Intangibles adding up for Johnson, Griz offense

Intangibles adding up for Johnson, Griz offense

ROUND 2: Jordan Johnson went wild in a 55-17 victory at North Dakota last season. Montana's offense would love a similar jolt on Saturday.

On Saturday, Jordan Johnson and Montana's offense return to the site of perhaps their most efficient performance -- a 55-17 romp over North Dakota at the Alerus Center in Grand Forks, N.D.

Johnson's numbers that day were staggering: 15-of-19 passing for 354 yards and five touchdowns without an interception. In the end, Johnson set the single-game Big Sky Conference record for passing efficiency. His rating? An off-the-charts 322.3.

It's obvious that Johnson and the Griz haven't been as explosive this season as they were last year -- just compare the numbers -- but they've held on to much of their efficiency. Let's consult the intangibles:

 Through five games, UM is plus-6 in turnover margin, which ranks No. 1 in the Big Sky. The Grizzlies have turned the ball over only three times. 

• Montana has allowed just two QB sacks, and its per-game average (.40) is the second-best ratio in the Football Championship Subdivision.

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Big Sky Football: Five games to watch

Big Sky Football: Five games to watch

A look at the Week 6 matchups for the Bobcats and Grizzlies, plus three other games of note in the Big Sky Conference:

No. 7 Montana (3-2, 1-0) at North Dakota (2-3, 0-1), 12:30 p.m. The Griz travel to UND for the third straight season. Jordan Johnson set the league record for pass efficiency in a 55-17 victory there last year. This is a matchup of two of the Big Sky’s best defenses.

No. 13 Montana State (3-2, 1-0) at Sacramento State (3-2, 0-1), 7 p.m. MSU will be tested by Garrett Safron, one of the conference’s top quarterbacks. Will Dakota Prukop and the Bobcats capitalize on a Hornets pass defense that ranks near the bottom of the league?

Idaho State (2-2, 1-0) at No. 2 Eastern Washington (4-1, 1-0): QB Justin Arias and the Bengals can put up some points, but Vernon Adams and Eastern Washington have won 13 straight against Big Sky teams and own a 12-game regular season home winning streak.

Northern Arizona (3-2, 1-0) at Northern Colorado (1-3, 0-1): The Lumberjacks had to rally last week to beat Cal Poly, and they look to stay unbeaten in the Big Sky by winning their 12th in a row in this series. Quarterback health has become an issue for UNC.

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First look: Bobcats 29, North Dakota 18

First look: Bobcats 29, North Dakota 18

THROWBACK DAY: The Bobcats turned back the clock, and then turned back North Dakota.

Wearing throwback uniforms to honor the 30th anniversary of its 1984 national championship, Montana State did what it had to do to get a 29-18 victory over North Dakota on Saturday in the Big Sky Conference opener for both teams. 

Making up for last week's 52-51 loss to Eastern Washington, the Bobcats did it with defense, much like their 1984 counterparts would have done. UND rallied to make things interesting in the fourth quarter, but it wasn't enough. Here's a quick recap from a windy and cold Bobcat Stadium:

KEY MOMENT: The day's first touchdown came from Montana State's defense. On a third down play early in the second quarter, freshman safety Khari Garcia jumped in front of a Joe Mollberg pass and raced 45 yards to the end zone to put the Cats ahead 10-0. It was a tough sequence for North Dakota, which forced the Bobcats to a pair of three-and-outs in the first quarter and held them to just three points.

IT WAS OVER WHEN ... Mitchell Herbert caught his first career touchdown. Though a 16-yard TD run by Shawn Johnson earlier in the second quarter put the Bobcats ahead 16-0, a 21-yard scoop-and-score by North Dakota LB Will Ratelle got North Dakota back in the game. But not for long. MSU answered Ratelle's touchdown with a key drive that ended on a 26-yard TD throw from Dakota Prukop to Herbert, a freshman from Eugene, Ore. That put the Cats ahead 23-7 with less than 3:00 left before halftime. Thus, UND's late rally wasn't enough.

