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Sports >  EWU football

Big Sky notebook: Weber State, Sacramento State offenses find common ground in run-first approach

Nov. 2, 2022 Updated Wed., Nov. 2, 2022 at 8:58 p.m.

Eastern Washington’s Jaren Banks tackles Sacramento State’s Asher O’Hara from behind in Big Sky play Oct. 15 in Cheney.  (James Snook/FOR THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
Eastern Washington’s Jaren Banks tackles Sacramento State’s Asher O’Hara from behind in Big Sky play Oct. 15 in Cheney. (James Snook/FOR THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
By Dan Thompson For The Spokesman-Review

Two of the best rushing teams in the FCS will play Saturday in a crucial Big Sky game, one that demonstrates just how much the conference’s best teams have successfully leaned on their ground games this season.

No. 2 Sacramento State (8-0, 5-0 Big Sky) visits No. 5 Weber State (7-1, 4-1) in Ogden, Utah, this weekend, both sporting run-first offenses that are among the nation’s best. The Hornets’ ground attack ranks third nationally with 265.9 yards per game; the Wildcats’ ranks 22nd with an average of 196.9.

A victory for the Hornets would move them one step closer to their second consecutive Big Sky regular-season title, but a win for the Wildcats – who have finished in at least a tie for first place in four of the past five seasons – would put them right back in position to share a title again should third-ranked Montana State (7-1, 5-0) falter down the stretch.

The Bobcats, ranked second nationally in rushing at 289.4 yards per game, play at Northern Arizona (3-5, 2-3) on Saturday.

That all three programs atop the standings have strong rushing games is not in itself surprising. But what is more unusual is that none of them is ranked higher than eighth in passing offense among the conference’s 12 teams.

“I think the league has changed over time,” EWU coach Aaron Best said in reference to how many teams have become more run-heavy.

“It’s kind of the evolution of the league, and it started about four or five years ago.”

Last season, Montana State gained the most rushing yards per game (220.9) among Big Sky teams and ranked seventh in the category nationally. The next-best average was UC Davis’ 175.8 per game, which ranked 27th. NAU and SSU were 29th and 30th, respectively.

Of the Big Sky’s 13 teams last season (Southern Utah left during the offseason), only Montana State averaged better than five yards per carry (5.2). Three are this season, including the Bobcats (6.2), the Hornets (5.8) and the UC Davis Aggies (5.8).

Eastern Washington has faced the Bobcats and the Hornets at home, losing to both. The Eagles do not play UC Davis this season.

The Idaho Vandals, the Eagles’ opponent this week, rank fifth in the Big Sky in rushing.

Of the conference’s top-seven passing teams in terms of yardage, just two – UC Davis and Idaho – have a winning record overall.

Eastern, which will finish with a sub.-500 record for the first time since 2006, ranks third in passing at 256.9 yards per game and has played from behind much more often than it has played with a lead this season.

Four seasons ago, in 2018, Eastern Washington ranked second in the Big Sky in rushing yards per game (255.9) and first in yards per carry at 6.6, which was the second-best number in the FCS. Eastern lost the national title game to North Dakota State that season.

Reeling Grizzlies host Mustangs

Four weeks ago, Montana was receiving first-place votes in the FCS Stats Perform Top 25.

But after consecutive losses to Idaho, Sacramento State and, most recently, Weber State, the Grizzlies (5-3, 2-3) have fallen to 16th in that poll and are in danger of being left out of the 24-team playoff field.

“We’re coming off an overtime loss against the No. 2 team in the country and a three-point loss against the No. 5 team in the country,” Montana coach Bobby Hauck said at his news conference Monday, referring to SSU and Weber State. “(Against) both teams we were out significant contributors on both sides of the ball, so I’m not going to act all overwrought and act like everything’s broken. We just need to go perform and get a win this weekend.”

Montana’s opponent is Cal Poly (1-7, 0-5), the only Big Sky team without a conference victory this season and the only one Eastern Washington (2-6, 1-4) has beaten.

“This has become a huge game for our team,” Hauck said. “An enormous game for our season.”

Montana played without starting quarterback Lucas Johnson last week after he sustained a head injury the previous week against the Hornets. The Grizzlies also played without linebacker Patrick O’Connell for most of Saturday’s game after the Big Sky’s sack leader left with an ankle injury.

Eastern Washington plays at Montana on Nov. 12.

Aggies surge into fourth place

After losing its first two conference games, UC Davis (4-4, 3-2) has put itself back into the playoff discussion with three consecutive victories, each by at least four touchdowns.

Senior running back Ulonzo Gilliam, the preseason Big Sky Offensive Player of the Year, has 836 rushing yards, 12th most in the FCS. He also has 43 receptions for another 341 yards.

The Aggies close out the regular season with a home game Saturday against Idaho State and road games at Idaho and Sacramento State.

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