Nonconference games (with last year's records)
Montana (8-4) at Stephen F. Austin (8-3)
Montana, ranked in the top five in nearly every Division I-AA preseason poll, starts its march toward a national championship with a healthy Brian Ah Yat at quarterback. Ah Yat suffered a knee injury in Montana's 24-10 victory over the Lumberjacks in the opener last year and was never at full strength afterward. He could approach or surpass his 3,615 yards passing and 42 touchdowns in 1996. The Lumberjacks return their top six rushers but have a new defensive line. Montana leads the series, 2-0, and pummeled the Lumberjacks, 70-14, in the I-AA semifinals in 1995. The Grizzlies won the national championship that year.
Idaho State (3-8) at New Mexico (9-4)
Idaho State, near the bottom in passing defense in the Big Sky Conference last season, must try to contain senior Graham Leigh. He passed for 2,318 yards and a school season-record 24 touchdowns last year and was the team's leading rusher with 528 yards. New Mexico has a new coach, former UCLA defensive coordinator Rocky Long, and its sights on a second consecutive Western Athletic Conference Mountain Division title. Jim Fenwick, Cal State Northridge's coach last year, is the offensive coordinator for the Lobos. New Mexico last defeated the Bengals, 39-13, in 1993 and is 2-0 in the series.
Northern Arizona (6-5) at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo (10-1)
The arm of Northern Arizona junior Travis Brown and the legs of San Luis Obispo running backs Antonio Warren and Craig Young could prove the difference. Brown ranks third in career touchdowns at the school with 43. Warren last season rushed for 1,151 yards, Young for 1,038. Northern Arizona Coach Jerome Souers, Montana's defensive coordinator the last 10 seasons, is trying to become the third consecutive Lumberjack coach to win his first game. Coach Larry Welsh, in his second season with the Mustangs, is seeking San Luis Obispo's first victory in four meetings with his alma mater.
Eastern Washington (12-2) at Idaho (5-6)
Despite losing key personnel, Eastern Washington remains one of the top I-AA teams. Idaho, a former Big Sky member now getting banged around in the Big West, is among the worst in I-A. Eastern Washington, the Big Sky defending champion, features senior running back Mike MacKenzie. He ranked fourth in the conference in rushing last season with 755 yards. Idaho has a definite home-field edge, holding a 7-2 series record against the Eagles at the Kibbie Dome. Eastern Washington last year defeated the Vandals, 24-21, in Spokane, Wash.
Fort Lewis (4-7) at Montana State (6-5)
Montana State, which hasn't lost a home opener since 1988, is not in danger of losing this one in their newly renovated stadium. Senior quarterback Rob Compson, who last season set a school season record with a 60.3% completion percentage, leads the Bobcats. Senior linebacker Ken Amato, a former standout at Moorpark College, anchors the defense. Montana State is expected to challenge Montana for the Big Sky title. Fort Lewis returns 11 starters. The Skyhawks lost their only meeting with Montana State, 58-20, in 1993.
Cal State Sacramento (1-10) at St. Mary's (4-6)
The Hornets are aiming for their third victory . . . in three seasons. But they are winless against St. Mary's, a I-AA independent, in the last three meetings, from 1993-95. Senior A.J. Bernhardt, who last year passed for 1,876 yards and eight touchdowns, gets the start for the Hornets. Sacramento senior linebacker Ryland Wickman is an All-American candidate. St. Mary's offensive starters include a new quarterback, running back, two receivers, a tight end and three linemen.
Weber State and Portland State
Weber State opened the season Thursday with a 38-7 victory over Montana Tech. Portland State opens the season with a Big Sky game against Eastern Washington next week.