BOZEMAN — November is for finishers, and seven Big Sky Conference teams still have high ambitions as the regular season crawls into its final month.
Northern Arizona (6-2, 5-0 Big Sky) remains in the driver’s seat as the only unbeaten team in the league standings. But a huge game looms Saturday as the Lumberjacks travel to play Montana (5-3, 3-2).
NAU is entering its toughest stretch, with games versus the Grizzlies, Montana State (4-4, 4-2) and Southern Utah (6-2, 4-1) remaining on its schedule. Of note: The Lumberjacks’ only two road wins within the league have come against winless Cal Poly and Portland State.
For Montana, it’s important it holds serve at home against NAU, especially with a favorable home game against Northern Colorado (2-5, 1-4) and a rivalry matchup on the road against Montana State remaining.
The Griz are still in search of their first “signature” victory against a top team: The playoffs might be a more difficult proposition if they end up losing to three of the top four teams in the conference (they have already fallen to Eastern Washington and Weber State).
The Wildcats (6-2, 4-1) and Eastern Washington (5-3, 4-1) play a pivotal game against one another Saturday in Cheney, Washington. Meanwhile, Southern Utah welcomes North Dakota before traveling to UC Davis (4-4, 2-3) and hosting NAU to close the regular season.
Montana State still has to play a nonconference game, which comes this week in the form of 25th-ranked Kennesaw State, a 7-1 team from the Big South. The Bobcats’ final two regular-season games aren’t gimmies — a road trip to NAU and, of course, a home tilt against the Griz.
Mathematically, Sacramento State (4-4, 3-2) is also still in the conversation and one of three two-loss teams.
There is still so much to be decided in the next three weeks.
“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,” Eastern Washington coach Aaron Best said in an athletic department press release. “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.”
Game of the week
The Weber State/Eastern Washington tilt is perhaps biggest heavyweight matchup this week. With the release of the latest STATS FCS poll, it’s a tussle between two top 20 teams.
The winner will make a big statement within the league. The No. 19 Wildcats have won five of their past six games, but 11th-ranked Eastern Washington has lost only five games on its red home turf — known as “The Inferno” — since it debuted in 2010.
Led by quarterback Gage Gubrud, EWU’s offense is one of the most prolific in the FCS. But Weber State has defensive momentum on its side coming off a 41-27 win over Montana, a game in which the Wildcats forced five turnovers, including two interceptions by safety Jordan Preator, one that he returned 23 yards for a touchdown in the fourth quarter.
Preator was named the Big Sky’s defensive player of the week on Monday.
UC Davis’ Jake Maier continues to solidify his reputation as one of the top quarterbacks in the Big Sky.
Maier, a sophomore, threw for a career-high 459 yards in the Aggies’ 31-28 victory over Cal Poly last week. It was Davis’ first home win over the Mustangs since the 2011 season.
Maier has now surpassed EWU’s Gubrud as the league’s best in terms of passing yards per game (334.4). He is completing a Big Sky-best 70.6 percent of his passes, and has 19 touchdowns versus eight interceptions.
On Monday, Maier was named the Big Sky’s offensive player of the week.
A 'W' on the horizon
Portland State and Cal Poly remain winless this season — each team is 0-8 overall and 0-5 in the league. But that will change when the teams square off in San Luis Obispo, California, on Saturday.
The Mustangs lead the all-time series 12-11, and beat PSU 55-35 last season.
It’s been a dramatic fall for each program. Since going 9-2 in the regular season and making the playoffs in 2015, Portland State is 3-17. Cal Poly, which made the playoffs a year ago, has lost more games this season than in any other of coach Tim Walsh’s nine years as coach.
Northern Arizona, which beat Sacramento State 37-17 last week, has won six in a row and finally cracked the STATS Top 25 poll on Monday, coming in at No. 18. Weber State, meanwhile, moved back in at No. 19 after its win over Montana (which dropped out of the poll).
Southern Utah beat Northern Colorado 27-14 for its fourth straight win. The Thunderbirds leapt ahead eight spots to No. 17. Eastern Washington had a bye last week but nevertheless moved ahead three spots to No. 11.
The top five — No. 1 James Madison (8-0), No. 2 North Dakota State (8-0), No. 3 Jacksonville State (7-1), No. 4 Central Arkansas (7-1) and No. 5 Sam Houston State (7-1) — was unchanged this week.
Around the league
North Dakota returner John Santiago was named the Big Sky’s special teams player of the week Monday. Santiago returned a punt 64 yards for a touchdown — breaking several tackles in the process — to help UND to a 48-21 victory over Portland State on Saturday. ... UC Davis WR Keelan Doss now has 1,121 receiving yards, the most in the Big Sky and the league’s first pass-catcher to eclipse the 1,000-yard plateau. ... Northern Arizona returned two interceptions for touchdowns in its win over Sac State, a 63-yarder by Wes Sutton and a 46-yarder by Kam’ron Johnson.