TOP OFFENSIVE PLAYER: Neither offense was spectacular. North Dakota's certainly wasn't, and Montana State's was completely pedestrian compared to last week against Eastern Washington. Do not take anything away from UND's defense: It lived up to its early-season performances. For the Bobcats, Prukop was again solid at quarterback. The sophomore fell short of his per-game offensive average output, and for the first time this year a team held him to negative rushing yards. MSU's entire ground game was pretty much locked down. But Prukop still threw for 269 yards and a touchdown.

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First look: Eastern Washington 52, Bobcats 51

First look: Eastern Washington 52, Bobcats 51

Vernon Adams led Eastern Washington on a nine-play, 73-yard touchdown drive with 1:55 remaining to beat Montana State.

Have you caught your breath yet? It was a back-and-forth thriller between the Bobcats and Eastern Washington. The Eagles, with Vernon Adams leading them on a frenetic fourth-quarter drive, prevailed 52-51. The Bobcats had a chance at the end but Dakota Prukop's Hail Mary fell incomplete. 

Here is a quick recap: 

KEY MOMENT: The Bobcats scored on a nine-yard throw-back pass from Prukop to Shawn Johnson to take a 51-44 lead with 1:44 remaining. But for the Eagles, that's way too much time. Adams and EWU moved the ball 73 yards on nine plays in just 1:28, capping it with a 1-yard TD run by Mario Brown. The drive included a 40-yard pass to Kendrick Bourne on fourth-and-10. Adams then ran in the 2-point conversion and Eastern, which trailed by as many as 14 points in the second half, had the winning points.

IT WAS OVER WHEN ... Not until Prukop's Hail Mary fell to the ground with no time on the clock. The Bobcats were trying to get into field goal range for kicker Luke Daly, and Prukop hit Brian Flotkoetter for 22 yards on the first play to midfield. But they couldn't get much closer. Daly has a big leg, and anything within 45 yards (roughly) would have been in his range, but MSU wasn't able to get there. 

TOP OFFENSIVE PLAYER: So many to pick from, but this game belonged to Quincy Forte. He was the MVP. The Bobcats had named Forte as the player they need to contain, and he ran for 190 yards and four touchdowns on just 17 carries, an average of 11.2 per rush. Forte left the game in the fourth quarter with an apparent injury, but he helped put the Eagles in position to win while Adams was just a little bit off the mark. Adams took over when it mattered most. 

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First look: Bobcats 43, Central Arkansas 33

First look: Bobcats 43, Central Arkansas 33

SIDELINE STRATEGY: Bobcats offensive line coach Jason McEndoo huddles with MSU players during the first quarter against Central Arkansas on Saturday.

What a fiasco. Central Arkansas made a huge comeback in the fourth quarter against the Bobcats, but MSU held on for a 43-33 victory. The game was well in hand for MSU early, and that became dangerous as the Bears fought back.

Here is a quick recap of the game, which pushed MSU's record to 2-1 with Eastern Washington coming into Bozeman next week:

• KEY MOMENT: Inside Bobcat territory on a third-and-2 play early in the second quarter, Central Arkansas had its sights on a touchdown to pare an early 10-point deficit. MSU cornerback Deonte Flowers was 1-on-1 in coverage with wideout Dezmin Lewis. Quarterback Taylor Reed threw a perfect pass that would have been caught for a TD had Flowers, who was beaten initially, not recovered and made sure Lewis couldn't hold on to the ball. That led to a missed 33-yard field goal by Jace Denker and the Cats preserved their two-possession advantage.

• IT WAS OVER WHEN ... Bobcats running back Anthony Knight scored his second consecutive touchdown in the third quarter, this time a 5-yarder with 56 seconds on the clock to make the score 37-13. Knight scored from 10 yards out on the previous drive, and a key defense stop on UCA's ensuing series -- highlighted by Taylor Sheridan batting down a third-down pass at the line of scrimmage -- put Montana State in command. It was a crucial turning point after Central Arkansas had driven 98 yards for a TD to pull within 10 points earlier in the quarter. The Bobcats nearly blew it in the fourth quarter, but Knight's second TD was the perfect insurance. He finished with three red-zone touchdowns.

