BOZEMAN – Games like this, Beau Baldwin admits, are why he got into coaching in the first place.
“We love it, it’s such an opportunity,” the Eastern Washington head football coach said as the Eagles prepared for this afternoon’s Big Sky Conference showdown here against Montana State.
“The kids and the coaches are working hard, just for moments like these.”
The Eastern coaches and players began living for this moment even as they celebrated an easy win over North Dakota.
“I can’t wait,” quarterback Vernon Adams told reporters at Roos Field on Saturday.
Living in the moment also means staying focused, especially in a sold-out stadium against a team the Eagles have traditionally dominated (they lead the overall series 25-10) but haven’t beaten since 2009. Two years ago at Bobcat Stadium, the Eagles lost their composure and the game, 30-7.
“It was a bit of a wakeup call,” said linebacker Tyler Washburn, recalling how the Eagles recovered to win their next 11 games and the FCS championship.
Two years later, Baldwin doesn’t see that game as a catalyst, just a loss.
“I don’t buy into that, because every season is different,” he said.
This year, the stakes are just as high. Montana State (6-0, 3-0 Big Sky) is ranked second in FCS; Eastern (4-1, 3-0) is ranked sixth. The winner stays in the title hunt, while the loser will have a difficult road back, made steeper by the fact that neither will play conference games against fellow unbeatens Cal Poly (3-0 in the Sky) and Northern Arizona (2-0).
The Eagles are peaking at the right time, and erasing some of the bad memories – and statistics - from last year’s 6-5 season.
Including turnovers: After getting only 16 takeaways all of last year, the Eagles already have 12. And special teams: After going 17 games without a special teams touchdown, they ended the drought with Shaquille Hill’s 99-yard kickoff return against North Dakota.
And offensive balance, Baldwin’s crusade since spring. Last year, the Eagles ran the ball only 39 percent of the time. This year, they’ve run more than they’ve passed – 53 percent, and for meaningful yards – 852 already this season. That trend was bolstered last week by the return of running back Dimitrius Bronson, who gained 118 yards against North Dakota.
“It feels great to be back,” Bronson said.
The yards will come tougher against the Bobcats, who give up just 70.8 rushing yards a game, 40 yards better than any other team in the conference. MSU opponents are converting only 26 percent of their third-down opportunities.
“I can’t explain it, but obviously we’ve been very successful on third down,” said MSU coach Rob Ash, who is 45-20 overall and 31-12 in conference play in six-plus seasons in Bozeman.
What the Bobcats haven’t done this season is take care of the ball. They’ve fumbled 11 times, losing nine, and quarterback DeNarius McGhee has thrown six interceptions. Meanwhile, Eastern is plus-six in turnover margin.
More concerning for Ash is the spotty play of his secondary, which gave up a combined 492 passing yards in narrow wins at Southern Utah (21-14) and Cal Davis (48-41).
“We’ve got a really special group of guys, and they’ve never cratered completely,” Ash said. “We’ve put ourselves in some bad situations, but they keep fighting back. It’s good that we’ve had challenges in the secondary, I have to look at that as a coach and say that it’ll make us better.”
Eastern figures to challenge the Bobcats early and often. Adams, a redshirt freshman awaiting his fourth career start, has grown more comfortable in the pocket. Last week, Adams completed 12 of 15 pass attempts for 151 yards and four TDs to three players.
“Their receiving corps is fabulous,” Ash said. “You can’t focus on any one guy, just hope that you have enough athleticism to match up somehow.”
Eastern may get back the services of All-American Nicholas Edwards, who suffered a knee injury at Weber State and hasn’t played since. But Edwards practiced all week.
“He’s working hard to get back in the mix,” Baldwin said.
The Eagles receiving corps was already on the Bobcats’ radar, but Adams was a surprise.
McGhee has thrown at least one touchdown pass in each of his 31 games. During that time, the Bobcats are 25-6. A classic dual threat, McGhee has already thrown for 12 touchdowns, going 152 for 226 with six picks. He has 53 carries for 141 yards. His 59 career TD passes puts him one shy of Kelly Bradley’s school record of 60.
Baldwin said the key is for the Eastern defense to “make things as difficult as possible – that no matter what, those yards were earned.”