MISSOULA – To turn an old song on its head, the marching band tried to take the field Friday afternoon, and the Easten Washington football players refused to yield.
With almost 10 minutes left in the Eagles’ one-hour walk-through at Washington-Grizzly Stadium, the University of Montana band edged up the north sideline and began to warm up.
The notes rang sour with the Eastern players, who departed for the team hotel clutching one more incentive going into today’s game against Montana.
As if they needed any more. The stakes couldn’t be much higher for this afternoon’s regionally- televised, sold-out game, one that third-ranked Eastern must win to stay near the top of the FCS rankings.
Take this one, and a few more next month, and the Eagles (5-2, 3-0 Big Sky) will stay in position for another December playoff run back at Roos Field.
Conversely, losing this big road test could mean bigger ones in the playoffs.
But playing at home in December is dependent on winning at a place that’s been downright cruel to past Eagles teams, and promises to be loud today. Sound-measuring devices are in place at the 25,217-seat stadium, poised to measure a possible FCS noise record when Eastern has the ball.
But as one Eastern assistant said on the sideline, “Maybe we can set the quiet record if we can get a couple of long scores.”
The Internet smack-talk – on both sides – has already set some school records for volume and vitriol. The Eagles expect the same from the crowd, which promises to be up-close-and-personal behind the Eagles bench.
“It’s definitely exciting; it’s going to be so loud,” said receiver Ashton Clark, relishing the opportunity.
The stakes may be even higher for 10th-ranked Montana, which is 6-1 overall (against a less-demanding schedule so far) but already has a conference loss against Northern Arizona. The Grizzlies almost dropped another one last week, but rallied past Cal Poly in overtime to improve to 3-1 in the Big Sky.
Montana dropped its opening conference game last year to NAU, then dropped out of the conference race with a 32-26 loss at Eastern the following week.
This year’s Eagles have the weapons to do it again. Quarterback Vernon Adams leads the FCS in pass efficiency with a rating of 184.4, completing 144 of 214 passes with 24 touchdowns and six interceptions. The Eastern running game is picking up steam: more carries, and more yards per rush as the season marches on.
“It just takes patience and staying disciplined,” said Eagles running back Mario Brown, who’s coming off a 10-carry, 61-yard effort against Southern Utah. “I trust in our offensive line and our offense as a whole to execute against these guys.”
On defense, Eagles coach Beau Baldwin stressed the need to limit the big plays. He cited Montana receiver Ellis Henderson, who has just 17 receptions this season, but eight have gone for touchdowns.
“They’re very good about grinding it out, then hitting the big play,” Baldwin said.
However, in recent games, the biggest plays have come on special teams: Marc Mariani’s 82-yard punt return in the fourth quarter that helped beat the Eagles here in 2009; Darrielle Beaumonte’s punt block that sealed an Eastern win in 2010; a successful onside kick last year by Eastern to fuel that improbable 32-26 win.
Lucky or not, the Eagles took that win and rode it all the way to a share of the Big Sky title. Baldwin hopes for a little more. He may have gotten it this week from former Eagles receiver Craig McIntyre, who caught three touchdown passes from Erik Meyer in a 34-20 win in 2005 – the Eagles’ last win here.
“He called me and said he’d be here,” said Baldwin, hoping ghosts from the past will help silence the ghouls in the crowd.
“It’s going to be fun,” Baldwin said.