Justin Strong

Montana safety Justin Strong intercepts a Portland State pass in the fourth quarter before running the ball back for a touchdown.

TOM BAUER, 406mtsports.com

Montana safety Justin Strong dominated on defense against Portland State on Saturday.

With a hat trick of interceptions with one interception returned for a touchdown, Strong solidified his spot as the NCAA FCS, STATS FCS and Big Sky Conference defensive player of the week.

His three interceptions were returned for 116 yards. He had a fourth takeaway on the day as well, coming on a Portland State two-point conversion attempt.

The feat has been hailed incredibly impressive, since Strong is wearing a cast on his left hand to protect his injured thumb.

“J. Strong gets four picks with one hand? We’re looking forward to him getting the club off and maybe he’ll have eight (interceptions) in a game with two hands," Montana coach Bob Stitt said Saturday.

The Monday awards were the first weekly accolades won by the Oregon State transfer.

The last time a Montana player won a STATS FCS player of the week award came last season when Jerry Louie-McGee earned national freshman player of the week honors after he broke the school record and tied the Big Sky record for receptions in a game with 21.

Louie-McGee also had 155 yards receiving, two receiving touchdowns and 114 kick return yards against Cal Poly.

Strong is the first Montana player to earn a conference player of the week award since Nov. 7 of last year, when quarterback Chad Chalich won the honor. Chalich completed 21 of 27 passes for 388 yards with a school-record seven touchdowns against Idaho State.

The last time a Montana defensive player earned the weekly league award was last Oct. 17 when linebacker Josh Buss took home the accolade. Buss had 10 total tackles with 4½ tackles for loss and a sack in Montana’s 68-7 win over Sacramento State.

Phenicie factor

Coach Rob Phenicie has Idaho State in rare territory following a 38-34 victory over Cal Poly.

The win pushed the Bengals’ record to 3-2 overall and 1-1 in the Big Sky. According to an Idaho State release, it marks the Bengals’ best start since the 2005 team also started 3-2 through five games. It’s also only the second time since 2007 that the Bengals are guaranteed at least three wins.

Cal Poly led 31-17 late in the third quarter but Idaho State rallied behind two touchdown passes from Tanner Gueller and a TD run by running back James Madison. Gueller threw for 340 yards and three touchdowns.

Phenicie, formerly an offensive coordinator in the Big Sky at ISU and Montana, is in his first season as a head coach.

No slowing down

For the third consecutive week, Eastern Washington quarterback Gage Gubrud has won at least a share of the Big Sky’s offensive player of the week honor. Gubrud’s latest nod came Monday, two days after throwing for 447 yards and accounting for six touchdowns in a 52-31 win over Sacramento State.

It was Gubrud’s third straight game with at least 399 yards passing. Through five games, Gubrud has thrown for 1,736 yards and 13 touchdowns.

Per EWU, Gubrud is the first Eagles player to win league’s offensive POW award in three straight weeks. Gubrud was also named the College Sports Madness national offensive player of the week on Sunday.

Hawks grounded

North Dakota was picked in the preseason to repeat as Big Sky champion, but now the Fighting Hawks are simply trying to salvage their season.

UND dropped to 1-4 overall and 0-2 in the conference after a 48-24 loss to UC Davis. The Fighting Hawks have given up 45, 49 and 48 points in their past three games.

Injuries have ravaged North Dakota through the first month of the season, and safety Cole Reyes, the reigning Big Sky defensive player of the year, was the latest casualty. Reyes did not play against UC Davis.

“We really need to rally and motivate the guys to stick with it,” UND coach Bubba Schweigert said in a press release. “This is a program where the vision doesn't change. The belief in how we do things doesn't change, but we have to get better results."

Poll position

Eastern Washington (3-2, 2-0 Big Sky) dropped one spot to No. 10 in the latest STATS FCS Top 25 poll released Monday, while Weber State (4-1, 2-0) moved ahead one spot to No. 19 after a 25-17 victory over Montana State.

Montana (3-2, 1-1) had 63 points in the “others receiving votes” category. Northern Arizona (2-2, 2-0) had nine points and Idaho State picked up six points. UC Davis (3-2, 1-1) had two points.

Nationally, James Madison (5-0) and North Dakota State (4-0) remained Nos. 1 and 2, respectively, but the top five otherwise saw some maneuvering.

Youngstown State (3-1) is No. 3 after beating Missouri Valley foe South Dakota State, and Jacksonville State is No. 4 following a 34-7 victory over Tennessee Tech. Wofford (4-0) is No. 5 after topping Presbyterian 31-7.

Around the league

NAU’s Elijah Marks was named the Big Sky’s special teams player of the week on Monday. Marks had a 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown in a 48-20 win over Northern Colorado. Marks finished with 123 kickoff return yards. ... UC Davis QB Jake Maier took home the national performer of the week honor from the College Football Performance Awards following a 415-yard, four-touchdown performance against North Dakota.

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