Offensive gurus were all over the Big Sky Conference this season – a quarterback heavy conference behind Montana State’s Denarius McGhee and Southern Utah’s Brad Sorensen among numerous other offensive standouts resulting in plenty of yards and points.
The 2012 Big Sky regular season was one crazy, action-filled ride.
Eastern Washington emerged as the recipient of the Big Sky’s automatic-bid into the FCS playoffs with a 7-1 conference record, while Montana State and Big Sky newcomer Cal Poly will also be in the hunt for a FCS National Championship. Other teams such as Northern Arizona and Sacramento State also had strong seasons despite falling short of a playoff bid.
With the FCS playoffs beginning this Saturday, let’s take a look back at the Big Sky Conference season that was in 2012.
Final standings and first team All-Big Sky performers:
|Wide Receivers||Brandon Kaufman||Jr.||Eastern Washington|
|Rodrick Rumble||Sr.||Idaho State|
|Greg Hardin||Jr.||North Dakota|
|Will Post||Sr.||Eastern Washington|
|Guards||Sean Davies||Sr.||UC Davis|
|Gavin Farr||Jr.||Southern Utah|
|Center||Shaun Sampson||Sr.||Montana State|
|Tight End||Greg Hardy||Sr.||Montana|
|Quarterback||DeNarius McGhee||Jr.||Montana State|
|Running Backs||Deonte Williams||Sr.||Cal Poly|
|Zach Bauman||Jr.||Northern Arizona|
|Fullback||Jake Hess||Sr.||Northern Arizona|
|Placekicker||Jimmy Pavel||Sr.||Eastern Washington|
|Return Specalist||Dominic Gunn||Sr.||Northern Colorado|
|Tackles||Zach Minter||Sr.||Montana State|
|Cody Larsen||Sr.||Southern Utah|
|Ends||Caleb Schreibeis||Sr.||Montana State|
|Outside LBs||Jody Owens||Sr.||Montana State|
|Inside LBs||Kennith Jackson||Sr.||Cal Poly|
|Ronnie Hamlin||Jr.||Eastern Washington|
|Cornerbacks||T.J. Lee III||Sr.||Eastern Washington|
|Anders Battle||Jr.||Northern Arizona|
|Safeties||Lucky Dozier||Jr.||Northern Arizona|
|Joel Fuller||Sr.||Montana State|
|Punter||Colton Schmidt||Sr.||UC Davis|
|Special Teams||Dominic Gunn||Sr.||Northern Colorado|
Playoff bound: Eastern Washington (9-2, 7-1), Montana State (10-1, 7-1), Cal Poly (9-2, 7-1)
The Big Sky Conference is one of four FCS conferences receiving three bids into the playoffs with all three teams picking up a share of the conference title.
Eastern Washington received the Big Sky’s automatic-bid into the playoffs. After a strong 20-3 win over Idaho and a narrow 24-20 loss to Washington State, the Eagles won five straight, including a comeback 32-26 win over Montana and a big 27-24 win at Montana State. WR Brandon Kaufman was tremendous for the Eagles, leading the Big Sky in receiving yards with 1,270 and 10 touchdowns. Even with a home loss to Southern Utah, Eastern Washington still received the #2 seed in the FCS playoffs. The Eagles will take on the winner of a first-round match up between Wagner and Colgate next Saturday.
Montana State also had a great season with their only slip-up to Eastern Washington, including a 16-7 win to close out the regular season at rival Montana. QB Denarius McGhee threw for 2,726 yards and 22 touchdowns on his way to earning Big Sky Conference Offensive MVP honors this season. LB Jody Owens earned Big Sky Conference Defensive MVP honors garnering 82 tackles, 11 for loss, and four forced fumbles while leading the Big Sky’s top defense. The Bobcats earned the #3 seed in the FCS playoffs, and will play the winner of a first-round match up between Stony Brook and Villanova next Saturday.
Cal Poly took advantage of a favorable conference schedule to achieve a 9-2 record, including a 24-22 win at Wyoming early this season. The Mustangs won seven straight before falling to Sacramento State and Eastern Washington in consecutive weeks, but defeated Northern Arizona in Flagstaff last week to secure a spot in the FCS playoffs. RB Deonte Williams stood out for the Mustangs, leading the Big Sky in rushing averaging 132.55 yards per game. Cal Poly will battle Sam Houston State in the second-round of the playoffs this Saturday.
