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Friday, February 28, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Montana’s Grip Looks Bit Looser But Grizzlies Still The Favorites Until Someone Proves Otherwise

There have been years in the recent past when flipping a coin was probably as reliable a method as any in determining a preseason favorite for the Big Sky Conference football championship as long as one side of the coin was reserved for Montana.

This year, however, with Grizzly coach Mick Dennehy scrambling to replace 10 defensive starters, there seems to be room for a few more options.

Northern Arizona, Eastern Washington and Cal State Northridge - which surprised nearly everyone with its third-place Big Sky debut last season - all figure to make a run at UM, which has won the last two league titles and is coming off a runner-up finish to Marshall in last year’s Division I-AA playoffs.

NAU, despite the loss of tailback Archie Amerson, appears loaded again and poised to improve on last year’s second-place finish and shocking first-round playoff loss. Seven starters, including sophomore quarterback Travis Brown, return to an offense that produced more yardage and points than any in the nation last fall.

Eastern returns 14 starters from last year’s team, which lost three of its Big Sky games by a total of nine points. The Eagles are talented, experienced and deep on defense and boast a veteran offensive line that should produce some sizable holes for senior running back Rex Prescott.

Northridge, despite the departure of coach Dave Baldwin, continues to benefit from “bounce-back” players returning to the Los Angeles area after signing letters of intent with Division I schools. New coach Jim Fenwick’s roster includes transfers from UCLA, California, Iowa State, Colorado State and Michigan.

Weber State and Montana State also have outside chances to make some noise, but until talent-rich NAU proves it can win an important game, it is still difficult to pick against the Grizzlies.

Dennehy, in his second season as head coach, seems confident he can build a respectable defense around senior linebacker Jason Crebo, the Big Sky’s Defensive Player of the Year last season. And the Grizzlies’ offense should be as explosive as ever with junior quarterback Brian Ah Yat pulling the trigger.

If things unfold as expected, Montana’s Oct. 25 matchup against NAU in Flagstaff, Ariz., could decide the title.

“I hope we’re in position for that to be a key game,” Dennehy said. “Every time we’ve gone down there it’s been a huge game.”

And Montana has won the last four meetings at NAU.

Following is a team-by-team breakdown of the Big Sky race, listed in order of finish as predicted by The Spokesman-Review. Projected overall and conference records are in parentheses.

1. Montana (9-2, 7-1)

Reloading, not rebuilding, has become SOP in Missoula, so don’t look for the Grizzlies - despite the loss of 10 defensive starters - to relinquish their throne. First-team All-American linebacker Jason Crebo gives coach Mick Dennehy a solid cornerstone on which to build, and junior quarterback Brian Ah Yat, the league’s Co-Offensive Player of the Year last season, seems to have benefited immensely from the experience of leading his team to the finals of last year’s Division I-AA playoffs.

Scheduling note: Grizzlies have Oct. 25 date with Northern Arizona in Flagstaff, Ariz., which could decide the Big Sky title.

2. Northern Arizona (9-2, 7-1)

The Lumberjacks will have trouble replacing tailback Archie Amerson, last year’s Payton Award winner, but the offense should still be productive behind quarterback Travis Brown, who threw for 3,398 yards and 23 touchdowns as a freshman last fall. Coach Steve Axman’s defense will be anchored by junior defensive end Nick Petrucci, one of nine returning starters.

Scheduling note: Lumberjacks need to stay healthy during tough season opener at Division I New Mexico.

3. Eastern Washington (8-3, 6-2)

Senior quarterback Harry Leons has recovered from a knee injury that prematurely ended his junior year following the Eagles’ 4-1 start last fall. Throw in an experienced and vastly improved defense, led by second-team All-American linebacker Derek Strey, and it becomes easy for coach Mike Kramer to make a case for a legitimate run at a postseason playoff berth - if not an outright Big Sky title.

Scheduling note: Eagles have seven home games and open against a pair of NAIA schools that should give Kramer a chance to evaluate several Prop 48 newcomers in game situations.

4. Cal State Northridge (7-5, 5-3)

Aaron Flowers, after throwing for 3,540 yards and 30 TDs as a junior, is back to lead a high-powered offense that should make coach Jim Fenwick’s first season at Northridge a success. Senior linebacker Marc Goodson was a third-team All-American last year, but the Matadors’ defense lost five key starters.

Scheduling note: Matadors face a hellish non-conference schedule that includes road games against Division I schools Boise State, Hawaii and New Mexico State.

5. Weber State (5-6, 4-4)

Coach Dave Arslanian boasts the league’s most versatile player in junior free safety-punter-placekicker Scott Shields and a first-team All-American in senior tight end Cam Quayle. The Wildcats are without a proven quarterback, but there is little reason to believe that UCLA transfer Steve Buck will be anything but brilliant, given the time to grasp Arslanian’s offensive philosophy.

