It’s been written about several times in these pages but it bears repeating as the sentiment keeps coming from the league’s coaches — the Big Sky Conference is very strong in 2012.
The UC Davis football team (3-6, 2-4) — though coming off of a bye last week — has been reminded of this on the field each of the previous six weeks, and will get a refresher on Saturday when it travels to Roos Stadium to face No. 5 Eastern Washington.
Ironically, though the Eagles feature a red turf field nicknamed The Inferno, the forecast for Saturday’s kickoff has temperatures below freezing.
As proof of how tough UCD’s Big West schedule has been, three of its four conference losses have come against teams atop the league standings. And now the Aggies face Eastern Washington (7-2, 6-1), which was No. 1 in the Football Bowl Championship ranking earlier this year.
“Week in and week out it’s a great challenge and, quite frankly, just about anybody on any given week can give somebody else a great game, if not win,” Aggie coach Bob Biggs said of his program’s initial foray through the Big Sky.
No. 11 Northern Arizona sits on top of the conference with its 6-0 Big Sky record, while No. 2 Montana State (5-1), which beat the Aggies 48-41 on Oct. 6, is just behind the second-place Eagles. Behind the Grizzlies is No. 19 Cal Poly, which includes a 28-20 win over UCD on Sept. 22 as part of its 5-2 league mark.
But the scores against Montana State and Cal Poly reveal another point of view in examining the strength of the Big Sky. While the Aggies face tough opposition each week, their opponents are facing a UCD team that is capable of winning on any given Saturday.
Eastern Washington coach Beau Baldwin certainly has his guard up, especially after his squad’s 30-27 loss last month to Southern Utah, which has a similar record as the Aggies.
“You’ve got to study the opponent you’re playing … and not pay any attention to what their record is,” Baldwin said on the weekly Big West teleconference. “Every team is a challenge in this conference right now. We’re going to play a very good UC Davis team, and we have to do things right if we are going to have a chance to win on Saturday.”
Baldwin knows his team has to deal with an Aggie offense that can gain yardage on the ground and through the air, and is at its best when it can establish the run to set up play-action passes down the field.
UCD’s Randy Wright, who is near the end of his third full season as the starter, has completed 60 percent of his passes for 1,930 yards and 11 touchdowns — though his 12 interceptions have been a problem.
On the ground, the Aggies don’t have one dominant runner but have used their four horsemen — Marquis Nicolis, Colton Silveria, Courtney Williams and the bruising Dalton Turay — to combine for 1,264 yards (5.1 yards per carry) and 15 TDs.
The Eagles offense must deal with UCD’s two star linebackers in Jordan Glass (67 tackles, including 7.5 for loss) and Byron Gruendl (68, 5) — who each have two interceptions — as well as pass-rushing linemen Andrew Benjamin and Nick King, who are tied for the team lead with 4.5 sacks apiece.
And if the Aggies are forced to punt, Colton Schmidt’s 43.6 average is the seventh-best in the country.
Game time is 1:35 p.m., and the game can be heard on KHTK (1140 AM).
Notes: Eastern Washington will have to come out strong as UCD has outscored opponents, 68-35, in the first quarter this season. … Eagles QB Vernon Adams is the Big Sky’s reigning Offensive Player of the Week after completing 19-of-29 pass for 299 yards and three touchdowns and rushing for 68 more yards in a 34-17 win over Cal Poly. “They’ve got a terrific pass game with some very talented receivers, probably as talented a group of receivers as we’ve seen all year. But they run the ball effectively as well,” Biggs said. “You throw in Vernon Adams and his ability to make plays with his legs … they’re prolific, they’re gonna score their points. I think what you have to do is contain them and make them work for everything they get.”
— Reach Chris Saur at firstname.lastname@example.org or 530-747-8049.