Team that surprised: Sacramento State (6-5, 4-4)
The Big Sky’s biggest surprise of 2012 could go one of three ways. Northern Arizona finished with an 8-3 record and was just short of a playoff bid, while Northern Colorado made a tremendous improvement finishing 5-6 this season after a win less 2011 campaign.
However, the nod here goes to the Sacramento State Hornets. Most projected the Hornets to finish towards the bottom third of the Big Sky, including a tenth place selection in the Big Sky Preseason Media Poll. However, the Hornets pulled off huge wins throughout the season, including a 30-28 win at Colorado thanks in part to a last-second field goal by K Edgar Castaneda and a 35-29 win over a playoff-bound and previously undefeated Cal Poly team. QB Garrett Safron was key for the Hornets all year long, finishing with 2,540 passing yards in addition to other key contributors in WR Morrise Norrise and CB Osagie Odiase. Sure, the Hornets lost two straight to Montana State and rival UC Davis to close out the season, but a 6-5 record in Sacramento is still nothing to sneeze at for head coach Marshall Sperbeck.
Team that disappointed: Montana (5-6, 3-5)
Given Montana’s difficult off-season in addition to losing nine starters on defense, many expected to see the Grizzlies take a step back in 2011. Very few saw Montana finishing with their first losing record since 1985 though, and this season marks only the second time the FCS playoffs have been without Montana since 1992. Part of Montana’s troubles were in part to a pass defense that was dead last in the Big Sky allowing an average of 288.4 yards per game, including giving up a Big Sky single-game record 660 passing yards to North Dakota in a 40-34 loss. On a positive note however, this season saw the emergence of plenty of young talent including DE Tyrone Holmes and WR Ellis Henderson. 2013 looks bright for Montana as the team’s plethora of young talent matures in addition to returning every defensive starter except for DE Josh Harris.
Team that was a disaster: Idaho State (1-10, 0-8)
We’ll at least start off with the positive for Idaho State. QB Kevin Yost put up video game numbers for the Bengals leading the conference in passing yards with 3,621 while WR Roderick Rumble had 1,006 yards receiving in nine games.
Now to the negatives, and there were a ton in Pocatello this season. Apart from the obvious – a 1-10 record – the Idaho State statistically had the worst defense in the FCS giving up a whopping 570.8 yards per game. Even worse, the Bengals gave up 58.7 points per game to Division I opponents, including at least 70 points to Nebraska, Portland State, Montana, and Cal Poly. As a result, head coach Mike Kramer fired four assistant coaches, including the defensive line, linebacker, and secondary coaches. Probably the right call, but let’s not forget about Mike Kramer’s “confrontation” with WR Derek Graves that ended up on ESPN’s Outside the Lines. Yeah, not a good year.
Coach of the year: Jerome Souers, Northern Arizona
Here is another category with plenty of candidates, including Eastern Washington’s Beau Baldwin, Cal Poly’s Tim Walsh, Montana State’s Rob Ash, Northern Colorado’s Earnest Collins Jr., and Sacramento State’s Marshall Sperbeck.
Baldwin and Walsh were co-recipients of the award. However, we’ll give some love to Jerome Souers who stood out in his fifteenth season at Northern Arizona, leading the Lumberjacks to an 8-3 record falling just short of a FCS playoff bid. Northern Arizona won eight consecutive games during the regular season and RB Zach Bauman was the Big Sky’s second leading rusher averaging 107.45 yards per game.
Game of the year: Montana State 48, UC Davis 41
This game was a wild one. The Bobcats jumped out to a 31-14 lead at halftime, but the Aggies responded with 24 unanswered points in the 3rd quarter, gaining a 38-31 lead heading into the fourth quarter. DT Zach Minter had a mid-4th quarter interception that set up the go ahead touchdown by RB Tray Robinson. Down 48-41 in the final minute, QB Randy Wright and the Aggies drove to the 15 in the final minute, but a 4th down heave into the end-zone was batted down by S Joel Fuller with 16 seconds remaining. Montana State QB Denarius McGhee went 27-of-41 passing for 334 yards and a touchdown.
Also considered was Sacramento State’s 30-28 upset of Colorado, Eastern Washington’s 32-26 win over Montana, Eastern Washington’s 27-24 win over Montana State, North Dakota’s record-setting 40-34 win over Montana, Southern Utah’s 30-27 upset of #1 Eastern Washington, and Southern Utah’s 35-29 triple overtime win over Northern Arizona.