BOZEMAN -- In unpredictable fashion, Southern Utah rose above the pack and won the Big Sky Conference football championship last season.
The Thunderbirds, picked to finish eighth by both the media and coaches last year, became the first team not named Montana or Eastern Washington to win the league outright since Boise State in 1994.
A flash in the pan? Don’t tell that to SUU, which picked up where it left off by beating Portland State 45-31 on Saturday to open its Big Sky schedule.
The Thunderbirds (2-1, 1-0) were picked to finish seventh in the conference standings this offseason, a ranking facilitated by the loss of head coach Ed Lamb -- who left for an assistant job at BYU -- and star defensive players like end James Cowser, safety Miles Killebrew and cornerback LeShaun Sims.
They also parted ways with quarterback Ammon Olsen, who threw for 3,300 yards and 26 touchdowns last year.
But all’s not lost. Quarterback Patrick Tyler, a junior transfer from Los Angeles Valley College, has done his part to keep the offense productive since starter McCoy Hill injured his shoulder in the season opener against Utah.
Tyler began the Portland State game by throwing a pair of interceptions, but he settled in and delivered two touchdown passes, both to wideout Mike Sharp in the second quarter. Their first hookup was a 90-yarder that gave the Thunderbirds a 14-10 lead. They never trailed again.
Tyler has now thrown five touchdowns through two games.
The defense also stepped up by intercepting Vikings quarterback Alex Kuresa four times. The most crucial play was made by cornerback Jermaine Doubs, who returned an interception 98 yards for a touchdown with 12 seconds left to thwart the Vikings’ late-game opportunity.
Portland State coach Bruce Barnum gave SUU some bulletin board material when he referred to its campus home of Cedar City, Utah, as “Whoville.” It backfired.
Safety Tyler Collet picked off two passes, made eight tackles and broke up a pass, a performance that garnered him the Big Sky’s defensive player of the week nod.
Offensively, running backs Malik Brown and Raysean Pringle played a huge role for the Thunderbirds, rushing for a combined 291 yards and three TDs on just 23 carries.
It’s too early to tell if Southern Utah is a legitimate candidate to win a second consecutive conference crown under new coach Demario Warren, but the win over the Vikings, who were picked to finish in the upper echelon of the league, is a good start for a team looking to prove 2015 was no fluke.
The Thunderbirds face a tough Big Sky test this week when they travel to Missoula to face 11th-ranked Montana.
One team Southern Utah (and everyone else) must keep pace with is Eastern Washington. The Eagles traveled to Northern Arizona on Saturday for the season’s first true showdown between Big Sky contenders and came away with a 50-35 victory.
EWU benefitted from the return of receiver Cooper Kupp, who didn’t play in a win over Northern Iowa the week prior. Kupp got back to doing what he does best -- catching 12 passes for 111 yards -- though he didn’t get in the end zone.
Quarterback Gage Gubrud was the catalyst, passing for 392 yards and two touchdowns and rushing for 100 yards and another score. Gubrud outperformed NAU standout Case Cookus until Cookus left with a shoulder injury in the second half.
Gubrud, a sophomore, has eclipsed 480 yards of total offense in three of his four starts this season.
Cookus’ injury was (and is) significant: He entered last week leading the FCS in quarterback efficiency and TD passes (10), and ranked sixth in passing yards per game (309.3).
Through four games, the Eagles boast a strong résumé. They opened the season with an upset win over FBS Washington State, then took five-time defending FCS champion North Dakota State to the wire in overtime before beating Missouri Valley power Northern Iowa and Big Sky contender NAU in back-to-back weeks.
Meanwhile, the Lumberjacks have lost three in a row for the first time since 2011.
With 21 receptions in Montana's 42-41 loss to Cal Poly, Jerry Louie-McGee tied the Big Sky single-game record and smashed the Grizzlies' school mark by six catches, earning him the STATS FCS Freshman of the Week award.
He caught 61- and 9-yard touchdowns from quarterback Brady Gustafson while totaling 155 receiving yards. His 21 receptions tied Montana State's David Pandt's conference record set in 1985. Louie-McGee also returned five kickoffs for 114 yards (with a long of 45 yards) and two punts for 6 yards.
Idaho State’s football team made some good money for its athletic department in the previous two weeks but took a pounding in guarantee-game losses to Pac-12 teams Colorado and Oregon State. Back in familiar surroundings, the Bengals got their Big Sky season started on the right foot.
ISU beat Sacramento State 42-34 at home on Saturday behind 270 yards and two touchdowns from quarterback Tanner Gueller and 154 yards and two TDs from running back Michael Dean.
Dean, mind you, is a freshman who has carried the ball just 12 times through four games. His yardage total: 190 (an average of 15.8 per rush).
Meanwhile, tight end Josh Cook caught both of Gueller’s touchdown passes. Cook, a senior, has caught a lot of passes in his career at Idaho State -- 123 to be exact -- but that was the first time he’s been on the receiving end of multiple TDs in a single game.
Around the league
North Dakota RB Brady Oliveira, who rushed for 171 yards and two touchdowns in a 17-15 win over Montana State, was named as the Big Sky’s offensive player of the week Monday. ... The league’s special teams award went to Weber State K Taylor Hintze, who made two clutch field goals, including the game-winner from 35 yards as the Wildcats beat UC Davis 38-35. ... Northern Colorado was off last week but opens Big Sky play Saturday when it hosts Northern Arizona. Since joining the Big Sky in 2006, UNC is yet to win a conference-opening game.