Big Sky notebook: Turnovers a benefit and a burden for Cats, Griz

2012-10-08T23:00:00Z 2012-10-09T15:03:18Z Big Sky notebook: Turnovers a benefit and a burden for Cats, GrizBy GREG RACHAC grachac@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette

Last week during preparation for Montana State’s game at Big Sky Conference foe UC Davis, Bobcats coach Rob Ash addressed the issue of turnovers.

“We’ve got to get it fixed,” Ash said. “And we’ve been telling the team that if we don’t get it fixed we’re going to hurt ourselves and lose a game we shouldn’t lose.

“It’s an urgent priority. We’ve got to use good technique and decision making and up our focus. We mention it every day and talk about it all the time. But sometimes it rears its ugly head.”

It did again Saturday, when the Bobcats gave the ball away four times while surviving a scare from UC Davis, 48-41. Three of MSU’s turnovers directly resulted in 17 points by the Aggies in the third quarter, which erased the Cats’ 31-14 halftime lead.

Though they remain unbeaten at 6-0 overall and 3-0 in the league, the Bobcats are minus-5 in turnover margin.

His team also benefited from a few takeaways, including Darius Jones’ interception return for a touchdown in the first half, but Ash lamented the lack of ball security. Ash was quoted saying that in all his years as a collegiate head coach -- which spans 32 seasons -- he’s never had a team “be this careless with the ball.”

MSU’s 15 giveaways rank second-to-last in the 13 team Big Sky. The team that’s given away the ball the most? Montana.

The Grizzlies’ 16 turnovers through six games contributed greatly to a 3-3 start (1-2 in conference), including back-to-back losses to Northern Arizona and Eastern Washington.

First-year Griz coach Mick Delaney has routinely attributed the turnover bug to “simple mistakes,” though they took a big step forward in a 40-17 thumping of Northern Colorado on Saturday. UM stole the ball from the Bears five times -- including four interceptions -- while not giving it away.

Still, that only improved the Grizzlies’ to minus-4 on the turnover ledger, a far cry from their plus-11 standing en route to an appearance in the semifinal round of the FCS playoffs last season.

Turnovers are the X-factor that swings the balance of power in games, and can play a monumental role in winning or losing. And it might this week too, as No. 2 MSU hosts sixth-ranked Eastern Washington at Bobcat Stadium and as Montana welcomes Southern Utah to Washington-Grizzly Stadium.

UM and MSU’s opponents this week are tearing up the turnover ledger. Eastern Washington (4-1, 3-0 Big Sky) is plus-6, which ranks third in the league. Southern Utah (2-4, 1-2) is a staggering plus-10, which is tops in the conference.

Unheralded yet invaluable

Players like Caleb Walden don’t get much credit, even though he is one of Montana’s top special teams players.

But Walden was thrust into the spotlight in the win over UNC when he returned an interception 18 yards for a touchdown for the first points of the game.

The Bears were lining up to punt roughly two minutes into the second quarter when a botched snap forced punter Mason Puckett to try to throw the ball down field as UM’s special teams unit bore down. Puckett heaved the ball while being spun to the turf and it landed in the waiting arms of Walden, who then ran untouched to the end zone.

After a sluggish first quarter, Walden’s play was a catalyst that got the Grizzlies going.

It was one of their aforementioned five takeaways.

Walden, a senior from Boise, Idaho, made 14 tackles on special teams last year. A backup running back, Walden also rushed 11 times for 44 yards in 2011.

Bruised ’backer

Bobcats linebacker Jody Owens, the preseason pick for Big Sky Conference defensive player of the year, is questionable to play against Eastern Washington.

Owens suffered a bruised quadriceps early against UC Davis and did not return. If healthy, Owens would play a huge role in helping to slow EWU’s offense, which is led by dangerous dual threat quarterback Vernon Adams.

Another player the Bobcats are likely to miss this week is tight end Tiai Salanoa. Salanoa is listed as doubtful on MSU’s injury report for an undisclosed injury.

MSU wide receiver Tanner Bleskin returned to the lineup against UC Davis and made eight receptions. Bleskin sat out the previous game -- a 24-17 victory at Southern Utah -- with a concussion.

Coyle honored

On Monday, Grizzlies linebacker Brock Coyle earned a share of the league’s defensive player of the week award.

Coyle, a junior from Bozeman, made 11 tackles and had a sack, a fumble recovery and two pass breakups in the win over UNC. Coyle’s fumble recovery and subsequent 23-yard return set up a 19-yard field goal by Chris Lider in the fourth quarter.

Coyle shared the award with Sacramento State linebacker Chris Badger, who had 12 tackles, a sack and an interception in a 27-22 road win at Southern Utah.

Poll position

The Bobcats were again slotted at No. 2 while the Grizzlies remained on the outside looking in on the latest FCS Top 25 poll released Monday by The Sports Network.

MSU received three of a possible 167 first-place votes. Montana got 143 overall votes.

Is there any question who’s No. 1? Top-ranked North Dakota State routed No. 3 Youngstown State 48-7 in their Missouri Valley showdown last week. NDSU (5-0) received 164 first-place while YSU (4-1) dropped five spots to No. 8.

Old Dominion (5-0) jumped one spot to No. 3, while James Madison (4-1) and Wofford (5-0) rounded out the top five. Wofford travels to No. 7 Georgia Southern (4-1) this week.

Around the league

Portland State has had its problems through the first part of the season, but the Vikings came alive Saturday in a 77-10 throttling of Idaho State. Portland State amassed 758 yards of offense, second-most in school history. QB Kieran McDonagh had 366 of those yards, and won the Big Sky's offensive player of the week award. The 77 points marked the most by the Vikings since 105-0 win over Delaware State on Nov. 8, 1980. … Four Big Sky players were named to Rice Award Watch List. The Rice Award honors the top freshman at the FCS level. EWU’s Adams, UM QB Trent McKinney, SUU LB Zak Browning SUU S Miles Killebrew were among the 16 on the list. … With its win over Southern Utah, Sac State reached a couple milestones not seen since in 13 years. The victory gave the Hornets a 4-2 record and three consecutive road victories for the first time since 1999. ... The special teams player of the week award went to EWU KR Shaquille Hill, who returned a kick 99 yards for a TD in a 55-17 win over North Dakota.

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