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Sports >  NCAA football

Big Sky football: Eastern Washington, Montana upsets fuel big opening week for conference

UPDATED: Wed., Sept. 8, 2021

Eastern Washington quarterback Eric Barriere (3) is forced out of bounds by UNLV linebacker Jacoby Windmon (4) during the first half of an NCAA college football game Thursday, Sept. 2, 2021, in Las Vegas.  (Steve Marcus)
Eastern Washington quarterback Eric Barriere (3) is forced out of bounds by UNLV linebacker Jacoby Windmon (4) during the first half of an NCAA college football game Thursday, Sept. 2, 2021, in Las Vegas. (Steve Marcus)
By Dan Thompson For The Spokesman-Review

What Eastern Washington and UC Davis started a week ago carried into an excellent long weekend for the Big Sky Conference’s football teams.

Montana’s 13-7 upset of the 20th-ranked Washington Huskies certainly was the biggest victory for the conference, although the rest of the Big Sky acquitted itself, even in a few of its members’ defeats.

Montana State, for example, under first-year coach Brent Vigen, led Wyoming of the Mountain West Conference in the final 3 minutes before the Cowboys took back the lead with 47 seconds to go, claiming a 19-16 victory.

Portland State, which will play in Pullman on Saturday, put up 477 yards on Hawaii in a 49-35 loss .

“The Big Sky started getting pretty darn good in the mid-2010s,” EWU coach Aaron Best said Tuesday, “but regardless of (last) weekend, I believe this is the best Big Sky Conference top to bottom I’ve ever been associated with. That’s not because we happen to be in the moment. That’s because it’s real.”

Best has coached in the conference for two decades. After its 35-33 victory at UNLV, Eastern Washington climbed to No. 7 in the latest STATS Football Championship Subdivision poll. Weber State is 11th, Montana State 12th, UC Davis 14th after its victory over Tulsa, and Montana is above them all at No. 4, the recipient of four first-place votes.

For the Grizzlies, the victory over Washington is a culmination – and validation – of improvement for the program, which is entering its third full season of Bobby Hauck’s second stint with the team. Hauck led the Grizzlies to five seasons of 11 or more victories – and seven Big Sky titles – as their head coach from 2003 to 2009, when he left to become UNLV’s head coach.

From 2010 to 2017, the Grizzlies appeared in the playoffs three times.

“I think our guys believe what we’re telling them, but tangible evidence that that is the way it is, is probably really productive,” Hauck said earlier this week of the victory over the Huskies. “So yeah, it’s great to go get that win. I don’t think we had doubt before that game. We played pretty well this spring and the 2019 season was good, but I didn’t think there were doubters going into the game. There certainly (aren’t) now.”

Montana held Washington to 65 rushing yards on 27 attempts. After a touchdown in the first 5 minutes, the Huskies didn’t score again. Only four other times since the start of the 2018 season have the Huskies run for such a low yardage total.

“Obviously, we’re real pleased with the win over Washington. It’s a huge, huge win,” Hauck said. “It’s recognized nationally as a huge, huge win, so I’m very pleased for Montana. It’s good in a lot of ways.”

The three Football Bowl Subdivision victories in one week were a record for the Big Sky.

No FCS conference had recorded three in a week since the Colonial Athletic Association did in 2009, according to a Big Sky release.

There have been five other times an FCS team beat a ranked FBS team since 1978, when the FCS was created (then as Division I-AA). Appalachian State’s 34-32 win over No. 5 Michigan marked the highest-ranked FBS team to lose such a game. Eastern Washington accomplished the feat in 2013 with its 49-46 victory at No. 25 Oregon State.

This weekend offers the conference four more opportunities to beat FBS teams. Portland State plays at Washington State, Idaho at Indiana, Cal Poly at Fresno State, and Idaho State at Nevada.

Montana hosts Western Illinois on Saturday; one week later, on Sept. 18, Eastern Washington will play at Western Illinois in Macomb, Illinois.

Airing it out

Four quarterbacks from the Big Sky rank among the top 16 nationally in passing yards after their opening-weekend performances.

Davis Alexander (Portland State) ranks fourth in the FCS with 400 yards after a 23-for-47 performance. Eastern’s Eric Barriere is third with 374 yards on 29 of 39 attempts, a performance that earned him Big Sky Offensive Player of the Week honors.

Brasch ranks 13th with 316 yards; Hunter Rodrigues (UC Davis) is 16th with 311 on 28 of 35 attempts.

But they are all topped by Ren Hefley, of Presbyterian, who leads the nation with 538 yards. The junior threw an FCS-record 10 touchdown passes against NAIA St. Andrews in an 84-43 victory.

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