(STATS) - The Big Sky Conference has long been a haven for quarterbacks and high-flying offenses.
They met a lot of resistance this season, however, as defensive ends James Cowser of Southern Utah and Tyrone Holmes of Montana and free safety Patrick Onwuasor of Portland State have helped fuel three excellent defenses.
Members of the three Big Sky teams that qualified for the FCS playoffs, the trio of seniors are grouped tightly near the top of the national voting for STATS FCS Defensive Player of the Year. All three have been invited to the national awards banquet and presentation, where the winner of the award will be announced Jan. 8 in Frisco, Texas - the night before the FCS national championship game.
"Even though we've had so many good offensive players, our most successful teams have had players that could make game-changing plays on defense," Big Sky commissioner Doug Fullerton said.
"Quite frankly, look at the three most successful teams in the league this season, in Southern Utah, Portland State and Montana. All three of them have a player who is a legitimate contender to be named the nation's best defensive player. I don't think that's just a coincidence."
Cowser, a native of Fruit Heights, Utah, was selected as the Big Sky defensive player of the year and to the all-conference first team for the second consecutive season. He helped Southern Utah win the outright Big Sky title one year after the Thunderbirds (8-4) went 3-9.
He had a huge performance in their first-round playoff loss at Sam Houston State on Saturday to finish the season with 68 tackles (34 solo), 19 tackles for loss, 13 sacks, four forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries (one returned for a touchdown), three quarterback hurries and one pass breakup.
Also during his final season, the 6-foot-4, 258-pound disruptor became the FCS career leader in sacks with 43 and tackles for loss with 80.
Holmes, from Eagle Point, Oregon, has perennial national power Montana (8-4) moving toward a second-round playoff game at North Dakota State on Saturday. Explosive off the edge, the FCS leader in sacks had three more in the Grizzlies' first-round win over South Dakota State on Saturday, giving him 17 for the season as well as 23 tackles for loss.
While following in a long line of outstanding Montana defensive ends - he could become the Griz's 11th first-team All-American at the position since 1987 - the 6-4, 250-pound Holmes ranks third on the team with 82 tackles (31 solo) and has nine quarterback hurries as well as a pair of forced fumbles. He was selected to the all-Big Sky first team.
Onwuasor, from Inglewood, California and also a first-team all-Big Sky selection, has helped lead the turnaround at Portland State, which improved from 3-9 last season to 9-2 this year and earned wins over FBS programs Washington State and North Texas. The second-year transfer from Arizona is tied for the FCS lead with nine interceptions, collecting a school record-tying three in a victory over Montana, and has 157 return yards on his picks. The fast, hard-hitting 6-2, 225-pounder also ranks second on the team with 75 tackles, including 39 solo.
The Vikings are making their second appearance in the FCS playoffs, holding the No. 6 seed as they get set to host Northern Iowa in the second round Saturday.
A national panel of 150 sports information and media relations directors, broadcasters, writers and other dignitaries voted for the STATS FCS Defensive Player of the Year, selecting a top five among 25 finalists. Their voting reflected the regular season and was conducted before the start of the playoffs.
The results for fourth through 25th place were as follows:
4. Noah Spence, Eastern Kentucky: 17-13-18-14-8-227
5. Deiondre' Hall, Northern Iowa: 13-17-12-8-10-195
6. Deon King, Norfolk State: 11-11-8-9-6-147
7. Javon Hargrave, South Carolina State: 7-11-4-8-4-111
8. DeAndre Houston-Carson, William & Mary: 5-3-8-7-8-83
9. Victor Ochi, Stony Brook: 7-5-2-4-7-76
10. Stephen Hodge, Fordham: 4-5-5-7-6-75
11. Christian Kuntz, Duquesne: 3-4-6-7-6-69
12. Don Cherry, Villanova: 3-4-7-4-6-66
13. Jermaine Hough, Jacksonville State: 3-1-9-5-2-58
14. Myke Tavarres, Incarnate Word: 2-7-0-4-9-55
15. P.J. Hall, Sam Houston State: 4-2-4-3-0-46
16. Dee Delaney, The Citadel: 2-3-1-4-9-42
17. Keionta Davis, Chattanooga: 1-3-3-4-7-41
18. Darnell Sankey, Sacramento State: 0-0-4-10-7-39
19. John Hugunin, Drake: 2-2-3-2-6-37
20. Kourtney Berry, Alabama State: 2-1-4-3-2-34
21. Tyler Drake, Penn: 1-2-2-2-6-29
22. Chima Uzowihe, Liberty: 1-2-0-3-3-22
23.(T) O.J. Mau, Gardner-Webb: 0-2-0-1-1-11
23.(T) Derek Rivers, Youngstown State: 0-1-0-2-3-11
25. Harlan Miller, SE Louisiana: 0-0-1-1-4-9
A first-place vote was worth five points, a second-place vote four points, a third-place vote three points, a fourth-place vote two points and a fifth-place vote one point.