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Big Sky Conference has Noteworthy Opening Night

Two Big Sky programs snagged victories over FBS foes on Thursday night. Is it a sign of changing tides in the FCS landscape?

NCAA Football: UC - Davis at California Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

College football fans across the country were eager to have a full slate of games to consume Thursday evening. Many had their eyes on Ohio State and Minnesota or the thriller in the Bounce House between UCF and Boise State, but if you turned your attention elsewhere you might have noticed something equally significant.

A handful of FCS teams kicked off their seasons last night as well, several against FBS opponents. Many of those games played out how they should’ve. Coastal Carolina blew the doors off The Citadel, FIU manhandled LIU and Western Kentucky romped Tennessee-Martin. That’s typically how some of those matchups go... some.

The Big Sky Conference, though, had no plans of sticking to the script. The Aggies of UC Davis were first up as they opened their 2021 campaign against the Tulsa Golden Hurricane. Tulsa is riding the heels of an appearance in the AAC championship game and comes into this fall with high expectations to make some noise in the American yet again. Entering the contest as an underdog on the road, the Aggies quickly made it clear that they weren’t there to simply roll over and collect a check.

Quarterback Hunter Rodriguez marched his offense right down the field and without even taking four minutes off the clock, giving UC Davis the lead. Wow. Okay, the Aggies mean business but it’s probably nothing that Tulsa won’t shake off... right?

It took a while but eventually the Golden Hurricane did get on the board with a Zack Long field goal late in the first. Trailing 7-3 still wasn’t ideal but all things considered, the defense was holding up well. They had just turned away the Aggies on a fourth and short and would force two more punts before the Tulsa offense finally found the end zone and took the lead.

When Steven Anderson pushed his way in from a yard out it must have given Tulsa fans collective sigh of relief. They were at home, the defense was playing solid ball and at last their team had the lead. Things would be just fine.

Not so fast. UC Davis linebacker Teddy Buchanan had something to say about that. He would pick off an errant pass from Tulsa QB Davis Brin and set up the Aggies’ offense for a field goal to tie things up as time ran out in the first half. If there wasn’t unease settling into Chapman Stadium before, there certainly was now.

Bad turned to worse in the third quarter for the Golden Hurricane and the visitors regained their lead with another Isaiah Gomez field goal. Now up 13-10 midway through the third frame, UC Davis was starting to feel it. Tulsa, too, was feeling something — an immense amount of pressure. Deneric Prince would give the Golden Hurricane just what the doctor ordered to quell that pressure, at least for the time being. Prince galloped 59-yards untouched right up the gut to reclaim the lead. All was well again.

The Aggies still refused to go quietly, though. Gomez connected on his third field goal of the night to cut the Tulsa lead to a mere point early in the fourth. Sometimes all an underdog on the road needs is the opportunity. If they’re within striking distance, that’ll be enough. It was the case for the Aggies.

Linebacker Cole Hansen snagged Brin’s second interception of the game and, much like the first, set up yet another field goal try. Gomez had already hit from 44, 26 and 22 yards so another 22-yard attempt was easy. He lifted the ball up and through. With 7:35 to go, UC Davis was up by two.

The ensuing Tulsa drive saw Brin and company methodically go 75 yards and chew clock while getting into range for a kick of their own. Beating an FCS team at home on a field goal late is not how you want to win these games but it would have to do. The Golden Hurricane seemed as though they’d survive, albeit barely. That’s when receiver Keylon Stokes picked a bad time for his first fumble of the season. After catching a pass from Brin he was hit by DB Chris Venable and coughed the ball up into the end zone. The Aggies promptly fell on it and secured possession for the touchback.

After several heavy doses of running back Ulonzo Gilliam, Tulsa had nothing left. UC Davis bled out the clock then rejoiced in celebration as they secured the first FCS-over-FBS win of the young season. What a night for the kids from California. What dismay for the Golden Hurricane who hadn’t fell to such an opponent for 35 years.

