The University of Northern Colorado football team will be back at Nottingham Field this Saturday at 2 p.m.
The Bears will face conference opponent Sacramento State in a non-conference matchup.
After two weeks of the regular season, the UNC Bears are 0-2 after two Cinderella-style comebacks fell short against McNeese and South Dakota.
The visitors have a 1-1 record after a win over NAIA (smaller than Division 3) St. Francis (Illinois) 55-7 and a close game with FBS opponent San Diego State 28-14.
UNC is 2-10 all time against Sacramento State, the Bears have won two of the last three meetings.
Last year’s matchup resulted in a 50-21 loss in Sacramento, although Jacob Knipp was already out for the season. Backup Connor Regan did find some success despite the loss.
The Big Sky Conference is agreed upon by the majority of analysts to be the third toughest of the 13 FCS Football conferences.
That, coupled with being the biggest conference, allows for a great deal of uncertainty in front runners and variable schedules since not all teams get a chance to square off each season.
As part of the “Wild West” there is always the ability to go from struggling to competing in the matter of a season.
For the 2015 and 2016 seasons Sacramento State went just 2-9, but last year the Hornets pulled off a 7-4 record placing third in the Big Sky.
UNC has experienced this phenomenon last season as they had two winning seasons of 6-5 in 2015 and 2016, but took a losing skid when starting quarterback Jacob Knipp went down with his second season-ending injury in two years.
The Hornets may not offer stability as a threat to the Bears, but the passing game will provide substantial concern.
Coach Collins admitted last week in a post-game interview that the “pass-coverage was just bad.”
As a multi-season Achilles heel for the Bears, they have been traditionally poor at covering the flats and deep ball coverage.
Defensive Coordinator Marty English is likely hard at work to repair the already simplified defense into a more form-fitting scheme for the players available after cornerback Marshaun Cameron suffered a season-ending injury in practice, days before the McNeese game.
While the Bears have lost two games consecutively, they have made many improvements offensively by getting a few more opportunities for rushing yards and producing more big gain catches.
Trae Riek’s numbers may have been similar to last weeks, but the inclusion of the receivers on run plays helped produce drive-sustaining plays.
The creative play calling of end arounds, quarterback draws with a receiver at quarterback, or even a successful “Philly-Philly Special” type play were a welcome sight for Bears fans to an otherwise mundane run game.
Another welcome sight is to see the Knipp-Wesley connection back in full swing. While many quarterback and receiver duos are great these two players have an uncanny connection.
Last week at South Dakota the “Aaron Rodgers-Randall Cobb” like connection paired up for 10 catches for 184 yards and a touchdown. The big question for this week: Will they be able to reproduce the magic?
What to Expect
The Bears have been making noticeable improvements offensively, but regressed defensively last week against a high-powered South Dakota offense.
Players from each side of the ball must make impactful plays throughout the game.
In an interview with Bear Vision, Jacob Knipp said “The team needs to play a full game if we expect to win.”
Conference opponents — whether counted as a conference game or not — are tougher since opponents know who they are playing, have an idea of how they will play and have seen the majority of the tricks.
Big Sky Through Week 2
UC Davis (The Bears week 6 opponent) and Northern Arizona (week 8) both took down FBS opponents in upset games.
UC Davis beat San Jose State 44-38 and NAU beat UTEP 30-10.
In week 1, Montana beat Northern Illinois 26-23 and Montana State beat Western Illinoi 26-23 as well to start the Big Sky vs Missouri Valley Challenge 2-0.
In week 2, Montana continued their success with a dominant 48-16 win over Drake.
Montana State was not as good in week 2, suffering a 45-14 loss to No. 3 S. Dakota St.
Other Important FCS Games
FCS Games of the Week (games that will shape the playoff race)
Nicholls vs. McNeese State
South Dakota vs. Weber State
North Dakota vs. Sam Houston State
The Mirror’s Keys to the Game
Pass coverage: This is a continual issue with the Bears, and they need to either find ways to pressure the quarterback with more than just Henry Stelzner and Kiefer Morris, or to shut down big gains through the air.
Create turnovers: The Bears defense has been out on the field all too often. While they did well creating turnovers in week 1, week 2 was desolate for takeaways.
Sack the QB: No one could contain Austin Simmons. That can’t happen with the amount of talent at QB in the Big Sky.
Stelzner and Morris are playing great, but they need help getting to the quarterback.
Limit sacks: Knipp was getting hit hard and often in Vermillion last weekend, in one instance even looking sore or winded. Knipp is a high caliber QB that has NFL potential (Knipp is tabbed as 14th most draftable QB in this year’s class). A leader that strong needs to be protected in order to lead them effectively.
Don’t give up on the run: The running game has not met its full potential yet and is essential to giving Knipp a chance, especially if the offensive line is having a tough day.
Limit penalties: Two weeks in a row the offense has been assessed with a penalty on a potential touchdown play. Another touchdown would have made week 1 a win and week 2 a lot more exciting. The Bears are their biggest enemy in the red zone.