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Eastern Washington University Football
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Big Sky football off to confounding start as conference play begins

Idaho State, with running back James Madison, pulled off a big upset over Nevada last Saturday. (Tom R. Smedes / AP)
Idaho State, with running back James Madison, pulled off a big upset over Nevada last Saturday. (Tom R. Smedes / AP)

Has any Big Sky Conference football season seen a more head-scratching start?

Last weekend was the capper. While preseason favorite North Dakota was getting pummeled by five scores against an FCS team, Idaho State – everyone’s choice for last place – earned a victory for the ages.

“I was tearing up when it was over,” ISU linebacker Mario Jenkins said of the Bengals’ 30-28 win at Nevada.

“That was a real confidence booster.”

It was the same buoyant story at No. 12 preseason pick, Sacramento State, which last week took Weber State to the limit before losing by a touchdown in a nonconference game.

The Big Sky’s No. 11 preseason choice, UC Davis, might be the biggest surprise of all. Under new coach Dan Hawkins, the Aggies are 2-1 after a solid loss at San Diego State and dominating wins over San Diego and Portland State.

PSU, by the way, may be the best 0-3 team in FCS. Before losing to UC Davis, the Vikings lost at BYU by 14 and Oregon State by a field goal – that from a team picked to finish 10th.

Even more stunning, the traditionally run-oriented Aggies have the top-rated passer in the conference in Jake Maier, who’s averaging 314 yards a game.

“These guys deserve some confidence and a little wind in their sails,” Hawkins said. “They’ve worked so hard, have been so dedicated and so ‘on it,’ it’s been unbelievable.”

“Unbelievable” cuts both ways, especially for last year’s co-champions, North Dakota and Eastern Washington.

After a 45-7 loss at South Dakota State to fall to 1-2, UND quarterback Keaton Stensrud promised that “We can come back from this.”

Those are surprising words from the preseason favorites, and it’s still September.

Eastern Washington was saying the same thing after losing its first two games by a combined 96-23 score. The Eagles got back on track with a 56-21 win at Fordham to give new coach Aaron Best his first win.

“We’re still an unfinished product and we want to continue to get better as the season goes along,” Best said. “By no means are we are a well-oiled machine – we just found some oil against Fordham and will continue to put oil in the engine.”

Or look at Northern Arizona or Cal Poly, the third and fourth preseason picks of the so-called experts.

After a 0-2 start, NAU’s Lumberjacks announced – coincidentally or not – that this will be the final season for 20-year head coach Jerome Souers.

Souers’ departure would make Tim Walsh, now in his ninth year at Cal Poly, the dean of Big Sky coaches.

That is, if Walsh makes it to next year. The Mustangs are 0-3.

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