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It’s not all about Vernon Adams

Saturday’s Big Sky showdown will be a test for Montana offense, Eastern defense

Eastern's defense stepped up against North Dakota, but will be really tested against a steady Montana offense in Saturday's Big Sky matchup at Roos Field in Cheney. (Dan Pelle)
Eastern's defense stepped up against North Dakota, but will be really tested against a steady Montana offense in Saturday's Big Sky matchup at Roos Field in Cheney. (Dan Pelle)

So what about the other guys?

With everyone’s attention focused on the Montana defense and the will-he-play-or-won’t- he questions surrounding Eastern Washington quarterback Vernon Adams Jr., it’s easy to overlook the other key matchup in today’s Big Sky Conference showdown at Roos Field. That would be Eastern’s improving defense against Montana’s steady offense – a battle that will go far in deciding the game.

And why wouldn’t it? Last year in Missoula, it was the Eagles defense that pitched a near-shutout in the decisive third quarter as Eastern pulled away to lead by as many as 25 points.

The final margin was only 42-37, which defensive tackle Dylan Zylstra blamed on Eastern “letting off the throttle” a little too soon.

That won’t happen this time, promised Zylstra, a senior captain. Not when the stakes include a share of the conference lead, a chance to host an FCS playoff game or two and an opportunity take three straight from the Grizzlies for the first time since 1992 – all on Senior Day in front of what could be the biggest home crowd in school history.

“We all know what’s on the line here,” said Zylstra, whose fifth-ranked Eagles are 8-2 overall and 5-1 in the Big Sky with two games remaining.

So do the 11th-ranked Grizzlies, who are 4-1 and also part of a six-way tie for the Big Sky lead. But they’re only 6-3 overall; another loss would leave them on the edge of missing the FCS playoffs for the second time in three years.

“We’re really looking forward to it … it’s a huge challenge,” said Montana coach Mick Delaney, who might as well be saying the same thing about the season-long challenges faced by his offense.

The Grizzlies rank 10th out of 13 Big Sky teams in total offense (353.7 yards a game) and a middling seventh in scoring at 27.8 points per game.

But those numbers are skewed by early-season losses to FBS Wyoming (17-12), FCS power North Dakota State (22-10), and the low point of the season, an 18-15 escape at North Dakota that saw senior quarterback Jordan Johnson briefly sidelined by injury.

In three games since then, Montana has sandwiched comfortable home wins over UC Davis (42-28) and Sacramento State (31-13) around a 41-21 loss at Cal Poly. In the process, they’ve averaged 402 yards total offense, including 183 on the ground, while Johnson was 50 of 81 for 721 yards passing.

In the process, Delaney has witnessed the maturation of an offensive line that includes three underclassmen. “We just have to establish the run,” said Delaney, who’s seen the Grizzlies lose just four fumbles all season.

“That’s their style,” Eastern coach Beau Baldwin said. “They take care of the ball … and that sets up their big plays in the passing game.”

Meanwhile, the Eagles defense has continued to improve.

After a dominating 54-3 win over North Dakota, the Eagles rank fifth out of 13 Big Sky teams in total defense, giving up 424.8 yards per game. It’s the same in scoring defense: 30.0 points per game, tied for fifth.

Only two weeks ago, the Eagles were seventh in total defense and ninth in scoring defense.

Says Delaney, “I’m not a big statistics guy – that’s a good defensive team.”


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