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CSN West: Big Sky Conference 2008 Review
By Kent Schmidt, CSN West Columnist
Another year — another Montana Grizzlies team at the top of the Big Sky standings. If this phrase, Montana and Big Sky championship, sounds familiar it is. This is the 11th straight season that has seen Montana with at least a share of the BSC title. The Grizzlies not only finished atop the conference standings, they also went to their sixth national title game.
FINAL CONFERENCE STANDINGS
Conference Overall Team W L PCT W L PCT Montana 7 1 .875 14 2 .933 Weber State 7 1 .875 10 4 .713 Eastern Washington 5 3 .625 6 5 .545 Montana State 5 3 .625 7 5 .583 Northern Arizona 4 4 .500 6 5 .545 Sacramento State 3 5 .375 6 6 .500 Portland State 3 5 .375 4 7 .364 Northern Colorado 1 7 .143 1 10 .091 Idaho State 1 7 .125 1 11 .083
While Montana lost 24-7 to Richmond in the championship, it most likely exceeded any preseason expections as it needed to replace nine All-BCS members on the defensive side alone.
While Montana did win a share of the title, an even bigger surprise was that of co-champion Weber State. The Wildcats won the conference’s automatic bid by virtue of their regular season victory over the Grizzlies.
Weber State and Montana were the lone Big Sky FCS playoff teams and both were still playing after the opening round to set up an all Big Sky Conference game in the second round. Weber State defeated Cal Poly on the road while Montana defeated Texas State in opening-round matchups. Montana, seeded fourth in the tournament, hosted the second-round game after having to travel to Ogden in the regular season. It used that home-field advantage to advance to a semifinal matchup with James Madison in Harrisonburg, Va.
For just the second time in its history, Montana won a road playoff game 35-27 to advance to Chattanooga, Tenn., for the second time in Coach Bobby Hauck’s six-year tenure in Missoula. The victory avenged Hauck’s other title game appearance against the Dukes. Despite the loss to Richmond, Montana finished with a 14-2 overall mark and were 7-1 in Big Sky play.
The Griz struggled early in the season even though they did win their season opener at fellow playoff participant Cal Poly. After an easy victory over the Great West’s last-place finisher Southern Utah, Montana needed last-minute come-from-behind drives to defeat UC Davis and DII Central Washington. Then came the loss at Weber State. After that loss, however, the Griz racked off 10 straight triumphs before the loss to Richmond.
This year’s team won with both sides of the ball, but the defense was the key to several close victories early on. Senior safety Colt Anderson was the defensive leader. He helped the Griz yield just 13.8 points a game against Big Sky competition and 17.8 against all their foes to lead the conference in that category. Anderson finished second overall in the Big Sky with 129 tackles, and he also was named to many All-American teams. However, he was the lone Griz on the first team All-BSC member from the defense. Fellow safety junior Shann Schillinger (second on team with 108 tackles and tied for team lead with 4 INT) and senior tackle Craig Mettler (50 tackles, 4 TFL, 2 sacks) made the All-BSC second team.
The Griz offense saw the emergence of a running game that helped their passing game. A big reason why the offense was so productive — second in the Big Sky in scoring with 31.8 points/game — was their offensive line. Four of their five linemen were named to either the first- or second All-BSC teams, including senior guard Colin Dow, who was the lone first team member. The group also included senior center J.D. Quinn and tackles, junior Levi Horn and senior Brent Russum.
The passing game was headed by second-team All-BSC senior quarterback Cole Bergquist (3165 passing yards, 28 TDs) and first-team junior wide out Marc Mariani (69 receptions, 1,308 yards and a league-leading 15 TDs), who also was named a first teamer as a kick returner after leading the league in punt return yardage average with two returned for scores. The emerging running game came from sophomore Chase Reynolds, who was named as an All-BSC second-team performer after leading the league with 22 rushing touchdowns to go with more than 1,500 yards rushing.
While Montana expectations always are high, Weber State, who finished tied with the Griz atop the Big Sky standings this year, are usually lower. The Wildcats, however, exceeded those expectations and then some. Coach Ron McBride turned a team that finished with a 5-6 record in 2007 to one that finished 10-4 overall in 2008. The Wildcats defeated Cal Poly 49-35 in San Luis Obispo in the opening round of the playoffs, but then dropped a 24-13 decision at Montana in the quarterfinals. Weber State had defeated Montana 45-28 in Ogden during the regular season. McBride won the BSC Coach of the Year honors and finished third in the voting for the Eddie Robinson Award, which is given to the national coach of the year in FCS.
