POY Matt Nichols of EWU (who threw for 461 yards in the Eagles' loss, by the way), but I've never seen anybody have as much impact on games as Mariani has over the last two seasons. I watched him up close last year, return a punt 94 yards from the coffin corner to single-handedly blow open the Griz' win over the Bengals in Missoula. Then I saw him make a huge catch to put Montana in field goal range to deny ISU's upset-of-the-century bid in Holt Arena this year.
On Saturday, he merely caught 12 passes for 170 yards and two touchdowns, and ran a kickoff back 98 yards for a third score on his way to 218 return yards. I know it's nice to have a great quarterback to build a team around, but if I'm drafting to build a Big Sky football team, Mariani is my top guy.
Speaking of quarterbacks, Nichols put a nice cap on a great senior season with his performance in a losing effort to the Lumberjacks. He had an outstanding sophomore year when he earned his first POY award, struggled last year without the assistance of much of a running game, then came roaring back to finish fourth in the voting for the Walter Payton Award (FCS Offensive Player of the Year). He also showed great leadership in keeping the Eagles together early in the season, when it looked like NCAA sanctions were going to keep them out of the playoffs. (The NCAA later reversed itself on appeal). Nichols put together one of the truly great careers of any Big Sky quarterback.
Another Big Sky quarterback from whom much was expected -- Cameron Higgins -- had a much more uneven junior campaign. He tossed four picks, including two that were returned for touchdowns, in William and Mary's 38-0 whitewashing of the Wildcats on Saturday. Higgins, who seemed to be mistake prone in big games, finished with 20 interceptions against 28 TD tosses this year -- compared to 13 picks and 36 touchdowns in his breakout sophomore campaign. Like Nichols, he seemed to suffer from a bit of over-confidence (call it "Jay Cutler syndrome"). He was also handicapped by losing one of his better receivers to injury in game three (Cody Nakamura), and by Trevyn Smith's mysterously ineffective season running the football.
I fully expect to see Higgins bounce back with a big year next year, but he'll definitely miss wide receiver/kick return star Tim Toone and Smith in the backfield.
And thanks for being a Bengal fan -- it ain't always easy, but it's always fun.