Quarterbacks at control of Big Sky title race

(STATS) – Montana State desperately needs its new quarterback to be a capable replacement for starter Chris Murray, who is academically ineligible this season.

Quite simply, if a team doesn’t have a productive quarterback in the Big Sky Conference, it’s in trouble.

The concept isn’t particularly new across a conference that has produced six Walter Payton Award winners, but it stands out a little more because of this year’s depth at the position.

Among the returning QBs are last year’s All-Big Sky first-teamer (Northern Arizona junior Case Cookus), second-teamer (Eastern Washington senior Gage Gubrud) and third-teamer (UC Davis junior Jake Maier). On Monday, all three Payton Award nominees participated at Big Sky media day in Spokane, Washington, where Eastern Washington was installed as the preseason favorite in both the head coaches and media polls, with co-defending champ Weber State second and Northern Arizona third.

“We’re not going to be better or stronger just because we’re a year older,” Eastern Washington second-year coach Aaron Best said. “But once you apply another year of experience through this coming September, October and November, then we’ll have the entire amount of data to see where we go from there. We’re older, and, hopefully, that makes us wiser, tougher, stronger and hungry based on our outcome last year.”

The Big Sky is the largest FCS conference with 13 teams, so the QB play is always high. Gubrud, who set the FCS single-season record for passing yards (5,160) two years ago, surpassed Cookus on the conference’s preseason team, but both have the talent to be a first-team All-American. Still, Maier led the conference with 3,669 passing yards last season.

“It’s ridiculous, they drop the ball wherever they want to,” Southern Utah’s Demario Warren, the Big Sky 2017 co-coach of the year, said of the QB play.

“It’s hard to prepare for the Big Sky week in and week out.”

Idaho State senior Tanner Gueller was in the top 20 nationally in passing efficiency and passing yards per game last season, while Sacramento State dual-threat Kevin Thomson lifted the Hornets into the playoff picture as a junior. Like Thomson, seniors Jacob Knipp of Northern Colorado and Khaleel Jenkins of Cal Poly are coming off injury-plagued seasons.

The reigning co-champs are breaking in new starters, Southern Utah with junior Aaron Zwahlen and Weber State to be determined in a summer camp competition. Perennial powers Montana and Montana State are replacing last year’s starters sooner than expected, but both have former FBS players as successors. Montana’s Gresch Jensen transferred out, leaving the job to former UNLV signal-caller Dalton Sneed. Montana State announced last week that Murray is sitting out the 2018 season, likely leaving the job to junior college transfer Travis Jonsen, who spent time in Oregon’s program.

Idaho, a founding Big Sky member which returns after 22 seasons on the FBS level, and Portland State also will have new starters. Also, departing North Dakota isn’t eligible for the Big Sky title, but its games will count for Big Sky opponents in the standings. The Fighting Hawks have an excellent QB as well, as junior transfer Nate Ketteringham made 16 starts at Sacramento State.

“The quality of play at that spot has grown so tremendously that you’ve got to be very, very sound defensively,” said Sacramento State’s Jody Sears, the Big Sky’s other 2017 co-coach of the year.

“You can’t lose focus on one area. You’ve got to have some bread-and-butter and then you’ve got to get better at the other things.”

The Big Sky preseason team consisted of 31 players. Weber State led the way with six honorees and Southern Utah, which was voted sixth in both preseason polls, followed with five.

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KEY CONFERENCE GAMES=

Spotlight Game: Eastern Washington at Weber State (Oct. 13)

Seven different Big Sky teams have qualified for the FCS playoffs in the last two seasons, but these two have advanced the furthest – EWU to the 2016 semifinals and Weber State to last year’s quarterfinals.

Four More: Southern Utah at Northern Arizona (Sept. 22), Idaho at Eastern Washington (Oct. 27), Weber State at Southern Utah (Nov. 10) and Montana State at Montana (Nov. 17)

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BIG SKY PRESEASON POLLS=

Voted on by Head Coaches

1. Eastern Washington, 134 points (6 first-place votes)

2. Weber State, 124 (3)

3. Northern Arizona, 121 (3)

4. Idaho, 101 (1)

5. Sacramento State, 94

6. Southern Utah, 91

7. Montana, 82

8. Montana State, 76

9. UC Davis, 64

10. Cal Poly, 40

11. Northern Colorado, 30

12. Idaho State, 29

13. Portland State, 21

Voted on by Media

1. Eastern Washington, 651 (27)

2. Weber State, 636 (19)

3. Northern Arizona, 535 (1)

4. Montana, 496 (2)

5. Idaho, 483 (3)

6. Southern Utah, 449 (1)

7. Sacramento State, 415

8. Montana State, 391 (1)

9. UC Davis, 331 (1)

10. Idaho State, 170

11. Cal Poly, 169

12. Northern Colorado, 166

13. Portland State, 103

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BIG SKY PRESEASON TEAM=

Offensive Player of the Year – Keelan Doss, WR, UC Davis

Defensive Player of the Year – Josh Buss, OLB, Montana

Offense

QB – Gage Gubrud, Sr., Eastern Washington

RB – James Madison, Sr., Idaho State

RB – Antoine Custer, Jr., Eastern Washington

WR – Keelan Doss, Sr., UC Davis

WR – Emmanuel Butler, Sr., Northern Arizona

WR – Andre Lindsey, Sr., Sacramento State

WR – Alex Wesley, Sr., Northern Colorado

FB – Joe Protheroe, Sr., Cal Poly

TE – Charlie Taumoepeau, Jr., Portland State

TE – Wes Preece, Jr., UC Davis

OT – Iosua Opeta, Sr., Weber State

OT – Marquez Tucker, Sr., Southern Utah

OG – Noah Johnson, Jr., Idaho

OG – P.J. Nu’usa, Jr., Southern Utah

C – Zach Larsen, Jr., Southern Utah

PK – Trey Tuttle, So., Weber State

RS – Rashid Shaheed, So., Weber State

Defense

DE – George Obinna, Sr., Sacramento State

DE – Jonah Williams Jr., Weber State

DT – Jay-Tee Tiuli, Sr., Eastern Washington

DT – Tucker Yates, Sr., Montana State

OLB – Josh Buss, Sr., Montana

OLB – Kaden Ellis, Sr., Idaho

ILB – LeGrand Toia, Sr., Weber State

ILB – Chinedu Ahanonu, Sr., Southern Utah

CB – Khalil Dorsey, Jr., Northern Arizona

CB – Jalen Russell, So., Southern Utah

S – Wes Sutton, Sr., Northern Arizona

S – Mister Harriel, Sr., Sacramento State

P – Cade Coffey, So., Idaho

ST – Brady May, Sr., Weber State

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