• TOP OFFENSIVE PLAYER: Brian Flotkoetter. The senior wideout made several key plays, none bigger than a spectacular 46-yard touchdown catch over the top that put the Bobcats ahead 16-0 in the second quarter. Flotkoetter had gotten open behind two defenders, but was then interfered with by desperate Bears defensive back Artez Williams. Nevertheless, with Williams draped all over him, Flotkoetter hauled in the pass in over the shoulder and put MSU ahead by three scores. His final numbers: A career-high 9 catches for 132 yards and a TD.

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Grizzlies in the NFL: Carpenter nails winning kick in OT for Bills

Grizzlies in the NFL: Carpenter nails winning kick in OT for Bills

Buffalo Bills kicker Dan Carpenter, who played at the University of Montana, celebrates after kicking a field goal during the first half of a game Sunday in Chicago.

How former Montana Grizzlies fared in the National Football League on Sunday:

Colt Anderson, special teams, Indianapolis Colts: Did not register a tackle in the Colts’ 31-24 loss to the Broncos.

Kroy Biermann, defensive end, Atlanta Falcons: The Hardin native registered three tackles and three assists in the Falcons’ 37-34 overtime win over the New Orleans Saints.

Dan Carpenter, kicker, Buffalo Bills: The Helena native hit field goals from 50 and 33 yards in regulation, then nailed the game-winning 27-yarder in overtime to give the Bills a 23-20 win over the Bears.

Brock Coyle, linebacker, Seattle Seahawks: The Bozeman product did not register a tackle in the Seahawks’ 36-16 win over the Packers on Thursday.

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First look: Bobcats 57, Black Hills State 10

First look: Bobcats 57, Black Hills State 10

HOME COOKING: The Bobcats got their first win of the season by beating Black Hills State in front of a gold-clad crowd.

On the first drive of the game, Black Hills State sent a hush through a packed house at Bobcat Stadium. Behind quarterback Ward Anderson, the Yellow Jackets converted three third-down plays, including a scramble by Anderson on a third-and-17 play. But MSU's defense eventually strengthened and forced a punt.

And when the Bobcats got the ball, they set the tone for the rest of the night. Here is a quick recap of Montana State's blowout victory in its home opener Saturday:

KEY MOMENT: Dakota Prukop wanted to play better and run the offense smoother than he did last week at Arkansas State. It was important for him to get off to a good start. And on MSU's third play from scrimmage, Prukop showed why he is so dangerous in the open field. Faking a zone-read handoff to Gunnar Brekke, Prukop raced 60 yards for a touchdown to put the Bobcats ahead early. Prukop took the snap, pulled the ball away from Brekke, skipped through the line and darted upfield. Prukop slipped at least three tackles as he weaved his way through the second level, and finally dove into the corner of the end zone. It was the kind of start Prukop and MSU's offense were looking for.

• IT WAS OVER WHEN: Prukop raced 57 yards for a touchdown with 12:34 remaining in the second quarter. Taking a shotgun snap, Prukop ran left and had the option to pitch the ball to running back Gunnar Brekke, but he instead kept it, turned up field, hurdled over teammate Mitch Griebel and raced untouched to the end zone. That made the score 25-0, and ended any hope for Black Hills State.

• TOP OFFENSIVE PLAYER: It's Prukop here. The sophomore from Austin, Texas, accounted for five first-half touchdowns (three rushing, two passing) and looked like the dual-threat quarterback the Bobcats are investing in. Each of Prukop's first five scores went for 30 yards or more, and three were longer than 40. He totaled 378 offensive yards, and averaged 13 yards per play.

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Bobcats vs. Arkansas State: A closer look

Bobcats vs. Arkansas State: A closer look

The Bobcats lined up against Bowl subdivision foe Arkansas State on Saturday in Jonesboro, Ark. 

