There doesn’t appear to be any football lightweights this year in the Big Sky Conference, which is bad news for Sacramento State.
The Hornets (3-3, 0-2) have an 8-0 all-time record against Northern Colorado (2-3, 1-1) entering Saturday’s game in Greeley, but the Bears aren’t the woeful, winless-in-conference team they were last year.
Saturday, Northern Colorado celebrated homecoming by upsetting then-No. 25 Northern Arizona 24-17. It was the Bears’ first Big Sky win since 2012.
Northern Colorado forced two fumbles and intercepted three passes. The Bears returned two interceptions for touchdowns, a 91-yarder by Dominick Sierra and an 84-yarder by Kyle Griffin for the game winner with 7:25 to play.
The Bears lead the Football Championship Subdivision with 13 interceptions and are No. 2 nationally in turnovers forced with 16.
“When you get a win in this conference of any kind, you take it and run with it,” Northern Colorado coach Earnest Collins Jr. said. “…We’ve been very opportunistic. We seem to be making plays when we need to.”
Collins credited new defensive coordinator Larry Kerr, a previous defensive coordinator at Colorado State, UCLA and Northern Arizona, for helping make the Bears more aggressive.
“He kind of simplified things so our kids can go play,” Collins said. “They also try to get five turnovers in every practice. … Now kids are striking at the ball, pulling at the ball, pushing at the ball and challenging to get balls in the air.”
Sac State quarterback Garrett Safron has thrown five interceptions and the Hornets have had three fumbles, so Sac State coach Jody Sears said the concern “is huge” about protecting the football against the Bears.
“You get what you emphasize and in creating those turnovers, that’s exactly what they get,” Sears said. “So you have to tip your hats to them.”
Sears said the Hornets have moved on from Saturday’s wild, heartbreaking 59-56 loss to No. 11 Montana State at Hornet Stadium in which they compiled a school-record 694 yards.
The lead changed hands four times in the fourth quarter and the teams combined to score 49 points in the final 15 minutes, including a school-record 28 by the Hornets.
Safron finished with 609 total yards, breaking his school record of 596 set last season against Portland State.
But FCS and Big Sky Offensive Player of the Week Dakota Prukop one-upped Safron by accounting for a school-record eight touchdowns, including the winning 4-yard touchdown pass to Mitchell Herbert with four seconds to play.
It marked the first time in Big Sky history that two quarterbacks passed for more than 300 yards and rushed for more than 100 in the same game.
“It was just a really fun game to be a part of,” Sears said. “Though we were on the short end of it, it was a great opportunity for our kids to grow.”
Safron finished 25 of 39 for 453 yards and five touchdowns. The senior leads the Hornets in career touchdown passes (69), completions (687) and total offense (9,494). He is second to Ryan Leadingham in career passing yards (7,873 to 8,376) and attempts (1,105 to 1,191). Safron also is eighth all-time in rushing yards with 1,621.
“I like the way he plays the game,” Collins said. “He can throw it; he can run it. He puts the ball on the money. When you got an offense that can score like they can score, you are never out of it.”
While Montana State and Sac State combined for 1,313 total yards, two other games produced nearly as dynamic numbers. No. 2 Eastern Washington held off Idaho State 56-53 as the teams combined for 1,231 yards. In Cal Poly’s 42-39 win over Southern Utah, the teams combined for 1,097 yards. Triple-option Cal Poly rushed for 452 yards.
Idaho State’s Mike Kramer, a Big Sky coaching veteran, favorably compares this year’s quarterbacking corps that includes Safron, Prukop, his own Justin Arias and Eastern Washington’s Vernon Adams Jr. to the passing-dominated late 1980s to mid-1990s in the conference.
Idaho’s John Friesz (1989) and Doug Nussmeier (1993), Weber State’s Jamie Martin (1991) and Montana’s Dave Dickenson (1995) received the Walter Payton Award as the most outstanding player at the Division I-AA level (now FCS) during that span.
“People of the ’90s are laughing thinking the Big Sky has gone to throwback jerseys and throwback stories,” Kramer said. “The quarterback in this conference is finally the preeminent position. The quarterbacks are mobile and fast and throw it accurately. There is going to be a lot of points scored before this is settled and over with.”