Fans who tuned into this game may have turned on their phones to check the scores of other games going on across the country. At one point they may have seen that UC Davis’ Big Sky counterpart Weber State actually held an early advantage on No. 24 Utah. They may have also noticed that another Big Sky team had kicked off their game over in Las Vegas.

Enter the Eastern Washington Eagles.

If you like defense this was the game for you, at least early on. Neither host UNLV nor the visiting Eagles would score any points in the opening quarter and in the second would only trade field goals. Rebels kicker Daniel Gutierrez’s two made kicks were the only thing that was giving UNLV the slim lead at halftime. Much like the Aggies down in Tulsa, Eastern Washington was going to a problem.

That became very apparent in the third quarter. After forcing a punt, EWU drove 62 yards on the arm of QB Eric Barriere and emphatically scored the first touchdown of the game when Barriere hit Efton Chism III on a 31-yard strike. Another UNLV punt would be followed up by the Eagles’ second field goal then a third three-and-out by the Rebels would be answered with another Eastern touchdown. Yikes.

Not only were the Eagles here to play, they had the makings of a blowout brewing and if UNLV wasn’t careful they would suffer a worse fate than Tulsa had. Things weren’t looking good in Vegas.

Now down 20-6, the Rebels kicked it in gear to start the fourth. Two more Gutierrez field goals made it a one-possession game but time was becoming an issue. With just over eight minutes to play, UNLV finally got the touchdown they had desperately sought all game long. Running back Charles Williams ran his way for a 16-yard score and the successful two-point try knotted things up.

In almost a mirror scenario of what had happened earlier in the evening down in Tulsa, though, Eastern gave itself a chance to win thanks to an interception. UNLV quarterback Doug Brumfield tossed his lone pick to DB Tre Weed late in regulation and, just as UC Davis had done prior, set up the potential winning field goal.

EWU kicker Seth Harrison was struggling though. Earlier in the game he had missed two field goal tries that could have made the ending of this one play out much differently. He was in his own head by this point and it showed. His 31-yard attempt with just three seconds left missed too and just like that, things were headed to overtime.

The Rebels got the ball first and, in three plays, finally gave their fans something to cheer about. Williams scored his second touchdown of the night with a 13-yard run. Now up for the first time all game, if UNLV could just hold once on defense they’d avoid the upset.

It only took Eastern one play to crush those hopes. Barriere uncorked a long pass to Dylan Ingram in the end zone to tie it all back up at 27 apiece. A second OT loomed and this time it would be the Rebels who’d have to come from behind.

Barriere did it again with another 25-yard touchdown throw to tight end Blake Gobel. This time it was capped with a two-point conversion meaning that UNLV would have to do the same or it would be over. Unfortunately for the Rebels, they were only able to duplicate the first part. Brumfield ran it in from 19 yards out but the Eagles defense bore down and thwarted the two-point try at the goal line. EWU players sprinted off the field, elated to be the second Big Sky team in as many hours to down an FBS foe.

Thursday night was fun even if you weren’t a fan of FCS football, no doubt. But if you were then it was beyond fun. It may have very well marked the beginning of a paradigm shift in the national landscape of college football at that level. The Big Sky has always been a prominent conference at the Division I AA/FCS level. The 13 teams that currently play in the conference have combined for five national titles since 1979 with several more appearances in the game.

But lately, thanks in large part to the dominance of North Dakota State, conferences like the Missouri Valley and the Southland have taken center stage as far as championships are concerned. In fact, the last time a Big Sky team took home the trophy was in 2010 when these very same EWU Eagles narrowly defeated Delaware. But could Thursday night be an indication that things are changing?

The conference has five teams ranked in the Top 25 heading into this season and you can bet that both UC Davis and Eastern helped their standings in that mix mightily with their upsets. With four more Big Sky schools set to square off with FBS opponents this weekend, there’s an opportunity for the conference’s already-noteworthy opening week to become even better. One of the four teams below could be the next to defeat an FBS program and if they do, you better believe the Big Sky is back.

Friday, September 3

Northern Colorado at Colorado

Saturday, September 4

Montana State at Wyoming

Montana at #20 Washington

Portland State at Hawaii