A big reason for the turnaround this year was the play of sophomore quarterback Cameron Higgins, who won the BSC Offensive Player of the Year award. He completed 305-of-465 passes for 4,477 yards and 36 touchdowns, which were both WSU single-season records this year. Higgins’ main receiving threat was junior Tim Toone, who caught 84 passes for 1,525 yards and seven touchdowns. His 1,525 receiving yards set Big Sky Conference and WSU single-season records. The Wildcats were far from one-dimensional with junior Trevyn Smith’s rushing that gave them a balanced attack. He rushed 295 times for 1,585 yards, scoring 21 touchdowns, and adding 62 receptions for 778 yards and seven more touchdowns to give him 28 for the season. He led all of FCS in scoring with 168 points (12.00 per game) and was the only runningback in FCS to have at least 1,500 yards rushing and 500 receiving.
The passing and running games were aided by the men up front, which included senior tackle Paul Carpenter and junior tight end Cody Nakamura. The group helped guide an offense that Weber State led the Big Sky Conference in scoring offense (35.2 ppg) and in total offense (455.3). Nakamura also produced in the passing game, too. He grabbed 48 receptions for 729 yards and led the team in touchdown catches with 10.
The WSU defense might have been overshadowed by the high-profile offense, but it also was a big reason for the team’s turnaround. The Wildcats finished second in the Big Sky statistical standings in scoring defense in yielding just 22.6 points per game. The defensive leaders were junior safety Beau Hadley, senior defensive tackle Bryce Scanlon, junior defensive end Kevin Linehan and junior cornerback Josh Morris. This quartet all received All-American honors. Hadley led the Wildcats in total tackles with 121 and ranked fourth in the BSC. Scanlon recorded 67 total tackles, with 7.5 of those for a loss. Linehan was third on the team in tackles with 78 and was the leader in TFL (14.5) and sacks (10.5). Morris tied for the team lead in interceptions with five.
While WSU exceeded expectations, Eastern Washington was a team that underachieved from preseason prospects. The Eagles made the FCS playoffs in 2007 but finished 2008 just 6-5 overall and 5-3 within the league standings. EWU, however, did hand co-champion Weber State its lone loss and two of the Eagles’ losses were to FBS opponents in Texas Tech and Colorado. EWU, however, did finish with three straight victories to end the season so next year likely will have higher expectations for coach Beau Baldwin, who finished his first season in Cheney.
One area, especially in the second half of the season, that stood out for the Eagles was their defense. EWU held five straight opponents from Oct. 11 to Nov. 15 to 19 points or fewer. That is something that EWU never has done since becoming a member of the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision in 1984. Eastern ranked 11th in rushing defense (93.5), fifth in sacks (3.1 per game) and ninth in total tackles for loss (7.9) nationally. The big reason for these numbers was Buck Buchanan winner and BCS Defensive Player of Year senior defensive end Greg Peach, who led the FCS in sacks (1.64 per game) and tackles for loss (2.1 per game). He totaled 18 sacks for the season, along with 72 tackles and 23.5 TFL. Senior defensive end Jason Belford and senior defensive tackle Lance Witherspoon were two other All-BSC honorees on the second team. Witherspoon finished with 34 tackles with 10 for a loss and Belford recorded 28 tackles with six sacks.
The Eagle offense was expected to be one of the more prolific offenses in all of FCS and while it did show flashes, it was unable to match the efforts seen in 2007. Despite not matching expectations, they still finished seventh nationally in passing (299.9 per game) and 24th in total offense (398.5). Junior quarterback Matt Nichols was the big reason for these numbers as he ranked fifth in total offense (306.9) and sixth in passing offense (299.4). He threw for 21 touchdowns, but a big reason for the Eagles’ downward turn was his 14 interceptions. His biggest two targets were juniors Aaron Boyce and Brynsen Brown, who were named to the All-BSC second team. Boyce finished with 63 catches for 917 yards and 10 touchdowns, while Brown had 50 for 733 yards and four scores. The Eagle rushing game was secondary to the pass, but when they needed the short yardage or a safety valve out of the backfield they went to senior fullback Alexis Alexander, who was the remaining Eagle to make the All-BSC second team. He rushed 39 times for 236 yards for an impressive 6.1 average per rush and also caught eight passes for 23 yards and scored a total of four touchdowns.
