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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Big Sky football teams reflect on last season

Eastern Washington Eagles defensive back Anthany Smith celebrates after EWU defeated Idaho on April 10 at Roos Field in Cheney. Big Sky Conference football programs had difficulty maneuvering an abbreviated 2021 season in the spring, but all conference teams will participate in the fall campaign.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)
By Dan Thompson For The Spokesman-Review

As Eastern Washington, Idaho and six other Big Sky football teams vied for a spring championship during an abbreviated 2020-21 schedule, Amandre Williams remained in Bozeman practicing.

“It was difficult at times to watch, just because the competitive nature in all of us wanted to play football and go out and play against these teams,” the Montana State defensive end said during the Big Sky kickoff at the end of July in Spokane. “But we understood that in order to take the next step as a team, playing in the spring wasn’t really an option for us.”

The Bobcats –whose head coach, Brent Vigen, was hired on Feb. 8 – were one of three conference teams who didn’t play any games last spring. Northern Colorado opted out under first-year coach Ed McCaffrey, and Sacramento State, which went 9-4 in 2019, were the others.

But it wasn’t as if they missed out on something that was just like a normal football season: The other Big Sky programs played anywhere from one game to six games last spring – half, at best, of the 2021 schedule set before them.

No matter how they spent those months, though, each program had a common goal: To compete for a Big Sky championship this fall. And as those teams return to the practice field this week for their most normal football activities since 2019, they are eager to be looking at a traditional regular season.

“It was huge for us, to see where we were at, and (we are) happy with how things turned out this spring,” Montana linebacker Jace Lewis said of the Grizzlies’ two games. “I’m just excited to get going this fall camp.”

Eastern Washington, which will have its first full-team preseason practice on Saturday, was one of four teams to actually complete its six-game conference schedule last year. The Eagles earned an at-large bid in the playoffs and lost to North Dakota State, 42-20, in the first round. Idaho (2-4), Idaho State (2-4) and Southern Utah (1-5) also completed the spring season.

Four other Big Sky teams also set out to play six games, but when Cal Poly canceled its season after just three – the Mustangs cited the health and safety of their players – that left Northern Arizona, UC Davis and Weber State without a sixth contest.

Weber State won the conference with a 5-0 record and earned one of the 16 playoff spots. The Wildcats lost 34-31 to Southern Illinois in the opening round.

“(Playing in the spring) was way different,” Weber State receiver Rashid Shaheed said. “At the beginning, training and stuff, not being with the team. … We handled it well. We did what we could.”

The degree and frequency of the practices varied almost between every team, given the different jurisdictions – the Big Sky spans eight states – and health authorities that issued COVID-related guidelines.

But by playing at least a game, teams could increase the number of practices, which was one reason coach Bruce Barnum said he was keen to play Portland State’s one game, a 48-7 loss at Montana. And even having that one game was helpful, quarterback Davis Alexander said.

“Obviously it didn’t go the way we wanted it to, but it was nice to just get out there in real competition, playing another team in a different jersey,” Alexander said. “Honestly it showed us where we’re at. Usually you go into a season with high hopes, and it showed us that we gotta get in the weight room and keep going.

“We had some obstacles just with where we live and where we were with (COVID) protocol. … The first time we’re all back together is February, and we’ve got a game in two months.”

Sacramento State, which co-championed the Big Sky in 2019 with Weber State, didn’t play any games in the spring, a decision coach Troy Taylor said was an easy one. That was especially true, he said, given players were awarded an extra season of eligibility.

“We could have played. I did not want to play,” Taylor said. “I just felt like it was really clear it was not a good idea for us. A couple things: I saw that there were gonna be a lot of issues, with guys getting COVID and dinged (up), and I saw that not changing. And a bigger issue for me was a short turnaround from the spring season until now, and how it would affect our guys, our preparation.”

Instead, the Hornets held as normal of a spring practice schedule as they could.

For other schools, weather played a factor. Idaho State, for example, plays in Holt Arena and had a temperate place to practice. That was part of the reason why the Bengals went ahead with their season, coach Rob Phenicie said.

“We ran it just like we would a regular season,” Phenicie said. “Spring ball is boring. You get tired of going against each other, and when you’re playing opponents, you’re gameplanning every week, and that’s a lot of fun.”

Back in January, when the Montana schools announced they would not play a full spring conference schedule, weather was one of the factors Grizzlies coach Bobby Hauck cited, and at the Big Sky kickoff both Lewis and offensive tackle Dylan Cook reiterated that stance.

And in the end, Cook said, those two games Montana did play – a 59-3 drubbing of Division II Central Washington and the 48-7 victory over Portland State – were enough for the Grizzlies.

“I think it worked out perfectly for us,” Cook said. “We did exactly what we wanted to do: We wanted to impress people. We wanted to come out and show we are a championship-caliber team, and I think that’s how it played out. … It knocked the rust off of us. We got a chance to get at each other (in practice), and then it was nice to get a chance to go against someone else.”

In four weeks, everyone in the Big Sky will get a chance to do just that.