Picked to finish eighth and ninth by the coaches in their annual preseason poll, Southern Utah (7-2, 6-0) and Portland State (7-2, 4-2) have publicly crashed the Big Sky Conference party normally limited to traditional powers such as Eastern Washington, Montana and Montana State.
When the 2015 schedule was released earlier this year, few took notice of Saturday’s Week 11 matchup between PSU and SUU at Providence Park (2:05 p.m. PT). Now it’s one of the biggest games of the Big Sky campaign as the Vikings and Thunderbirds are both heavily involved in the frantic title chase.
Owning an unbeaten conference mark, SUU controls their own destiny and a win by the Thunderbirds Saturday would guarantee them no worse than a tie for the regular season title.
For the Vikings, Saturday’s game could fairly be described as must-win on two fronts. First, a loss would eliminate Portland State from championship contention since they currently trail SUU by two games in the Big Sky standings, forcing them to rely on a possible at-large berth into the 24-team FCS playoffs.
Second, short of grabbing an automatic bid, Portland State head coach Bruce Barnum believes the Vikings need eight wins to secure a coveted at-large berth into the postseason. Thus, any setback to SUU would force the Vikings into a virtual must-win situation at Eastern Washington in the regular season finale on Nov. 21.
Losses in its final two games would compel the Vikings into an anxious, nail-biting hope-and-wait mode until the 24-team FCS playoff field, which consists of 11 automatic qualifiers and 13 at-large teams selected by the NCAA Division I Football Championship Committee, is announced after the games of Nov. 21.
“I have to make sure this football team understands what November is about because they have never done it since I’ve been here,” Barnum said. “They have never been in this situation. Usually, the players on this football team are buying their tickets home right now. I have to make sure they have a sense of urgency in the next two weeks.
“This is just my guess, but I think we have to have eight wins to get into the (FCS) layoffs. Otherwise, if we only have seven wins, we’re a bubble team. In order to win the conference, we must win the next two (games).
Closing the regular season with three straight losses would likely not bode well for the Vikings as far as the selection committee is concerned.
— PSU VIKINGS (@PSU_VIKINGS) November 10, 2015
“We need to make sure the selection committee has no doubt,” Barnum said. “At seven wins, they’re going to have a doubt. I’ve coached back East and I know a lot of people in coaching. I’m not sure they understand what the Big Sky is all about. But that is why I wanted to be a head coach in this conference.”
Glancing at the statistics, the reasons for Southern Utah’s meteoric rise to the top of the Big Sky standings are crystal clear.
The Thunderbirds lead the Big Sky in total defense (345.9 yards per game), scoring defense (15.9 ppg), pass defense (165.6), pass defense efficiency (94.3 rating) and interceptions (17). SUU has scored six defensive touchdowns.
In one impressive four-game stretch earlier this season, SUU posted consecutive shutouts over Weber State and Sacramento State and held Brevard College to seven points and UC Davis to six points.
Southern Utah has outscored opponents by a 314-143 margin this season.
“Watching them on film, they have put together one heckuva football team,” Barnum said. “They have some outstanding student-athletes. Scouts coming through have talked about some of their guys on defense. We’ll try to bring the fight to them.”
Equally important, SUU has built an astounding (and national best) plus-21 turnover margin, meaning the Thunderbirds have forced an average of 2.33 more turnovers per game than they have committed. Portland State is second with a plus-12 turnover margin.
In nine games, SUU has committed just four turnovers, less than one for every two games. Contrastly, they have taken the ball away 25 times, including the aforementioned league-high 17 interceptions.
Last Saturday’s 34-23 road victory at Montana State exemplified SUU’s season. The Thunderbirds held the Bobcats to a season low point total in winning a school record seventh straight game, holding Montana State to 420 total yards and intercepting three passes.
SUU defensive end James Cowser, the Big Sky’s all-time leader in career tackles for loss (73.5), is second in sacks (8.0) and TFL (12.5) this season behind Montana’s Tyrone Holmes. Chance Beamson has 11.0 TFL, fourth most in the Big Sky.
Cowser was named the 2015 Big Sky Conference Preseason Defensive Player of the Year, and he has unquestionably lived up to the billing.
— Big Sky Football (@BigSkyFB) November 10, 2015
— Southern Utah (No. 95) and Portland State (110) are the top two Big Sky reams in the latest Sagarin ratings (Nov. 9) of all Division I (FBS and FCS) teams.
— Saturday marks the third straight home game for the Vikings against a Top-20 program. PSU is 3-0 against nationally-ranked teams this year.
— Saturday is Senior Day as Portland State honors 22 seniors playing in their final regular season home game for the Vikings.
— Portland State and Southern Utah have three common opponents this season: Montana State, Cal Poly and Northern Colorado. The T-Birds are 3-0 against those teams, while the Vikings are 2-1.
— Southern Utah joined the Big Sky Conference in 2012 and the two schools have met twice since then. SUU has won both meetings. They did not play last season.
BIG SKY SCHEDULE (Nov. 14)
Northern Colorado at North Dakota, noon
Eastern Washington at Montana, 1:05 p.m.
Montana State at Idaho State, 1:35 p.m.
Cal Poly at UC Davis, 3 p.m.
Sacramento State at Northern Arizona, 3 p.m.
Southern Utah at Portland State, 3:05 p.m.
BIG SKY STANDINGS
Southern Utah 6-0 (7-2)
Eastern Washington 5-1 (6-3)
Portland State 4-2 (7-2)
Northern Arizona 4-2 (6-3)
Montana 4-2 (5-4)
Weber State 4-3 (5-5)
North Dakota 3-3 (5-4)
Northern Colorado 3-4 (5-4)
Montana State 2-4 (4-5)
Cal Poly 2-4 (3-6)
Idaho State 1-5 (2-7)
UC Davis 1-5 (1-8)
Sacramento State 1-5 (2-7)