Montana State tied EWU for third place in the BSC standings. The Bobcats might have made the postseason had they defeated rival Montana to end the season, but they lost the “Brawl of the Wild” game on the road to finish 7-5 overall. MSU had won four straight before the season-ending loss. The season included two FBS losses to Kansas State and Minnesota. The BSC losses were to the top three teams in the standings for coach Rob Ash, who is in his second year in Bozeman.
The MSU offense was highlighted by the league’s leading rushing offense (175.2 yards/game) with senior runningback Demetrius Crawford leading the ground game. He finished second in the Big Sky statistical standings in rushing, and closed his Bobcat career with five consecutive 100-yard rushing games. His 1,314 rushing yards stands as the fifth-best in Bobcat history, and his 2,182 career yards is MSU’s seventh-best mark. Crawford also compiled 2,967 career all-purpose yards, eighth-best in MSU history. Opening many of his holes were All-BCS members senior tackle Lou Saucedo and junior guard Jeff Hansen.
The Bobcat defense was hampered by two key injuries. Senior linebacker Bobby Daly (82 tackles, 3.5 sacks), a first-team All BSC choice last year, earned second-team All-BSC honors after playing the latter half of the season with a hip injury. Junior defensive end Dane Fletcher’s season was ended after nine games by a knee injury, but he was still named on the second team. One player that did not spend any time on the injury list was junior safety Kevin Retoriano, who was the lone first-team All-BCS member for the Bobcats. Retoriano registered two interceptions, both of which he returned for touchdowns. He also recovered a blocked punt for a touchdown.
Northern Arizona was next in the standings at the No. 5 spot, but it appeared early in the season that it would finish much higher. The Lumberjacks finished 6-5 overall for a third consecutive season and had a 4-4 mark in Big Sky play. NAU, however, started the season at 6-1 but lost its last four games to finish on a sour note.
NAU won most of its games because of its defense. In fact, the Lumberjacks finished the season with 658 rushing yards allowed, which set a school record — resetting the mark of 706 yards set in 1957. The 59.8 single-game averaged allowed reset the Big Sky record of 65.3 set in 1994 by Idaho and season-rushing yards allowed broke the mark set by Montana State in 1966 of 659 by a single yard. Senior cornerback K.J. Gerard, who picked off five passes and had a team-leading 8 TFL, was one of two Lumberjacks on the record-setting squad named to the first-team All-BSC defense. He was joined by senior defensive tackle Steve Nwogbe, who finished with 22 tackles and 3.5 sacks.
On the offensive side, freshman Deonte Williams filled in for injured Alex Henderson this season and literally followed in his footsteps becoming the second player in three seasons from Northern Arizona to earn Newcomer of the Year. Henderson garnered the honor in 2006 after his outstanding freshman season where he rushed for 950 yards on 220 carries, with a team-best 12 touchdowns. He improved his single-game season-high five times during the season and ranked second among freshmen in the FBS in rushing yards per game (86.4) and fifth in Division I overall among freshmen. Williams’ 12 touchdowns ranks tied for third on school single-season charts and are the most by a running back since 2000.
Senior Robbie Dehaze was the first-team All-BSC punter and place kicker. He led the nation with a punting average of 45.2 yards and also made 16-of-20 field goal attempts. He finished his career with 56 career field goals, a NAU school record and the sixth-best total in Big Sky history.
While Northern Arizona had to be disappointed with its finish to the season, Sacramento State had to be satisfied with its season even though it was behind NAU. The Hornets had typically been in the lower third of the standings for most of their 12 years within the Big Sky. The Hornets won three of their final four and finished at the .500 mark or better for the fourth time in their FCS history with their 6-6 overall mark. The Hornets also defeated cross-town rivals, UC Davis of the Great West Football Conference 29-19, for the first time since 2000. They also nearly defeated FBS Colorado State but succumbed on a last-second field goal to lose 23-20.
