The quarterback is healthy now, more mobile and playing some of his best football when it matters most.
And we’re not talking only about Vernon Adams Jr. of Eastern Washington.
Perhaps the biggest key to today’s FCS second-round playoff game at Roos Field is the re-emergence of Montana senior quarterback Jordan Johnson, who, like Adams, was less than 100 percent when the Grizzlies lost to Eastern 36-26 on Nov. 8.
After what Montana coach Mick Delaney described as “many hours in the weight room,” a sore ankle is fully healed – allowing Johnson to beat teams with his legs as well as his arm.
“That’s the biggest thing, to know down and distance, and to be able to contain him,” Eastern linebacker Miquiyah Zamora said after watching film of the Grizzlies’ last three games.
The biggest test was passed on Nov. 22, when the Griz nailed down a playoff berth with a dominating 34-7 win over Montana State.
Johnson was at his best in that game, completing 22 of 36 passes for 213 yard and three scores. He also rushed for 90 yards on six carries, giving the fourth-ranked Eagles (10-2) a lot to think about.
Now there’s more: The 12th-ranked Grizzlies (9-4), who are coming off a 52-14 first-round win over San Diego, are leaning heavily on the zone-read offense; they’re going up-tempo as well.
“We’re not a helter-skelter team by any stretch, but we are moving a little quicker than we did earlier in the season,” Delaney said.
The Griz went up-tempo in the second half last month’s game in Cheney and got back in the game.
“I think he looks healthy and they’re going to take advantage of him (Johnson) and throw it more,” EWU defensive coordinator John Graham said.
In two meetings with the Eagles, Johnson has thrown for 796 yards and seven touchdowns, albeit while playing catch-up. Nonetheless, the Griz hope to establish the run with Jordan Canada (205 carries for 1,116 yards and 10 TDs).
Looking ahead to today’s game, Eastern safety Tevin McDonald said “The biggest thing is the tempo … and that was an adjustment they made.”
On the other side of the ball, Adams is fully recovered from a broken right foot that cost him four games but none of his reputation.
“He’s the best quarterback in FCS football,” Delaney said of Adams, who in three previous meetings has torched Montana for 1,220 yards and 13 touchdowns.
“You can never go into a game as thinking that we’re going to stop him, just try to contain what he does,” said Delaney, who hopes to break up the timing between Adams and his receivers.
A big part of that burden will rest on All-American defensive end Zack Wagenmann, who enters the game with a school-record 34.5 career sacks, which ranks third in Big Sky history.
“He’s been pretty smart with the football, and in getting away from us,” Wagenmann said.
The winner will face either Illinois State or Northern Iowa in a quarterfinal game on Dec. 12 or 13. Eastern will host that game if it wins today. … Eastern is 30-4 at Roos Field, with its last loss coming to Towson, 35-31, in an FCS semifinal game last year. … Montana is 2-4 on the road this year and hasn’t won in Cheney since 2008. … EWU has scored a point in 40 consecutive quarters, and 47 of 48 this season. … EWU has never beaten Montana more than three times in a row. … This is the 14th time in the last 20 meetings that both teams have been ranked. … EWU is 48 of 50 on red zone chances. Both times the Eagles failed to score it was because they took a knee to end a victory… … UM has not allowed a point in the first three quarters of its last two games.
Subscribe to the sports newsletter
Get the day’s top sports headlines and breaking news delivered to your inbox by subscribing here.