NOTE: The following is Phil Sites' account of the Montana State/Arkansas State game from Centennial Bank Stadium in Jonesboro, Ark. Sites is a former Gazette sports staffer. Be sure to check out Phil's awesome photo gallery from the game.

JONESBORO, Ark. -- It’s Labor Day weekend and Americans all over this great nation celebrate with family barbecues, road trips and planting themselves in front of the TV to watch some tiny FCS school play to a packed FBS stadium.

Yes, it’s that time of year where college football fans country-wide explain the complexities of the subdivisions to the uninitiated, fielding questions like, “Who is App State?“, “What is a Chanticleer?”, and “They have football in New Hampshire?”

Essentially, the haves of NCAA’s more prestigious and rich bowl subdivision pay off the have-nots for the honor of taking them to task. The result is, well, that we end up with games like Montana State vs. Arkansas State.

So off we ship our Montana boys to a spot just southeast of the Ozarks, tucked away deep in catfish country (or shall I say catfish-and-a-beer country, a meal personally recommended to me by Charlie Welch, Sr., the father of the Arkansas State University president).

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FCS vs. FBS: What does the future hold?

FCS vs. FBS: What does the future hold?

GOING BIG: Guarantee games like Montana's 2011 matchup with Tennessee are important both monetarily and for FCS exposure.

The evolution of college football -- from the Big Ten swearing off FCS opponents last year to the FBS's "Power 5" conferences gaining a large measure of autonomy from the NCAA earlier this summer -- is threatening to limit "guarantee" games going forward. The FCS-vs.-FBS matchups we're accustomed to (many of which are vital  for smaller schools to meet athletic budget demands) might be fewer and fewer in the coming years.

The Bobcats and Grizzlies are each playing FBS teams on Saturday. Montana is at Wyoming and MSU is at Arkansas State. Both are being paid in the $400,000 range.

The FCS's watershed moment, of course, occurred on Sept. 1, 2007, when Appalachian State stunned Michigan 34-32. On Sept. 11, 2010, James Madison shocked Virginia Tech 21-16. And on Aug. 31 of last year, Eastern Washington knocked off Oregon State 49-46. Those wins represent the only times FCS teams have beaten ranked FBS opponents. Will the FCS have those same opportunities five years from now?

Bobcats coach Rob Ash addressed the issue during his press conference on Tuesday:

“They already are starting to decline some. The big five conferences are starting to play (fewer) FCS opponents, and starting to play more and more of the other conference teams in FBS and paying big guarantees to those teams. I like them. I think it’s very important. I think it’s a great motivator for our guys when we play an FBS team. It’s a good payday. There are a lot of pluses from the FCS side, and we’ll continue to (play) them as long as we’re allowed to."

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2014 Big Sky position rankings: Quarterbacks

2014 Big Sky position rankings: Quarterbacks

ONE OF A KIND: With 75 career touchdown passes already, Eastern Washington junior quarterback Vernon Adams is 24 shy of setting the all-time Big Sky Conference record. But he wants a national championship.

NOTE: This is the ninth (and final) installment of a summer-long series projecting the Top 10 players at each position for the 2014 Big Sky Conference football season.

The Big Sky Conference is a league of quarterbacks. And one man stands above the rest: Eastern Washington's Vernon Adams. Adams (who they call "Big Play V.A.") was the runner-up for the Walter Payton Award last year, and is probably the favorite to win it in 2014.

As coach Beau Baldwin said about Adams last season, "This guy’s got the guts to go win games.” How far will Adams take the No. 1-ranked Eagles this season? Maybe all the way. But there are a bunch of other top QBs in the conference (there's nine others listed below) who may have something to say about it. Check out our final Top 10 list, and enjoy the season.

TOP 10 QUARTERBACKS

1. VERNON ADAMS, JR., EASTERN WASHINGTON 2013: 65.6%, 4,994 yds, 55 TD, 15 INT, 183.1 efficiency; 605 rush yds, 4 TD. THE BUZZ FOR 2014: Adams had the greatest statistical season of any quarterback in Big Sky history. The only thing missing was a national title (the Eagles lost to Towson in the semis). Adams won't necessarily be counted on to match last year's totals -- they're too mind-boggling. But he will be expected to make the same big plays, score lots of points and, if he can, lead EWU to Frisco and the national championship game. Expectations have never been higher. With Adams pulling the strings, you have to love their chances.