The Hornets were blessed with an All-American performer on each side of the ball this year. Seniors wide receiver Tony Washington and linebacker Cyrus Mulitalo were named to several teams this year. Washington grabbed 83 passes for 1,279 yards to set a Sacramento State single-season record in both categories. He also had 12 receiving touchdowns to rank second in school history. Mulitalo led the Hornets with 96 tackles, marking the third straight season in which he had the highest total on the team. He leaves the Hornets ranked second in school history with 336 career tackles and is fifth with 32.0 tackles-for-loss.
Both of those two performers were named to the first-team All-BSC team and were joined by fellow senior linebacker Mike Brannon, who became just the fourth Sacramento State player (Fred Amey, Brett Shelton, Brent Webber) to earn all-Big Sky accolades four times. He tallied 69 tackles and led the team with 9.0 quarterback sacks and 12.5 tackles-for-loss. He ended his career as Sacramento State’s all-time leader with 27.5 sacks and 52.5 tackles for loss. Brannon also ranks fourth in school history with 258 career tackles.
The Jerry Glanville era at Portland State now stands at two years and neither of the two seasons have been that great. This year the Vikings were 4-7 overall and were just 3-5 within Big Sky play. That is an improvement, however, over the 2007 season where PSU finished 3-8 overall. A big reason stems from the fact that the team was young. Fifty of the players on the 92-man roster were new to the program in 2008. As a result, the Vikings played 19 freshmen, including 11 true freshmen. The highlight victory for the Vikings was a 47-36 triumph over then No. 11-ranked Eastern Washington.
As do most Glanville-coached teams, this one led the conference and nation in passing. For the second straight year, the Vikings’ run-and-shoot offense led the nation in passing at 372.2 yards per game after it averaged 360.9 yards in 2007. Sophomore quarterback Drew Hubel set a Viking record for passing yards in a game (623) in the victory over EWU and was within a single yard of being a national record. He also tied the PSU record for completions, tied the Big Sky record for attempts and set a national record for most attempts without an interception. His first receiving target was junior Aaron Woods, who also was a prolific kick returner. He set PSU records for kickoff returns (35) and kickoff return yards (908) in a season. Woods also became just the 14th Viking in history with 1,000 receiving yards, catching 66 passes for 1,028 yards and six touchdowns. Woods led the Big Sky Conference in kickoff return average (25.9) and all-purpose yards (178.9), ranking sixth in the nation in being named to the All-BSC first team.
The Viking defense was headed by All-BSC performers in senior linebacker Andy Schantz and freshman cornerback Deshawn Shead. Schantz also has been named to several All-American teams after he led the team in tackles with 115. He also led the team with as 15 TFL and nine pass deflections. Shead led the team and the BSC in interceptions and was fifth nationally with six. He also recorded 51 tackles and seven pass breakups.
Northern Colorado improved slightly even though it didn’t improve its victory total from 2007. UNC finished 1-10 overall and 1-7 within league play. The Bears’ triumph came against Idaho State. The Bears, however, were within one score in five games they lost so their turnaround doesn’t look too far away.
The Bears had two players on each side of the ball who were standouts. For the second straight season, senior tight end Ryan Chesla was named to the Big Sky All-Conference first team, while senior linebacker Cristian Sarmento also earned a first-team nod. Chesla ended the season with 488 yards on 37 receptions with two touchdowns. Sarmento ended the regular season ranked first in the BSC in total tackles with 142 and third in the league with 10 sacks, along with second in tackles for loss with 15 and tied for the league lead with five fumbles forced. He also ranked tied for second in the nation with 12.9 tackles per game and tied for sixth in sacks. He ranked third on the NCAA FCS active career leaders list with 370 tackles.
Sarmento also was named to many All-American squads and was the Bears’ first All-American since Reed Doughty was a consensus All-American in 2005.
Tied with UNC was Idaho State for eighth/last place. The Bengals were a loss worse than the Bears with a 1-11 mark but equal in the win column. ISU did finish, however, on a high note to notch its only victory a 36-33 triumph at home in overtime over Sacramento State for Coach John Zamberlin.
