Weber State and Sacramento State have long been afterthoughts in the annual Big Sky championship race. It's been eight years since either team has finished in the top three in the conference standings.

The Wildcats and Hornets, both of whom have conference-title aspirations this year, meet in their Big Sky opener in Sacramento this afternoon. Kickoff is at 3:05 p.m. (MST), and the game can be seen online at

"Our big goal is to win the Big Sky, and this is going to start off our league play in the direction we need to be in," said Wildcats defensive tackle Bryce Scanlon. "We're not going to take them lightly. We'll go there and play hard and do what it takes to win."

The Hornets are 2-1 for the first time since 2001, and their only loss was a 23-20 defeat against Colorado State. They are in a similar position as Weber State this season. They have long been regarded as a mediocre program, but they seem to have the pieces in place to make a run at the Big Sky championship this season.

It's only September, but the loser of this game can probably forget about contending for the conference crown. With games remaining against powerhouses Montana and Eastern Washington, neither team can afford to suffer a Big Sky loss this early in the season.

"It's a big game for our program, for our school and for our community this week," Sacramento State senior linebacker Mike Brannon told the Sacramento Bee earlier this week.

Sacramento State racked up more than 500 yards in a win over Southern Oregon last week, but the strength of the team is its defense. Brannon and Cyrus Mulitalo are two of the best linebackers in the conference. The Hornets rank first in the Big Sky in total defense, allowing just 280 yards per game.

"They're good," said Wildcats quarterback Cameron Higgins. "They fly around to the ball. They're really sound in their defense. They'll be tough. It will be a good match."

It will be strength vs. strength when Weber State has the ball. The Wildcats, who scored on all six of their first-half possessions against Dixie State last week, lead the Big Sky in scoring with an average of 41 points per game.

"They're very explosive on offense," said Sacramento State coach Marshall Sperbeck. "Overall they're a very good football team. They play hard and they're well-coached. They're one of the toughest teams we'll face."

Sacramento State is banged up on offense. Quarterback Jason Smith injured his ankle in the team's loss to Colorado State and is questionable for today's game. Starting running back Bryan Hilliard suffered a shoulder injury in that same game and sat out last week.

Their replacements played well against Southern Oregon. Quarterback McLeod Bethel-Thompson, who started for UCLA against BYU in the Las Vegas Bowl last year, threw for 255 yards and a touchdown. Evander Wilkins, Hilliard's replacement, leads the Big Sky in rushing with 317 yards on 47 carries.

"Sac State's got a really good team — the best I've seen in three years here," Scanlon said. "If we do win this game, it will put us in position to have teams worry about us."

Wildcats on the air

Weber State (2-1, 0-0) at Sacramento St. (2-1, 0-0)

Today, 3 p.m.

Hornet Stadium

TV: None; Radio: 1430 AM

E-mail: [email protected]