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What we learned at MSU's media day

Observations and quotes from Montana State's football media day, held Thursday morning at Bobcat Stadium in Bozeman:

 The competition for the placekicking job remains open -- and remains underrated

You never think about the importance of a field goal kicker “until the first time a game is depending on a field goal,” Bobcats coach Rob Ash said. “It’s going to be huge.”

Ash has had solid kickers throughout his coaching career, be it Billy Cundiff at Drake or Jason Cunningham and Rory Perez at MSU. But as camp moves foward the placekicking duties are still up for grabs between three Montanans -- Luke Daly from Billings Central, Trevor Bolton from Great Falls High and Trevin Thompson from Helena High. The fact that nobody has taken the lead in the competition might be a bit disconcerting, but there’s still time.

“It’s a very big decision and the guys have been battling hard,” Ash said. “There’s been a lot of tension because they’re trying to figure out who’s going to get the job. At some point I have a feeling one of them is going to take a deep breath and relax and just start making field goals, and that will settle it. We’d like to pick one guy, get him the confidence and move forward. But we really don’t know for sure which way it’s going to go yet.

August 14, 2014 1:30 pm Video Loading…
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Former Griz LB Jordan Tripp turning heads at Dolphins camp

Former Griz LB Jordan Tripp turning heads at Dolphins camp

Jordan Tripp has caught the attention of Miami Dolphins coaches in practice, earning repetitions with the first-team defense. Tripp, a former Montana standout at linebacker, was selected in the fifth round of this spring's NFL draft.

It's still early on the NFL calendar, but Jordan Tripp is already making an impression with the Miami Dolphins.

Tripp, a Missoula Big Sky graduate and former Montana Grizzly, was selected by the Dolphins in the fifth round of this spring's NFL Draft. After a strong performance in Miami's first preseason game, Tripp has received repetitions with the starting defense in practice, according to the South Florida media.

"It's a broad spectrum. The more knowledge you can bring to the game the more reliable you're going to be," Tripp, who is playing both inside and outside linebacker, told the Sun-Sentinel. "My comfort level is only getting better and better. I'm just taking advantage of the reps they give me and focus on making new mistakes, not the same ones again, and learning from those mistakes."

Tripp became a favorite of multiple NFL draft experts last spring as one of the small-school prospects to watch. His pro-day measurements impressed scouts, but it was his leadership and playmaking ability at Montana that really stood out.

The skill and motivation he showed in Missoula, which ultimately earned him the coveted No. 37 Grizzly jersey, have apparently put Tripp in position to grab one of Miami's three starting linebacker spots -- a rarity for a rookie, let alone a small-school player drafted in the fifth round.

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2014 Big Sky position rankings: Running backs

2014 Big Sky position rankings: Running backs

MAKE WAY: UC Davis running back Gabe Manzarares won the Big Sky Conference's Newcomer of the Year Award last season. Will he go out the same way he came in? 

NOTE: This is the eighth installment of a summer-long series projecting the Top 10 players at each position for the 2014 Big Sky Conference football season.

The loss of Kristaan Ivory puts a damper of Cal Poly's hopes going forward. Ivory was a returning 1,000-yard rusher and was picked for the preseason All-Big Sky Conference squad, but this week he found himself in hot water over an alleged robbery -- and suspended indefinitely from the team. The Mustangs won five conference games last season, but what happens now?

Even without Ivory, there's a treasure trove of talent returning at the running back position in the Big Sky: Manzanares, Forte, Canada, Johnson, Finney, Bolen ... and several others you don't know but should by season's end. 