A big reason for the lone victory was the special teams’ play of senior Kenyon Blue, who was the Bengals’ lone first-team All-BSC performer as a kick returner. Blue was a player that did his work in a variety of ways for the Bengals — returning 12 punts for a 10.9 average, and 18 kickoffs for a 25.9-yard average, including an 81-yard return against Weber State. In addition, he had a 43-yarder against Sacramento State with 51 seconds left to set up the tying field goal in a game ISU won in overtime 36-33. Kenyon also picked up 283 yards rushing with two touchdowns, and he caught 21 passes for 214 yards and two more touchdowns.
Joining Blue on the All-BSC team were seniors: wide receiver Eddie Thompson (70 catches, 754 yards), cornerback D.J. Clark (5 INT, 58 tackles) and linebacker Ryan Phipps (leading tackler with 102).
The following are the Big Sky’s Players of the Year and first and second teams:
OFFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Cameron Higgins, So., QB, Weber State
DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Greg Peach, Sr., DE, Eastern Washington
COACH OF THE YEAR: Ron McBride, Weber State
NEWCOMER OF THE YEAR: Deonte Williams, Fr., RB, Northern Arizona
Pos. Player Yr. Institution
WR Tony Washington, Sr., Sacramento State
WR Tim Toone, Jr., Weber State
WR Marc Mariani, Jr., Montana
OT Paul Carpenter, Sr., Weber State
OT Lou Saucedo, Sr., Montana State
OG Colin Dow, Sr., Montana
OG Lawaia Naihe, Sr., Weber State
OC Kyle Mutcher, Jr. Weber State
TE Ryan Chelsa, Sr., Northern Colorado
QB Cameron Higgins, So., Weber State
RB Trevyn Smith, Jr., Weber State
RB Demetrius Crawford, Sr., Montana State
FB Marcus Mailei, Sr., Weber State
DT Bryce Scanlon, Sr., Weber State
DT Steve Nwogbe, Sr., Northern Arizona
DE Greg Peach, Sr., Eastern Washington
DE Kevin Linehan, Jr., Weber State
OLB Mike Brannon, Sr., Sacramento State
OLB J.D. Folsom, Sr., Weber State
ILB Cyrus Mulitalo, Sr., Sacramento State
ILB Cristian Sarmento, Sr., Northern Colorado
CB KJ Gerard, Sr., Northern Arizona
CB Josh Morris, Jr., Weber State
S Colt Anderson, Sr., Montana
S Beau Hadley, Jr., Weber State
S Kevin Retoriano, Jr., Montana State
PK Robbie Dehaze, Sr., Northern Arizona
RS Marc Mariani, Jr., Montana
P Robbie Dehaze, Sr., Northern Arizona
ST Kenyon Blue, Sr., Idaho State
WR Aaron Boyce, Jr., Eastern Washington
WR Eddie Thompson, Sr., Idaho State
WR Brynsen Brown, Jr., Eastern Washington
OT Levi Horn, Jr., Montana
OT Brent Russum, Sr., Montana
OG Jeff Hansen, Jr., Montana State
OG J.C. Oram, Fr., Weber State
OC J.D. Quinn, Sr., Montana
TE Cody Nakamura, Jr., Weber State
QB Cole Bergquist, Sr., Montana
RB Chase Reynolds, So., Montana
RB Bryan Hilliard, So., Sacramento State
FB Alexis Alexander, Sr., Eastern Washington
DT Lance Witherspoon, Sr., Eastern Washington
DT Craig Mettler, Sr., Montana
DE Dane Fletcher, Jr., Montana State
DE Jason Belford, Sr., Eastern Washington
OLB Ryan Phipps, Sr., Idaho State
OLB Cody Dowd, Jr., Northern Arizona
ILB Bobby Daly, Sr., Montana State
ILB Andy Schantz, Sr., Portland State
CB Deshawn Shead, Fr., Portland State
CB D.J. Clark, Sr., Idaho State
S Shann Schillinger, Jr., Montana
S Adam Wright, Sr., Northern Arizona
PK Jason Cunningham, Fr., Montana State
PK Felipe Macias, Sr., Eastern Washington
RS Aaron Woods, Jr., Portland State
P Fritz Brayton, Sr., Eastern Washington
ST Tom Martin, Sr., Montana