The least imposing player in the room became the go-to guy Monday during the Big Sky Conference Football Kickoff.
Big Sky teams are taking on several Pac-12 schools and other higher-level programs this season. Jeff Badger, Sacramento State’s 5-foot-11 linebacker, is an expert about how to stage an epic upset.
Conversely, his words offer a warning to Utah, BYU and Utah State. Last September, Badger and his Hornets stunned Oregon State 29-28 in a season opener.
“We knew going into it that we could beat them, and we just had to play a perfect game — and we pretty much did that,” Badger said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re Pac-12, SEC, Big Sky … if you don’t come prepared, you’re probably going to lose that game.”
Well, not necessarily. The odds remain staggering for Football Championship Subdivision teams, which went 6-87 against bigger schools last year. Oregon State was the most notable upset victim, joining Duke, Western Kentucky, Minnesota, New Mexico and UNLV — which lost 41-16 to Southern Utah, now a member of the Big Sky, rebranded and expanded with 13 football programs.
“Hopefully, that just gives us confidence that we can play with bigger schools,” said SUU quarterback Brad Sorensen, “and that we’re just as talented as some of those teams.”
Sorensen fits that description, as the Big Sky’s preseason offensive player of the year. The Thunderbirds’ opener at Utah State will provide some gauge of him against USU’s Chuckie Keeton and Adam Kennedy, and the measurement can extend beyond that. Utah’s Jordan Wynn and BYU’s Riley Nelson later will meet the Aggie defense, and Sorensen’s statistics should compare favorably.
Utah is opening a second consecutive season against a Big Sky team, but saying that Northern Colorado is in the same league as 2011 opponent Montana State would be a stretch for just about anyone other than Clarence Bumpas. UNC’s linebacker describes Utah as “just another team” the Bears will face, coming off an 0-11 season.
Bumpas transferred from Kansas State, so he’s accustomed to high-level football. Yet his viewpoint is based not on that Big 12 experience, “just my competitive drive as a person,” he said. The Utes “put on their cleats one step at a time, just like I do.”
As for playing in front of 45,000 fans at Rice-Eccles Stadium, Bumpas said, “It’s exciting, knowing you’ve got this big audience. It’s one of those gladiator things — you either kill or be killed.”
Weber State quarterback Mike Hoke will perform in 64,000-seat LaVell Edwards Stadium in his team’s second game. Idaho State’s Kevin Yost, whose team lost 56-3 at BYU last season, told Hoke the noise level was not overwhelming, so “that was encouraging, at least,” Hoke said, smiling.
Weber State last played BYU in 1979. “It’s a great opportunity to get our name out there,” Hoke said. “We have a lot of guys from Utah. Growing up in Utah, I’m sure they wanted to go to BYU and Utah, so I’m sure those Utah guys will be real motivated to play against those guys and try to prove the coaches wrong that overlooked them.”
In turn, the mission of the Utes, Cougars and Aggies is to not overlook their Big Sky visitors. Sacramento State did those coaching staffs a huge favor. You’d better believe the story of the Hornets stinging Oregon State will be told over and over around here — how a team that would tie for fifth place in the Big Sky and post a 4-7 overall record in 2011 could beat a Pac-12 school.
Badger acknowledged the satisfaction of that season-opening victory “carried over too much,” but a bunch of Big Sky teams would love to have that problem.