TOP 10 RUNNING BACKS

1. GABE MANZANARES, SR., UC DAVIS 2013: 259 car, 1,285 yds, 5.0 avg, 10 TD; 27 rec, 385 yds, 14.3 avg, 1 TD. THE BUZZ FOR 2014: No back averaged more all-purpose yards per game than Manzanares, and only one (NAU's Zach Bauman) had more carries. A JC transfer, Manzanares emerged as a tough runner who took on a heavy workload and kept on ticking. He also proved to be a solid receiver out of the backfield -- a versatile threat. Coach Ron Gould mentored some big-time ground-gainers during his long tenure as the running backs coach at Cal -- Marshawn Lynch and Jahvid Best among them. Manzanares is Gould's latest protégé. 

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2014 Big Sky position rankings: Wide receivers

2014 Big Sky position rankings: Wide receivers

MORE OF THE SAME?: Eastern Washington's Cooper Kupp took the Big Sky Conference by storm as a freshman in 2013. He and quarterback Vernon Adams are after similar results this year.

NOTE: This is the seventh installment of a summer-long series projecting the Top 10 players at each position for the 2014 Big Sky Conference football season.

Who saw Cooper Kupp coming? The Eastern Washington receiver was the breakout freshman player in the Football Championship Subdivision last season, establishing himself as one of the top playmakers in the country. He and quarterback Vernon Adams were an invincible combo in 2013.

The league lost a handful of quality wideouts from last year -- Greg Hardin, Luke Austin, Ashton Clark, Tanner Bleskin, Morris Norrise -- but the breadth of talent returning, which includes Kupp, is staggering. Will Kupp hold his position as the Big Sky's best? Or will someone else take the mantle?

TOP 10 WIDE RECEIVERS

1. COOPER KUPP, SO., EASTERN WASHINGTON 2013: 93 rec, 1,691 yds, 18.2 avg, 21 TD. THE BUZZ FOR 2014: The sequel is never as good as the original, so it will be interesting to see how Kupp performs this season after winning the Jerry Rice Award as the top freshman in the FCS in 2013. What do you do for an encore? The statistics were staggering, but what really stood out were the explosives: Kupp made 11 catches of 40-plus yards, and had five touchdowns of 50 or more yards. By year's end he'd set six FCS receiving records. There's no reason to think Kupp won't be Vernon Adams' favorite target again, or that they won't rekindle the magic. 

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2014 Big Sky position rankings: Tight ends

2014 Big Sky position rankings: Tight ends

ADDED DIMENSION: After spending most of his time blocking for star running back Zach Bauman, R.J. Rickert may get the chance to stretch his legs a little bit more in 2014.

NOTE: This is the sixth installment of a summer-long series projecting the Top 10 players at each position for the 2014 Big Sky Conference football season.

We've talked before about how the rise of the Oregon-style spread offense has changed the role of the "classic" tight end in college football. The position is definitely evolving. Still, despite the lack of a household name, most teams in the Big Sky still use tight ends -- and use them to their advantage.

Who will make the biggest impact in 2014? These 10 guys are a good bet to do most of the work. And it's not easy to find 10 guys:

TOP 10 TIGHT ENDS

1. R.J. RICKERT, SR., NORTHERN ARIZONA 2013: 22 rec, 246 yds, 11.2 avg, 1 TD. THE BUZZ FOR 2014: Rickert caught at least one pass in NAU's final seven games last year, which was part of a six-game winning streak that earned the Lumberjacks a playoff berth. Rickert's numbers haven't been eye-popping, but NAU relied heavily on running back Zach Bauman, and Rickert did his job blocking down low. Bauman, incidentally, was the team's leading receiver last year with 44 receptions. But Bauman's gone, and coach Jerome Souers has said he thinks his team can be better in the passing game. That could translate into a bigger year statistically for Rickert.

July 31, 2014 12:30 amLoading…
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2014 Big Sky position rankings: Offensive line

2014 Big Sky position rankings: Offensive line

CLEARING A PATH: The beefy Cornelius Edison helped turn Portland State into a top-three rushing team in the nation last year. There's more where that came from.

NOTE: This is the fifth installment of a summer-long series projecting the Top 10 players at each position for the 2014 Big Sky Conference football season.

