Today’s Eastern Washington-Montana football game has been so thoroughly hyped, the only danger may be hyperventilation.
“The issue is making sure our guys can breathe,” Eastern coach Beau Baldwin said, only half-jokingly.
Baldwin knows that complacency won’t be a problem in the Eagles’ home opener today at Roos Field.
Not with a sellout crowd, a new video scoreboard, rumors of new uniforms and helmets – and of course a chance for the Eagles to go 2-0 in the conference while putting Montana in a 0-2 hole the Grizzlies haven’t inhabited since 1992.
“That’s probably why it’s such a big game,” Eastern defensive tackle Evan Cook said. “Usually, the winner has some kind of role in winning the Big Sky.”
If it’s Montana, the Grizzlies (2-2 overall) will play some kind of role in chasing a wild-card spot in the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs.
“There’s nothing we can do about it,” said Montana head coach Mick Delaney of the Grizzlies’ 41-31 home loss last week to Northern Arizona. “But the kids came back Sunday with a new resolve.”
As teachable moments go, that game may help Eastern (2-1) as much as the Grizzlies, who gave up rushing 253 yards to all-conference running back Zach Bauman.
“We hope to pound the ball and get up early,” said Eagles running back Quincy Forte, who carried for a team-high 68 yards in a 32-26 win last week at Weber State.
Forte noted that the Lumberjacks “continued to pound” even when they trailed by three scores in the first half.
“But that’s a great Montana defense nonetheless,” Baldwin said. “I know they gave up a few big runs (against NAU), but I wouldn’t read too much into that.”
That apparent shortcoming may dovetail nicely with the seventh-ranked Eagles’ recent emphasis on the running game.
Against Weber State, the Eagles ran 46 times for 206 yards as Baldwin continues to push for offensive balance. After three games, the scale is untipped: 118 passes, 116 rushes as the Eagles enter the heart of their schedule.
“It’s huge,” said Baldwin, whose club faces North Dakota at home the following week, then travels to second-ranked Montana State. “Especially early in the year, it’s taking pressure off the offensive line in pass protection, taking pressure off the QBs, and taking pressure off the defense when you can grind it.”
Part of that equation is quarterback Vernon Adams, a surprise starter at Weber, where he passed for 75 yards but also ran for 62. Kyle Padron, the starter against Idaho and Washington State, is less of a threat to run, but has a better deep ball.
That’s balance of a different kind, which Delaney appreciates.
“They’re exact opposites,” he said, acknowledging that the Grizzlies will need to scheme for both quarterbacks.
That was emphasized in this week’s Eastern depth chart, which lists Padron and Adams as equals.
“I think that adds a dimension,” Baldwin said. “It adds to how a defensive coordinator will call certain coverages or certain blitzes, depending on whose back there.”
On the other side of the ball, the 21st-ranked Grizzlies counter with redshirt freshman Trent McKinney, who’s passed for 815 yards and six TDs while spreading the ball around to 12 receivers.
The Grizzlies are balanced, too, averaging 207 yards on the ground and 225 passing. They rank 22nd in the FCS in total offense, so they can move the ball.
The Grizzlies’ big problem is taking care of it. Montana ranks 116th out of 121 teams in turnover margin, a galling minus-two per game.
“This week, the emphasis has been on taking care of the ball,” Delaney said.