BOZEMAN — The football battle between Montana and Montana State — to be played Saturday at Bobcat Stadium — carries enormous weight, and this year is no different. In particular, the Grizzlies look to sew up a playoff berth with a win.
But there is a bigger game on the Big Sky Conference slate this week, and it will help decide who wins the league championship in a season that, again, will come down to the final Saturday.
Northern Arizona travels to play Southern Utah, and the victor will capture at least a share of the Big Sky title. Each team is 6-1 in the league and is tied in the top spot with Weber State, which hosts Idaho State this week.
Even with a victory, Weber State can’t win the crown outright. But either Southern Utah or Northern Arizona would stand alone at the top of the heap in the event of a Wildcats’ loss.
SUU is looking to win its second title in a three-year stretch. The Thunderbirds won it outright in 2015.
Weber State is trying for its first league championship since 2008 when it shared the top spot with Montana.
Northern Arizona, in Jerome Souers’ 20th and final season as coach, hasn’t won a league title since 2003 when it tied with both Montana and Montana State.
NAU put itself in position to win hardware with a 37-36 victory last week over Montana State, a game in which quarterback Case Cookus threw for 314 yards. The Lumberjacks held on at the end as MSU’s two-point conversion try in the final seconds was unsuccessful.
Southern Utah comes into its game with NAU on a six-game winning streak, including a 32-16 victory over Weber State on Oct. 14.
WSU, meanwhile, has won four in a row since its loss to SUU. That included a crucial 28-20 road triumph over Eastern Washington two weeks ago.
Either Weber State, Southern Utah or Northern Arizona will earn the Big Sky’s automatic berth to the postseason, but the two teams that fall short will still be in the hunt for at-large bids.
Southern Utah already has eight Division I victories, which makes it an appealing playoff contender regardless of what happens Saturday. The Wildcats, with a win over ISU, would also reach the eight-win target and likely be locked in.
NAU’s situation would become murky with a loss to Southern Utah and a Montana victory over the Bobcats (the Griz beat the Lumberjacks 17-15 two weeks ago).
Eastern Washington would get to seven D-I victories if it beats winless Portland State. That, coupled with a Montana loss to MSU, could give the Eagles — no strangers to the playoffs — a postseason look.
And then there’s Sacramento State, which faces UC Davis this week and is trying for its seventh D-I win. The Hornets are the only Big Sky team to thus far knock off Southern Utah.
One question surrounding this craziness is whether the FCS playoff selection committee will include as many as four Big Sky teams in the tournament bracket.
On the topic of Weber State, its 63-17 victory Saturday over Portland State marked its first eight-win season since their last conference-title season of 2008 (the Wildcats’ lone D-I win was a 76-0 drubbing of NAIA Montana Western on Sept. 2).
WSU took to the ground to dismantle the Vikings and rushed for 421 yards, which according to an athletic department release is its most single-game rushing yards since 1972. The 63 points were the Wildcats’ most against a Division I team since 2007.
Kevin Smith rushed for 143 yards and two touchdowns on just seven carries. David Jones added 103 yards and one TD on 12 attempts. In all, WSU rushed for seven touchdowns.
Quarterback Patrick Tyler continues to perform at a high level, which is a big reason Southern Utah is on the cusp of winning Big Sky Conference spoils.
Tyler threw for 370 yards (to nine separate receivers) and three touchdowns last week in a 47-27 victory at UC Davis. Tyler outdueled Aggies quarterback Jake Maier, who is a candidate for the league’s offensive MVP award.
On Monday, Tyler was named the Big Sky’s offensive player of the week.
Tyler hasn’t completed worse than 66 percent of his throws in any of the past six games, and the Thunderbirds won each of those contests.
Weber State (8-2, 6-1 Big Sky) has now climbed to No. 12 in the STATS FCS Top 25 poll, up two spots from last week. Southern Utah (8-2, 6-1) moved up one spot to No. 14.
Eastern Washington (6-4, 5-2) beat North Dakota 21-14 on the road last week without the services of quarterback Gage Gubrud, who was sitting with a one-game suspension. The Eagles slid ahead one spot to No. 18.
Northern Arizona (7-3, 6-1) also moved up one position to No. 23 following its victory over Montana State.
Montana (7-3, 5-2) remained unranked this week heading into its rivalry game with the Bobcats (4-6, 4-3). Sacramento State (6-4, 5-2) also appears in the “others receiving votes” category.
Around the league
EWU LB Jack Sendelbach and P Jordan Dascalo were honored with the Big Sky’s defensive and special teams player of the week awards on Monday. Sendelbach, filling in for suspended LB Kurt Calhoun, had 11 tackles and a fumble recovery against UND. Dascalo, meanwhile, averaged 52.7 yards on seven punts. Dascalo was also named the national special teams player of the week by STATS.