For almost four seasons, DeNarius McGhee has made it look easy.
The Montana State quarterback is a two-time Big Sky Conference MVP, earning the first as a redshirt freshman. Last year he was a first-team All-American and a Payton Award semfinalist, and stands sixth in career total offense in conference history.
In the second start of his freshman year in 2010, the Bobcats were leading 22-7 at Washington State and looking for more. Then McGhee threw the first of two interceptions and WSU came back for a 23-22 win.
“It was devastating for DeNarius and for all of us,” MSU coach Rob Ash said. “But it was a matter of learning on the job.”
Two weeks later, McGhee led the Bobcats to a 30-7 whipping of eventual national champion Eastern Washington.
“I feel like he learned on the job, and pretty soon they’ve seen it all,” Ash said of new quarterbacks in general and McGhee in particular.
The same on-the-job training began a year ago for Eastern Washington quarterback Vernon Adams, who was thrust into the starting role at Weber State. Adams seemed comfortable enough in his new role – until the Eagles’ high-stakes game three weeks later against none other than Montana State.
“I don’t know if you noticed, but I was scared – that was the biggest game I’d played and the worst game I’d played,” said Adams, who completed just 12 of 29 passes for 145 yards and two interceptions.
Even McGhee struggled, throwing a fourth-quarter interception that Eastern safety Jordan Tonani returned for the eventual winning score in a 27-24 win that ultimately decided the Big Sky title.
In other words, the on-the-job training never ends.
“You never know what kind of defense you’ll face until the ball is snapped,” McGhee said.
With McGhee in his final year, the torch is being passed to a new generation. Adams, now a redshirt sophomore, is the top-rated quarterback in the nation; McGhee (107 for 166, for 1,407 yards, 16 TDs and one interception) is having another strong year, but still a bit off form after a midseason shoulder injury that cost him three weeks.
“I’m a lot more mature, I can read defenses a lot better, and we’re playing really well as a team,” said Adams, who is completing 66 percent of his passes for 3,078 yards, 35 touchdowns and just nine picks.
“He’s been the best quarterback in the conference, but this is my chance to show that I’m the best,” Adams said.
“That’s not cockiness, but I have confidence, I have great receivers and I have a great offense.”
What’s really at stake
The winner of Saturday’s game will have the inside track to the Big Sky title – which is nice. What’s really at stake is a better chance to make the 24-team FCS playoff field, preferably with a home game or two.
“Having a chance to establish whose going to move ahead, this is exactly where we want our program to be,” said Ash, who could have been talking about the Big Sky title or the playoffs.
It’s never too early to make playoff predictions, but the picture is clearing up a bit in the Big Sky. With three games to play, Eastern, Montana State, Montana and Northern Arizona all stand at 7-2 overall, with Southern Utah a game back. If the cards fall right, four of the five will make the playoffs.
Based on strength of schedule, Eastern probably could lose two of its final three games against MSU, Cal Poly and Portland State and still squeak into the field.
The others have a smaller margin for error. Montana’s early win over Appalachian State (now 2-7) doesn’t look so impressive, and the Grizzlies still must play at MSU. NAU still has a shot at the conference title, but must defeat a Southern Utah team that still has plenty to play for.
Weber State’s Tony Epperson has punted 78 times this season, just 10 shy of the single-season Big Sky record. Winning teams averaged 44.6 points per game on Saturday. EWU (55) and Montana (51) both scored more than 50 … Baldwin won his 35th conference game as Eastern’s head coach. No coach in school history has won more Big Sky games … Sacramento State LB Cole Hannum is suspended for the first half against Cal Poly after being ejected for “targeting” in last weekend’s loss to Montana. … MSU’s Cody Kirk rushed for 180 yards against Northern Colorado, upping his career total to 3,228. He is 418 yards away from the school record. … Portland State ended a five-game losing streak to Weber State with its 45-24 win over the Wildcats. … Road teams won four of the six conference games last week. Home teams are now 18-18 in conference games.