COLLEGE FOOTBALL: Does Big Sky have a defense problem?

PARK CITY, Utah -- Mike Kramer has been a part of the Big Sky Conference since 1972. He played at Idaho and coached at Eastern Washington, Montana State and now Idaho State.

UND defensemen Brandon Dranka (99) and Will Ratelle (51) celebrate a tackle of Portland State's Shaquille Richard in Big Sky game at the Alerus Center. photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

PARK CITY, Utah -- Mike Kramer has been a part of the Big Sky Conference since 1972. He played at Idaho and coached at Eastern Washington, Montana State and now Idaho State.

The 57-year-old Kramer is the closest thing to a league historian and one of the more outspoken coaches in the FCS.

So clearly, he has a pretty good grasp on trends in the Big Sky.

At the Big Sky Conference football kickoff event last week, Kramer was asked about the league’s reputation for soft defenses.

“Until we get better on defense, it’s going to be a fun place to play, but it won’t be great in December,” Kramer said.


Big Sky coaches ran the gamut of opinions when it came to questions about defense. Some thought it was a misconception. Some blamed the high-powered offenses.

Did Kramer think it was fair?

“Well deserved,” he said.

The Big Sky has a reputation for games turning into offensive shootouts. League supporters focus on the good offense and detractors point out the defense.

Statistics reflect the reputation.

In 2014, Big Sky teams allowed 30.8 points per game. That was the league’s highest average since 1999 (31.3). Big Sky offenses averaged 29.6 points per game, which is the highest since 2012 (29.9). It’s also the second-highest since 2001 (31.9).

In 2014, the Big Sky possessed four of the top 10 passing offenses in the FCS and five of the top 12 in total offense.

In 2014 defense, the Big Sky was responsible for six of the eight worst passing defenses in the FCS. Of 121 teams, the Big Sky held down rankings of 114 through 119 (Sacramento State, UC Davis, Portland State, Southern Utah, Idaho State and Montana State).


Although the Big Sky has a reputation as a passing league, the conference’s rushing numbers are increasing while the passing stats have stayed generally consistent.

In 2014, the Big Sky rushed for 178.3 yards per game, which is the highest average since 1979 (179.2). In 2014, the Big Sky passed for 249.2 yards per game, which is the same total the league passed for on average in 2012 and more than 7 yards per game less than 2009.

The Big Sky’s biggest passing year was 1991 when teams threw for an average of 284.6 yards per game.

The Big Sky’s defensive numbers have come under criticism the past two years due to the league’s showing at the FCS playoffs.

In 2014, Montana State was bounced in the first round by South Dakota State, which scored 47 points. In the quarterfinals, Eastern Washington was beaten out by Illinois State, which scored 59 points.

In 2013, Southern Utah was beat in the FCS first round by Sam Houston State, which scored 51 points. Montana gave up 42 points to Coastal Carolina in a loss, while Towson beat Eastern Washington in the semifinals with a 35-point performance.

EWU coach Beau Baldwin, though, doesn’t think the Big Sky has a big defensive problem. He points to 2010, when his program won the national championship with a 20-19 victory over Delaware.

“It was a Big Sky defense that won that national title,” Baldwin said. “There’s no way we can win X amount of Big Sky titles without having a defense that can stand the test nationally. I think people get enamored with a couple of scores or some gaudy numbers.”


Baldwin also pointed out a shift in college football to uptempo pace and rule changes that have benefitted the offense.

“What’s considered a good defense now wasn’t 15 years ago,” he said. “College football is evolving. There was a time you felt good giving up 17 points in a game. But now, sometimes you can give up 28 or 29 points in a game and feel like you played pretty good defense.”

Montana State coach Rob Ash prefers to focus on good offenses in the Big Sky.

“You have to play offense in the Big Sky,” Ash said. “A lot of people draft for offense. A couple of my guys, Gunnar Brekke and Chad Newell, would’ve been great defensive players. But we need to score points in this conference.”

In the offseason, Ash restructured his defensive staff. He promoted former player Kane Ioane to co-defensive coordinator.

“He’s more aggressive and hopefully our defense takes on that personality,” Ash said. “We just tried to draft into our defense more. We brought in about seven transfers and 10 freshman defensive players.

“North Dakota State has proven you need to play defense to win championships, so you have to get that side of the ball as good as it can be. But if you don’t score points out here, you’re going to be in trouble.”

Part of the difficulty, according to Northern Arizona coach Jerome Souers, is the unique nature of the offenses in the Big Sky, a large league with 13 teams.


“The offenses across the league give you a different look every week,” Souers said. “Everyone has their own flavor of the spread. It isn’t like the old days where you see the same thing every week.”

New Montana coach Bob Stitt should be comfortable in his new league. Stitt is an offensive-minded head coach, who is considered a disciple of former Oregon coach Chip Kelly and his fast-paced style.

Stitt said if the offense is executed as designed it can benefit the defense.

“The thing we have been able to do with the uptempo offense is be efficient,” said Stitt, who was previously the head coach at Colorado School of Mines. “We have been Top 25 in time of possession. We run a lot of plays, but we don’t have the defense on the field as much. We want to be effective enough that it doesn’t impact our defense. We don’t want to throw them right back out there.”

Kramer, who has been at Idaho State for six seasons and whose Bengals led the league in passing the past four years, has his own theories on Big Sky defense.

“Until we get better defensive lineman, it won’t improve,” Kramer said. “There are no big guys who can move in the west. If there are, they’re in the Pac 12.”

Kramer pointed out the Bengals had one of the league’s best defensive lineman of all-time in NFL star Jared Allen.

“Yet, he came to us with off-field problems that precluded him from going anywhere else,” Kramer said. “You won’t find guys who are good enough to play elsewhere. We don’t have those types.”


So, Kramer says the strategy to counter the defensive lineman problem is easy.

“You try to be better on offense,” he said. “If our league doesn’t have great quarterback play, we won’t go to Texas (site of FCS national championship game) again. If you look at all of the teams that have been successful at our level, they all have great quarterback play.”

Miller has covered sports at the Grand Forks Herald since 2004 and was the state sportswriter of the year in 2019 and 2022.

His primary beat is UND football but also reports on a variety of UND sports and local preps.

He can be reached at (701) 780-1121, or on Twitter at @tommillergf.
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