Cal Poly led the nation in rushing last season and Portland State ranked third. Individually, PSU's D.J. Adams and Northern Arizona's Zach Bauman both ranked in the top 10 nationally in ground yards, while five others eclipsed the 1,000 mark. And quarterbacks had big seasons also. Yes, the Big Sky sure got its money's worth out of its offensive linemen last season. 

But many of the big names are gone, including the entire group that was named first-team all-conference last season. A new year calls for a new crew to take over as the best in the league. Here are 10 to watch:

TOP 10 OFFENSIVE LINEMEN

1. CORNELIUS EDISON, C, SR., PORTLAND STATE 2013: 12 starts, third-team All-Big Sky. THE BUZZ FOR 2014: This will be Edison's third year as a starter, and so far he's been a major reason why the Vikings have become one of the very best rushing teams in the FCS. Last year PSU averaged nearly 278 rushing yards per game -- third-most in the nation -- and averaged a league-best 6.0 yards per carry. The Vikings do lose D.J. Adams, who was one of the best backs in the league the past couple years, but with the 6-3, 295-pound Edison helping to create holes they should have no trouble finding ways to churn out yards and production again this year.

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2014 Big Sky position rankings: Defensive line

2014 Big Sky position rankings: Defensive line

UNHERALDED: After a huge season in which he helped take Southern Utah to the playoffs for the first time ever, James Cowser looks to dominate again in 2014.

NOTE: This is the fourth installment of a summer-long series projecting the Top 10 players at each position for the 2014 Big Sky Conference football season.

The Big Sky Conference continues to be a breeding ground for great defensive linemen -- and Buck Buchanan Award winners. Montana State defensive end Brad Daly, after sharing the league's defensive player of the year award with Cal Poly tackle Sullivan Grosz, won the Buchanan Award as the top defensive player in the FCS in 2013.

It was the Bobcats' second straight Buchanan win (D-end Caleb Schreibeis won it the year prior), and served as the Big Sky's sixth Buchanan since 2003. Five of those, by the way, were defensive linemen. Who's next?

TOP 10 DEFENSIVE LINEMEN

1. JAMES COWSER, DE, JR., SOUTHERN  UTAH 2013: 78 tkl, 19 tfl, 10½ sacks, 8 qbh, 2 ff, 2 fum rec, 1 int. THE BUZZ FOR 2014: How Cowser wasn't a first-team All-Big Sky selection after last season is a mystery. How he wasn't a unanimous preseason pick for 2014 is also puzzling. Helping SUU to a surprising playoff berth, Cowser had more tackles than any Big Sky lineman last year, and his sacks and tackles-for-loss totals were second only to Buchanan Award winner Brad Daly. With linebacker Zak Browning gone, Cowser will command more attention from offenses, and that might tamp down his numbers. But his impact, which is significant, won't decrease. 

July 17, 2014 12:45 amLoading…
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2014 Big Sky position rankings: Linebackers

2014 Big Sky position rankings: Linebackers

TACKLING MACHINE: Linebacker Ronnie Hamlin (39) was injured during Eastern Washington's run to the 2010 national championship. Hamlin wants to taste a title before he's done.

NOTE: This is the third installment of a summer-long series projecting the Top 10 players at each position for the 2014 Big Sky Conference football season.

Southern Utah takes a major hit this year with the loss of first-team All-Big Sky linebacker Zak Browning, who has left the team to embark on a two-year Mormon mission. Not great timing for a program that made the playoffs last year.