Scheduling note: Wildcats open Big Sky play against EWU, Northern Arizona and Cal State Northridge - three teams considered to have a chance to unseat defending champion Montana.

6. Portland State (5-6, 4-4)

Coach Tim Walsh has two splendid defensive stoppers in linebackers Tom Matijacic, a transfer from Washington, and Terrance Frederick. But the Vikings’ offense is without a proven leader at quarterback, where redshirt freshman Jimmy Blanchard and untested senior Tyson Parsons are battling for the starting job.

Scheduling note: Vikings should learn a lot in early non-conference stops at Fresno State and Idaho.

7. Montana State (5-6, 3-5)

The Bobcats are shooting for their first back-to-back winning seasons since joining the Division I-AA ranks 19 years ago. But to do so, they must compensate for the loss of workhorse tailback Matt Engleking, who ran for 1,256 yards and 10 touchdowns last fall. Look for coach Cliff Hysell’s defense, which is led by senior end Neal Smith, to be among the toughest and stingiest in the league once again.

Scheduling note: Bobcats play three of the league favorites - EWU, Cal State Northridge and archrival Montana - at home in refurbished Sales Stadium.

8. Cal State Sacramento (3-8, 1-7)

The Hornets didn’t earn much respect while going 0-8 in their first run through the Big Sky last fall. And they haven’t received much from preseason prognosticators. But the Sacramento area is rich in high-school talent and third-year coach John Volek knows how to recruit. Quarterback Tony Corbin and running back Daimon Shelton, a pair of middle-round NFL draft picks, are gone.

Scheduling note: Hornets will get an early look at how far they still need to come when they open Big Sky play on the road on Sept. 27 against defending champion Montana.

9. Idaho State (1-10, 0-8)

First-year coach Tom Walsh has inherited a mess from Brian McNeeley, who was fired at the end of the 1996 season after his players made more headlines on the police blotter than in the sports section. Senior linebacker Telly Lockette is a big-time player and senior running back Craig Joseph is the top returning rusher in the Big Sky. But the Bengals will probably struggle offensively without last year’s freshman phenom quarterback Shane Griggs, who fled the chaos by transferring to South Carolina.

Scheduling note: Bengals get Portland State at home on Nov. 15 in a game that could decide residency rights in the Big Sky cellar.

, DataTimes MEMO: These 2 sidebars appeared with the story:

1. THE BEST OF THE BIG SKY As chosen by Steve Bergum, staff writer

Offense Pos. Player School Height Weight Year WR Gibbons St. Paul Northern Arizona 5-9 180 Jr. T Jim Buzzard E. Washington 6-3 265 Sr. G David Heasman Northern Arizona 6-5 335 Sr. C Kevin Peterson E. Washington 6-1 260 Sr. G Jason Baker Montana 6-7 315 Sr. T Dan Finn Northern Arizona 6-4 290 Sr. TE Cam Quayle Weber State 6-7 250 Sr. QB Brian Ah Yat Montana 6-1 185 Jr. WR Carlos Smith Cal State Sacramento 5-10 185 Sr. RB Craig Joseph Idaho State 5-11 210 Sr. RB Rex Prescott E. Washington 5-7 170 Sr. PK Scott Shields Weber State 6-4 210 Jr.

Defense DL Neal Smith Montana State 6-5 245 Sr. DL Weston Weaver Weber State 6-5 280 Sr. DL Kelley Bryant Montana 6-2 270 So. DL Steve Mattson E. Washington 6-4 257 Sr. LB Jason Crebo Montana 6-4 233 Sr. LB Derek Strey E. Washington 6-3 230 Sr. LB Tom Matijacic Portland State 6-2 225 Jr. CB Trevor Bell Idaho State 6-0 190 Sr. CB Renal Robinson Northern Arizona 5-11 170 Sr. SS Junior Baker Weber State 6-2 195 Sr. FS Maurice Perigo E. Washington 5-9 170 Sr. P Scott Shields Weber State 6-4 210 Jr.

Best head coach 1. Dave Arslanian, Weber State 2. Mick Dennehy, Montana 3. Steve Axman, Northern Arizona.

