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Despite playoff fizzle, big season for Big Sky

(STATS) – The FCS playoffs proved forgettable for the Big Sky. That was the only aspect of the conference’s 2015 season that could be described that way.

The Big Sky stood tall at the STATS FCS Awards Banquet last Friday, pulling a historic sweep of the four major individual awards – and fans will be treated to at least one more season from two of those players in 2016, when the league looks to continue further burnishing its reputation.

Montana was the only one of the conference’s three playoff teams to win a postseason game, and the Grizzlies were routed the next week 37-6 by eventual champion North Dakota State. However, the Big Sky took center stage when individual national awards were handed out in Frisco, Texas, with Eastern Washington receiver Cooper Kupp (Offensive Player of the Year), Montana end Tyrone Holmes (defensive player), Northern Arizona quarterback Case Cookus (freshman) and Portland State’s Bruce Barnum (coach) receiving top honors.

It’s the first time all of those award winners have come from the same conference.

“2015 proved to be a banner year for the Big Sky Conference, and we are very proud of all of the great coaches and student-athletes who make the Big Sky the ‘Heart of the American West,'” commissioner Doug Fullerton said.

Kupp’s eye-popping and record-setting numbers, Cookus’ precocious brilliance, Holmes’ tenacity and Barnum’s colorful, player-friendly approach helped deliver plenty of acclaim in a landmark season for the conference – even if the postseason results didn’t follow.

The Big Sky jumped onto the radar immediately, with Montana stunning North Dakota State – which won its fifth straight FCS championship Saturday – 38-35 on Aug. 29 in the FCS Kickoff, the opening Division I college football game of the season.

And the conference might be in for another banner season. Cookus, who followed Kupp (2013) as a Big Sky national freshman of the year, takes on the challenge of trying to at least match a season in which he finished second in the FCS in passer rating at 184.9.

“We have high hopes for him,” Lumberjacks coach Jerome Souers said after presenting the award to Cookus. “He just had a remarkable year. You’ll never hear of that kind of efficiency out of a freshman quarterback.”

Kupp perhaps somewhat surprisingly chose to return for his senior season despite a spectacular 2015 that cemented him as a strong NFL draft prospect.

“The challenge to be great day in and out, the coaches and players here (at Eastern Washington), they do that,” he said. “There’s no entitlement.”

Holmes hopes to find a spot in the NFL, joining an impressive list of Grizzlies currently in the league.

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Other highlights:

Conference champion: For the first time since 2009, a school other than Eastern Washington or Montana State won the conference crown. Southern Utah rebounded from a 3-9 effort in 2014 to go 8-4 overall and 7-1 in league games to secure its first Big Sky title. In a conference dominated by offense, the Thunderbirds found success behind a defense that limited opponents to a conference-low 20.8 points per game and recorded 20 interceptions, tied for third-most in the FCS. Southern Utah also led the subdivision with a plus-20 turnover margin. Four members of the defense were all-conference first-team selections with James Cowser earning Defensive Player of the Year honors.

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Game of the Year: All eyes were on Missoula, Montana, for the FCS Kickoff, with North Dakota State beginning its title defense against the Grizzlies in front of a national TV audience. The teams put on a show in a back-and-forth game featuring three ties and four lead changes. The final lead change came with 2 seconds left when Joey Counts scored on a 1-yard run on fourth-and-goal to lift Montana to the 38-35 win over the Bison, who would return the favor to Montana in the playoffs.

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Offensive Player of the Year: Kupp served notice of what was to come about as forcefully as possible in Eastern’s season opener Sept. 5, stunning seventh-ranked FBS opponent Oregon with 15 receptions for 246 yards – both Autzen Stadium records – and three touchdowns in a 61-42 loss. He went on to top the FCS in receptions (114), yards (1,642), receiving touchdowns (19) and yards per game (149.3).

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Defensive Player of the Year: The Big Sky’s unanimous preseason defensive MVP went on to win the conference’s season-ending defensive player of the year award, as Cowser concluded a storied career at Southern Utah. A STATS FCS Defensive Player of the Year finalist, he had 11 sacks and 17 tackles for loss and finished his career with FCS records of 43 1/2 and 80.

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Surprise of the Year: Few gave Portland State much thought at the season’s outset, at least in media, which picked the Vikings to finish 12th in the 13-team Big Sky. The low expectations weren’t surprising considering they were coming off a 3-9 season and were being led by an interim coach in Bruce Barnum. All Barnum did was direct Portland State (9-3) to two wins over FBS programs, a second-place finish in the Big Sky, the school’s first playoff appearance since 2000 and a No. 10 ranking in the final FCS STATS Top 25. Along the way he was rewarded with a five-year extension – which resulted in his players breaking out in cheers and chants when director of athletics Mark Rountree announced it after a practice – and was named the Big Sky and FCS Coach of the Year, rallying his team behind the moniker “BarnyBall.”

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Disappointment of the Year: A conference title and deep playoff run was projected for Montana State, but the Bobcats ended up suffering their first losing season since 2001 that culminated in the firing of their longtime coach. Picked to finish first in the Big Sky preseason coaches’ poll and ranked No. 11 in the preseason STATS Top 25, Montana State went 5-6 and tied for eighth. Led by quarterback Dakota Prukop, the Bobcats were third in the FCS with 41.9 points per game, but the defense allowed an average of 49.2 in their losses. Days after the season ended, Montana State dismissed Rob Ash after he had led the school to three conference titles in nine years in charge.

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Big Sky by the Numbers:

3 – Teams to make the FCS playoffs.

7 – Touchdown passes by Case Cookus against Northern Colorado on Oct. 31 – most in the FCS.

9 – Interceptions by Portland State’s Patrick Onwuasor – tied for the most in the FCS.

18 – Sacks by Montana’s Tyrone Holmes – most in the FCS.

19 – Receiving touchdowns by Eastern Washington’s Cooper Kupp – most in the FCS.

Plus-20 – Turnover margin for Southern Utah – best in the FCS.

59 – Point differential in Portland State’s 66-7 win over North Texas on Oct. 10 – the largest ever by an FCS program over an FBS team.

89 – Rush attempts by Cal Poly against Eastern Washington on Oct. 10 – the most by an FCS team since 2011.

275 – Receiving yards by Kupp against Northern Colorado on Oct. 24 – a school record and the most in the FCS in 2015.

422.7 – Scrimmage yards per game by the Big Sky – highest in the FCS.

526 – Passing yards by Eastern Washington against Northern Iowa on Sept. 12 – most in the FCS.

4,260 – Rushing yards for Cal Poly, breaking the school’s own Big Sky record of 4,221 set in 2014.

9 – FCS ADA Academic All-America team members, most in the FCS.

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Next Year: After missing the playoffs for only the second time in seven years, Eastern Washington will likely again be in the mix for Big Sky supremacy with Kupp returning. Northern Arizona was part of a four-way tie for fourth place and appears poised to get back to the playoffs for the first time since 2013 behind Cookus, who set the FCS single-season freshman record with 37 touchdown passes and averaged 301.8 yards of offense.

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