Browning certainly isn't the first player to make such a commitment (and he won't be the last). The reverse of SUU's situation is Eastern Washington's fortune of getting Ronnie Hamlin back for a sixth year. So the Eagles' D hangs on to one of its fixtures while the Thunderbirds lose one of theirs. With Browning out and Hamlin returning, here are the 10 linebackers to focus on entering the 2014 season:

TOP 10 LINEBACKERS

1. RONNIE HAMLIN, SR., EASTERN WASHINGTON 2013: 140 tkl, 6 tfl, 2 sacks, 2 ff, 1 fumble rec, 2 int, 2 pass def, 1 TD. THE BUZZ FOR 2014: As if Eastern Washington needed any more star power, Hamlin is back after being granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA. Hamlin has already made 37 starts and has racked up 361 career tackles, and enters 2014 just 71 tackles shy of breaking the all-time school record set by former Buck Buchanan winner and fellow linebacker J.C. Sherritt. EWU has played 11 playoff games since 2009 (the year Hamlin arrived on campus). There should be more coming, especially with Hamlin wreaking havoc.

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2014 Big Sky position rankings: Defensive backs

2014 Big Sky position rankings: Defensive backs

A FRESH START: Eastern Washington free safety Tevin McDonald missed nearly half of last season with a leg injury. But he's back for bigger things in 2014.

NOTE: This is the second installment of a summer-long series projecting the Top 10 players at each position for the 2014 Big Sky Conference football season.

With Vernon Adams, Cooper Kupp and Co. coming back to Eastern Washington lock, stock and barrel, every defensive back in the Big Sky Conference is on alert. The Adams-to-Kupp combo was the scourge of the league last year, and the Eagles put up an astonishing 58 passing touchdowns.

But it's not just Adams. The Big Sky brings back a number of quality QBs, including Montana's Jordan Johnson and Sac State's Garrett Safron among others. So defenses will be tested through the air again in 2014, no doubt. Here are 10 DBs to watch this fall. As was the case in this space last year, the "pass def" statistic is combined between pass breakups and passes defended into one number.

TOP 10 DEFENSIVE BACKS

1. TEVIN MCDONALD, S, SR., EASTERN WASHINGTON 2013: 48 tkl, 2½ tfl, 1 int, 5 pass def, 1 ff. THE BUZZ FOR 2014: McDonald came to Eastern Washington in 2013 from UCLA, where he was a two-year starter, but he struggled through injuries and didn't put up the kind of stats he did with the Bruins. He missed EWU's final six games but was still named third-team All-Big Sky. The 5-foot-11, 190-pound McDonald, the son of six-time NFL All-Pro Tim McDonald, is an unquestioned talent. If he stays on the field he has what it takes to be the Big Sky's best defensive back. He's just one more stud on a team with serious national championship aspirations.

July 03, 2014 1:15 amLoading…
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MSU hoops going big early in 2014-15

MSU hoops going big early in 2014-15

THE LION'S DEN: Members of Kentucky's previous national championship teams re-raise the banners during "Big Blue Madness" at Rupp Arena. The Bobcats will play UK at Rupp on Nov. 23.

Montana State’s women released their basketball schedule on Tuesday, and there are a couple big non-conference games listed: at Boise State on Nov. 14, Gonzaga at home on Nov. 21, Wyoming at home on Dec. 6, and at Washington State on Dec. 20. Oh, and the doubleheaders have been reinstated for the Cat-Griz men’s and women’s games on Jan. 17 (in Missoula) and March 7 (in Bozeman).

But there’s bigger news on the horizon. MSU’s men’s schedule has yet to be released, but word out of the athletic department is that there will be some cool non-conference matchups for 2014-15, in particular games at UCLA of the Pac-12 on Nov. 14 and at iconic Rupp Arena to face SEC power Kentucky the day after the Cat-Griz football game (Nov. 23).

Those games, in fact, are bookend contests on a season-opening, five-game road trip that will take the Bobcats from coast to coast. Here’s how that trip will shake out:

• Nov. 14 at UCLA

• Nov. 17 at Grand Canyon

July 01, 2014 5:30 pmLoading…
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Cat-Griz Insider Blog

The Cat-Griz Insider blog is the one-stop spot on the Web for all the news and opinions pertaining to Montana Grizzly and Montana State Bobcat athletics. Comments are open!

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Greg Rachac

Sportswriter for The Billings Gazette covering Montana and Montana State athletics in addition to various high school sports.

Slim Kimmel

Online sports editor for The Billings Gazette.

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