Three weeks into the college football season, the Big Sky and Missouri Valley conferences have given FCS fans a glimpse of what the 2015 postseason could look like.
Montana delivered an upset of preseason No. 1-ranked and four-time defending national champion North Dakota State during Week 1. Last Saturday, Northern Iowa outlasted Big Sky Conference favorite Eastern Washington in a 38-35 shootout.
In between those two games, No. 17 Cal Poly went on the road to win its season opener against a Montana squad pegged as the next No. 1 team in the nation.
Now in Week 3, the Mustangs (1-1) are scheduled to play their home opener when ninth-ranked Northern Iowa visits Alex G. Spanos Stadium at 7:30 p.m. Saturday.
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“This is a big game for Week 3,” seventh-year head coach Tim Walsh said, “and it’s probably going to have something to do with how many teams we get in the playoffs and how many teams the Missouri Valley gets in the playoffs when it’s all said and done.”
Eight schools from the Big Sky and Missouri Valley qualified for the 24-team FCS playoff bracket last season. North Dakota State earned the Missouri Valley’s automatic berth, while Illinois State, Indiana State, South Dakota State and Northern Iowa each received at-large bids.
Eastern Washington was the Big Sky’s automatic qualifier for the third straight season, with Montana and Montana State — two teams Cal Poly beat in consecutive weeks — earning two at-large bids.
Walsh said the Mustangs believe they can contend for a Big Sky championship and a berth in the FCS playoffs, and a victory Saturday could go a long way in boosting those chances.
“I think regardless we’d probably have a pretty good buzz for this game,” Walsh said. “But we’ll probably get some student turnout that’s cool for us to have.
“It’s got the makings of a playoff game, and it’s only Week 3.”
Northern Iowa (1-1) has used a two-quarterback system through the first two games.
Aaron Bailey is a dynamic 6-foot-2, 226-pound quarterback who transferred from Illinois following the end of last season and beat out senior Sawyer Kollmorgen for the starting job.
Bailey leads the Panthers with 219 rushing yards on 41 attempts, including a career-high 134 yards in the win against Eastern Washington. He has also passed for 205 yards and three touchdowns with one interception.
Kollmorgen, a 27-game starter in his career at Northern Iowa, has relieved Bailey in both games this season. He led the Panthers in the fourth quarter against Eastern Washington by completing 10 of 13 passes for 103 yards and a touchdown.
“We’ve got to be prepared for both guys,” Walsh said. “We’d better be able to take care of the physicality and the speed of Bailey, and we better be able to take care of the pass game when (Kollmorgen) comes in.”
For 15th-year Northern Iowa head coach Mark Farley, discipline has been the word of the week in Panthers practice. He said eye control is the key to slowing Cal Poly’s triple-option offense, assigning one player “for the dive, the quarterback and the pitch. If somebody comes out of sync, then it becomes a big play.”
Farley played middle linebacker at Northern Iowa from 1983-87 and has won seven conference championships since taking over as the Panthers’ head coach in 2001. He’s beaten Cal Poly twice during his tenure and spoke highly of the Mustangs offense in his weekly press conference.
Cal Poly quarterback Chris Brown and running back Kori Garcia were the only players in the FCS to rush for more than 1,000 yards last season. With Joe Protheroe and Jared Mohamed emerging as consistent threats at fullback, Cal Poly has the sixth-best rushing offense in the country through two weeks.
“Take your eyes off your target for a split second,” Farley said, “that’s when it gets out the chute and the next thing you know he’s in your end zone. So that’s what we’ll have to discipline them on.”