Best coaching staff 1. Montana 2. Weber State 3. Eastern Washington

Best offensive assistant 1. Brent Myers, Northern Arizona 2. Brent Pease, Montana 3. J.D. Sollars, Eastern Washington

Best defensive assistant 1. Jerome Souers, Montana 2. Greg Salo, Montana State 3. Jerry Graybeal, Eastern Washington

Offensive Player of the Year Brian Ah Yat, Montana

Best offensive line 1. Eastern Washington 2. Northern Arizona 3. Montana

Best wide receivers 1. Montana 2. Cal State Northridge 3. Portland State

Best backfield 1. Montana 2. Northern Arizona 3. Eastern Washington

Best backup quarterback Griffin Garske, Eastern Washington

Best clutch receiver Cam Quayle, Weber State

Defensive Player of the Year Jason Crebo, Montana

Best defensive line 1. Eastern Washington 2. Northern Arizona 3. Portland State

Best linebackers 1. Portland State 2. Eastern Washington 3. Montana

Best defensive backs 1. Northern Arizona 2. Cal State Northridge 3. Weber State

2. BIG SKY POLLS The Big Sky Conference football polls, including first-place votes (in parentheses) and total points:

Coaches’ poll 1. Northern Arizona (5) 61 2. Montana (3) 59 3. Eastern Washington (1) 50 4. Cal State Northridge 39 5. Montana State 34 6. Weber State 32 7. Portland State 22 8. Sacramento State 16 9. Idaho State 11

Media poll 1. Northern Arizona (13) 205 2. Montana (11) 201 3. Eastern Washington 164 4. Weber State 126 5. Cal State Northridge 118 6. Montana State 117 7. Portland State 66 8. Idaho State 46 9. Sacramento State 37

These 2 sidebars appeared with the story:

1. THE BEST OF THE BIG SKY As chosen by Steve Bergum, staff writer

Offense Pos. Player School Height Weight Year WR Gibbons St. Paul Northern Arizona 5-9 180 Jr. T Jim Buzzard E. Washington 6-3 265 Sr. G David Heasman Northern Arizona 6-5 335 Sr. C Kevin Peterson E. Washington 6-1 260 Sr. G Jason Baker Montana 6-7 315 Sr. T Dan Finn Northern Arizona 6-4 290 Sr. TE Cam Quayle Weber State 6-7 250 Sr. QB Brian Ah Yat Montana 6-1 185 Jr. WR Carlos Smith Cal State Sacramento 5-10 185 Sr. RB Craig Joseph Idaho State 5-11 210 Sr. RB Rex Prescott E. Washington 5-7 170 Sr. PK Scott Shields Weber State 6-4 210 Jr.

Defense DL Neal Smith Montana State 6-5 245 Sr. DL Weston Weaver Weber State 6-5 280 Sr. DL Kelley Bryant Montana 6-2 270 So. DL Steve Mattson E. Washington 6-4 257 Sr. LB Jason Crebo Montana 6-4 233 Sr. LB Derek Strey E. Washington 6-3 230 Sr. LB Tom Matijacic Portland State 6-2 225 Jr. CB Trevor Bell Idaho State 6-0 190 Sr. CB Renal Robinson Northern Arizona 5-11 170 Sr. SS Junior Baker Weber State 6-2 195 Sr. FS Maurice Perigo E. Washington 5-9 170 Sr. P Scott Shields Weber State 6-4 210 Jr.

Best head coach 1. Dave Arslanian, Weber State 2. Mick Dennehy, Montana 3. Steve Axman, Northern Arizona.

Best coaching staff 1. Montana 2. Weber State 3. Eastern Washington

Best offensive assistant 1. Brent Myers, Northern Arizona 2. Brent Pease, Montana 3. J.D. Sollars, Eastern Washington

Best defensive assistant 1. Jerome Souers, Montana 2. Greg Salo, Montana State 3. Jerry Graybeal, Eastern Washington

Offensive Player of the Year Brian Ah Yat, Montana

Best offensive line 1. Eastern Washington 2. Northern Arizona 3. Montana

Best wide receivers 1. Montana 2. Cal State Northridge 3. Portland State

Best backfield 1. Montana 2. Northern Arizona 3. Eastern Washington

Best backup quarterback Griffin Garske, Eastern Washington

Best clutch receiver Cam Quayle, Weber State

Defensive Player of the Year Jason Crebo, Montana

Best defensive line 1. Eastern Washington 2. Northern Arizona 3. Portland State

Best linebackers 1. Portland State 2. Eastern Washington 3. Montana

Best defensive backs 1. Northern Arizona 2. Cal State Northridge 3. Weber State

2. BIG SKY POLLS The Big Sky Conference football polls, including first-place votes (in parentheses) and total points:

Coaches’ poll 1. Northern Arizona (5) 61 2. Montana (3) 59 3. Eastern Washington (1) 50 4. Cal State Northridge 39 5. Montana State 34 6. Weber State 32 7. Portland State 22 8. Sacramento State 16 9. Idaho State 11

Media poll 1. Northern Arizona (13) 205 2. Montana (11) 201 3. Eastern Washington 164 4. Weber State 126 5. Cal State Northridge 118 6. Montana State 117 7. Portland State 66 8. Idaho State 46 9. Sacramento State 37

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