BOZEMAN -- With a 23-13 triumph over Northern Colorado on Saturday, red-hot North Dakota won its eighth consecutive game and continued what has been an outstanding football season in Grand Forks.
Off the field, the future of the Fighting Hawks’ membership in the Big Sky Conference continues to be a topic of discussion.
A report Sunday in the Grand Forks Herald revealed discussions between UND’s athletic department and administrators from the Missouri Valley Football Conference and the Summit League, correspondence that, at the very least, indicates the Fighting Hawks are performing their due diligence to potentially eschew the Big Sky.
The Herald obtained text messages sent between North Dakota athletic director Brian Faison and MVFC commissioner Patty Viverito and Summit League commissioner Tom Douple.
Included in the text messages sent from Faison to Viverito, the Herald reported, was a photo of a document outlining the necessary steps UND must take for withdrawal from the Big Sky, including a timeline for notifying the league of its intentions.
The Big Sky, the Herald reported, informed UND that “if, prior to Nov. 1, 2016, UND provides notice of intent to withdraw effective June 30, 2017, the conference will waive notice fee." The Herald, though, reported that the Nov. 1 deadline was changed to an unspecified date.
The Herald also reported that the Big Sky told North Dakota: "Following withdrawal date, UND will no longer be considered a conference member and therefore ineligible for all conference championships, but the conference will honor the current football schedule through fall 2019."
In another text obtained by the Herald, Faison asked the Summit League’s Douple to update him on communications with Viverito and Big Sky commissioner Andrea Williams.
Faison reportedly told Douple, “If there is no wiggle room from Big Sky and Missouri Valley then we are ready to go for 18-19, if we have football protected in 2018 and 2019. For 2017-18, we would still be in Big Sky for our sports programs unless things change dramatically."
In relation to this is the Herald’s report from last summer that detailed UND president Mark Kennedy’s request that the school’s athletic department explore potential program cuts, and to explore feasibility with respect to conference realignment.
Meanwhile, the Big Sky appeared ready to announce a decision last month on plans to expand its in-conference football schedule to nine games beginning in the 2020 season.
But that announcement was put on hold in part because, according to the league, “After the Presidents Council meetings there was an agreement to look at future football scheduling in more depth” and that the conference would “continue with those discussions, and there will be no future schedule releases until final confirmation.”
North Dakota’s football program, along with most of its athletic teams, joined the Big Sky in the summer of 2012.
Down to 2
Eastern Washington and North Dakota both held serve with victories Saturday, and the Eagles and Fighting Hawks remain the last two unbeaten teams within the conference as the race for the league championship enters the season’s final two weeks.
Eastern (8-1, 6-0) earned a crucial 42-21 road victory over Cal Poly, while North Dakota (8-2, 7-0) also continued its undefeated run through the league with its win over UNC.
The conference title will likely come down to the Eagles and Fighting Hawks. EWU hosts Idaho State this week while UND welcomes Northern Arizona. It will be the final game of the regular season for North Dakota.
Only one team will earn the Big Sky’s automatic bid to the FCS postseason. Since EWU and UND do not play each other in the regular season, a potential tiebreaker would come to down to: 1, record against common conference opponents in descending order; 2, record against common non-conference opponents; 3, Sagarin rating; 4, coin flip.
Eastern Washington is No. 66 in this week’s Sagarin ratings. North Dakota is No. 135.
Souers tops list
Northern Arizona’s Jerome Souers won his 112th career game Saturday, a 33-20 victory over Weber State. With the win, Souers passed former Nevada’s Chris Ault to move into the top spot for all-time victories as a Big Sky coach.
Ault won 111 games when Nevada was in the Big Sky from 1979 to 1991. Nevada moved up to the FCS in 1992.
Lumberjacks quarterback Blake Kemp continues to shine in place of injured QB Case Cookus. The left-handed Kemp, a transfer from East Carolina, threw for 357 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
NAU kicker Griffin Roehler made four field goals, and was named the Big Sky’s special teams player of the week. Roehler is one of just seven kickers in the FCS to make four or more field goals in a game this season.
Head to head
There were two helmet-to-helmet targeting penalties called in the Montana State/Southern Utah game, a contest won by the Thunderbirds 38-21. Both resulted in ejections.
Montana State linebacker Lukas McCarthy was ejected for targeting SUU tight end Steven Wroblewski as Wroblewski came down with a touchdown pass in the third quarter. Thunderbirds safety Mitch Dalley was kicked out for targeting an MSU player on a running play in the fourth quarter.
With eight tackles and two interceptions, Dalley was having a big game to that point. Despite his early exit, Dalley was named the Big Sky’s defensive player of the week.
Speaking about the targeting calls, Bobcats coach Jeff Choate said Monday, “It’s part of the game that we need to eliminate. It’s something we as coaches have to be very sensitive to and we have to do a good job of coaching that part of the game out. And I think the officials obviously have an obligation to enforce that rule.”
Around the league
EWU QB Gage Gubrud threw four touchdowns against Cal Poly. It marked the seventh game this season in which Gubrud has thrown at least four TDs. Gubrud leads the nation with 3,555 passing yards and ranks No. 2 with 35 touchdown passes. ... EWUs’ Kupp is seven receptions shy of breaking the FCS career record. Kupp has 389 career catches. Terrell Hudgins of Elon set the record of 395 from 2006-09. ... Portland State’s offense had its best showing of the year in a 51-29 win Saturday at UC Davis. The Vikings put up 602 yards, including 384 passing by QB Alex Kuresa, while snapping a three-game losing streak.