With the often playoff-bound Eastern Washington football team out of contention this year and destined for nothing better than an eighth-place finish in the Big Sky standings, the intrigue of this final regular-season weekend lies far from Cheney.
But there is surely plenty of intrigue, and three rivalry games will be at the core of it. No. 21 Idaho (6-4 overall, 5-2 Big Sky) visits Idaho State (1-9, 1-6); No. 24 UC Davis (6-4, 5-2) will play at No. 2 Sacramento State (10-0, 7-0); and No. 13 Montana (7-3, 4-3) will play at No. 3 Montana State (9-1, 7-0).
In each matchup, the road team needs a win to bolster its playoff resume. Montana State and Sacramento State are trying to wrap up top-four seeds in the 24-team playoff field.
ESPN – which airs all Big Sky football games on its “plus” streaming package – took notice of the rivalry game in Bozeman in a significant way, announcing that its ESPN College GameDay crew will set up on MSU’s campus for its Saturday morning broadcast.
It will be the first time the program has been to a Big Sky school.
“Obviously, the opponent is our rival and we understand wholeheartedly what that all means,” MSU coach Brent Vigen said Monday during his media availability. “The addition (of) College GameDay coming here is good for our university, the state, our rivalry. But for us and our guys, it’s still about Saturday going out (and) performing the best we can against a really good team.”
Montana coach Bobby Hauck further downplayed the significance of ESPN’s visit, at least as far as its impact on the game itself.
“I don’t care about that stuff … that’s for you all,” Hauck said Monday, addressing various media at his weekly news conference. “We’ve got a game to play.”
Montana soundly beat Eastern Washington 63-7 on Saturday.
It was a victory the Grizzlies needed, and Hauck said Monday he thought that it “puts us in the playoffs, I think.”
But Montana is sixth in the Big Sky standings, having lost to three other playoff contenders in Sacramento State, seventh-ranked Weber State (8-2, 5-2) and Idaho.
A victory over Montana State, would, however, assure the Grizzlies of a playoff spot. To do so they likely need to shut down the Bobcats’ running game, which ranks second nationally in average yards per game (314.4).
Vigen said he expects to have quarterbacks Sean Chambers and Tommy Mellott available, something that has rarely been the case since Mellott was injured in the Bobcats’ win at Eastern Washington two months ago.
Montana’s offense has been rolling lately, scoring 120 points in its past two games and putting up a pair of single-game yardage totals that rank among the program’s top five all time.
This week’s “Brawl of the Wild,” as the game is known, will be the rivalry’s 121st game.
Its significance is certainly known among players – even those who are not originally from Montana.
“I think as soon as you step foot into this program, you realize pretty quickly how big this game is,” said Montana senior safety Robby Hauck, a Missoula native. “It kind of just speaks for itself.”
Plenty at stake in Causeway Classic
The hottest team in the Big Sky is arguably UC Davis, which followed a 0-2 start to conference play with a five-game winning streak. That streak culminated in a 44-26 victory last week at Idaho, and it kept the Aggies’ playoff hopes afloat.
Before that win at Idaho, UC Davis’ four previous victories came by at least 29 points against teams all out of playoff contention. But a win in Saturday’s Causeway Classic game at Sacramento State would give the Aggies a signature victory, and a resume that also includes a two-point loss at No. 1 South Dakota State makes UC Davis an intriguing playoff contender.
Davis senior running back Ulonzo Gilliam is second in the conference in yards from scrimmage with 1,477. Quarterback Miles Hastings leads the Big Sky in passing yardage (2,741) and completion percentage (71%)
Sacramento State has leaned on its strong running game all season, gaining an average of 256.7 points per game. Sophomore Cameron Skattebo leads the conference in rushing (1,154 yards).
The Hornets have scored more points (43 per game) than any other Big Sky team.
Last season, Eastern Washington was one of five Big Sky teams to reach the FCS playoffs. Montana State lost in the national championship game to North Dakota State.