When it comes to offense, many of the 13 Big Sky Conference football teams can light up the scoreboard and compile huge statistical numbers.
Eastern Washington (No. 1), Idaho State (7), Weber State (13), Northern Arizona (16) and Sacramento State (21) rank among the top passing teams in the 121-member Football Championship Subdivision. Triple-option Cal Poly has the No. 3 rushing attack.
But with evolving formations and high-octane passing games attacking from all directions, defenses such as those at Sac State and UC Davis are constantly the target of upset fans who keep asking: “Why can’t we stop the other team?”
While slowed in the first half last Saturday in Davis, FCS No. 2-ranked Eastern Washington got things rolling in the final two quarters to prevail 37-14 over the Aggies in the Big Sky opener for both teams. On the same day in Pocatello, Idaho State upset Sac State 44-24, a game in which the teams combined for nearly1,200 yards of total offense.
Montana State’s Rob Ash has been a coach for 35 seasons and he played quarterback at Cornell in the early 1970s.
He marvels at how much the game has evolved through the years.
“I think there are some creative offensive ideas that have come out in the last few years,” said Ash, whose No. 13 Bobcats play Saturday night at Sac State. “When I played, the option was just the wishbone or the veer. Now it’s the read game.”
The quarterback position has morphed from a drop-back passer who rarely ran to the more athletic hybrid runner-thrower who makes decisions after the ball is snapped.
“It has taken option football to a whole different level,” said Ash, who lost a 52-51 nonconference shootout to Eastern Washington earlier this season.
It has also put defenses on their heels even more as they try to keep pace.
Statistically, Sac State and UC Davis rank among some of the most porous defenses in the FCS after five games. Sac State is 78th in scoring defense (31.4 points per game) and 97th in total yards allowed (458.2 yards per game), and UC Davis is 102nd (37.0) and 108th (484.5 yards), respectively.
They have plenty of company.
Only one Big Sky team, Montana (16th, 17.2 points per game), ranks among the nation’s top FCS schools in scoring defense and only the Grizzlies (34th, 338.8 yards per game) and North Dakota (36, 340.6) rank among the top 60 in total yards allowed.
In fairness, the statistics are skewed because of preseason matchups in which all Big Sky schools play one or two FBS schools while many of their FCS brethren play none. This season the Big Sky finished 0-17 against FBS schools.
That defenses are being heavily tested week in and week out isn’t a new concept in the Big Sky.
“The Big Sky has never been lacking for offensive firepower,” said Sac State coach Jody Sears, who also has coached as an assistant at Eastern Washington and as a head coach at Weber State. “You can go back to the mid-’70s and early ’80s and they would fling that ball all over the park.”
But Portland State coach Nigel Burton says rule changes that favor offensive football and the improved athleticism of skill players and offensive linemen have made a defense’s job even tougher these days.
“You are seeing 6-foot-6 wide receivers and 6-7 tight ends who can run and jump,” said Burton, a Jesuit High School graduate who starred as a defensive back at Washington. “Those used to be offensive-line guys.”
Often a defender will have a receiver covered like a blanket and still be unable to stop him from catching the ball.
“Quarterbacks cannot only run, they have cannons for arms,” Burton said. “So they can throw those back-shoulder fades when you think you have got the guys covered. It’s pretty spectacular to watch.”
Teams used to try to grind each other down, running the ball between the tackles. Now it’s a different sort of grind for defenses.
Ash says today’s matchups are more like the back-and-forth of a tennis match.
“All you have to do is break serve once or twice and you win the set, that’s how you look at defenses now,” Ash said. “If they score, that means they held serve. But if you get a couple of breaks and stop them that may be enough.”
While most teams in the Big Sky use quick-strike attacks, UC Davis operates primarily a more traditional, ball-control offense. When the Aggies move the chains, UCD coach Ron Gould says that benefits his defense.
UCD stymied Eastern Washington’s vaunted offense by limiting the Eagles to three first-half possessions. The Aggies trailed only 9-7 at the half, but critical penalties and two second-half turnovers doomed them.
“The best way you neutralize those great offenses is you have them sit on the sideline and watch the football game as a spectator,” Gould said. “But you’ve got to be locked in for 60 minutes. If you’re not, teams like Portland State, Eastern Washington and Montana State will score points, and they’ll score points fast.”
But with a record-setting quarterback in Garrett Safron, big-play receiver in DeAndre Carter and a veteran offensive line, Sac State often scores quickly. That puts the Hornets’ defense on the field a lot more.
But no matter what type of football teams are playing, Sears says ultimate success comes down to fundamentals and focus.
“Stats are stats, but from my perspective, it goes back to, can you stop the run?” he said. “You’ve got to be great tacklers, you’ve got to win the turnover margin, and you’ve got to defend the deep ball.”
Most Big Sky Conference defenses rank in the bottom half of the 121-team Football Championship Subdivision in scoring defense and total yards allowed. Here is how they rank:
Rank Team points allowed per game
16. Montana 17.2
53. North Dakota 25.0
66. Northern Arizona 29.0
69. Northern Colorado 29.3
72. Montana State 30.0
75. Cal Poly 31.0
78. Sac State 31.4
85. Eastern Washington 33.6
95. Weber State 35.4
97. Southern Utah 38.0
102. UC Davis 37.0
106. Idaho State 38.5
112. Portland State 42.0
TOTAL YARDS ALLOWED
Rank Team yds per game
34. Montana 338.8
36. North Dakota 340.6
61. Northern Colorado 381.0
77. Cal Poly 414.0
80. Northern Arizona 417.4
83. Montana State 424.4
88. Eastern Washington 430.0
93. Weber State 446.8
97. Sac State 458.2
101. Idaho State 469.8
108. UC Davis 484.5
113. Southern Utah 517.4
117. Portland State 542.8