BOZEMAN – Montana State football coach Jeff Choate is new to the Big Sky Conference, but he knows all about the Eastern Washington offense.
Choate was the linebackers coach at Washington on the opening day of the 2014 season, when Eastern’s wide receivers hauled in a Husky Stadium-record seven touchdown passes from quarterback Vernon Adams Jr.
“We had a hard time covering them,” Choate said without a trace of sarcasm.
The Eagles lost that game 59-52 but left a lasting impression on Choate, who faces a familiar cast of characters in Saturday’s Big Sky Conference game at Bobcat Stadium.
MSU fans know them, too: Two weeks after the loss at UW, Eastern took a dramatic 52-51 win in Bozeman that helped send the Eagles toward a third straight Big Sky title.
Adams is gone, but wide receivers Cooper Kupp, Kendrick Bourne and Shaq Hill are back for more as the third-ranked Eagles come off a bye week against the struggling Bobcats.
After watching film, Choate is even more impressed with the entire EWU offense, now led by quarterback Gage Gubrud.
“They’re really smart about what you’re giving them,” said Choate, in his first season after Rob Ash was fired last season. “It’s a combination of continuity with coach (Beau) Baldwin and they really have a good feel of what they want to do,” Choate said.
The Eagles (5-1 overall, 3-0 Big Sky) are doing it impressively, leading the Football Championship Subdivision in passing yards (433.2 per game), and second in scoring (47.5) and total offense (565.2).
Meanwhile, MSU is winless in four Big Sky games and 2-5 overall. The Bobcats are coming off a 45-27 loss at Weber State in which the Wildcats scored three touchdowns in the first 10 1/2 minutes and scored on their first six possessions of the game.
But in their previous four losses, the Bobcats lost by a combined 14 points – three at Idaho, three at Sacramento State, two at home to Big Sky unbeaten North Dakota and six in Bozeman to Northern Arizona.
“We know we’ll have our hands full with Montana State in Bozeman,” Baldwin said. “Even if some of the results aren’t quite there yet, there is a fine line between a few more wins compared to a few more losses.
“When I evaluate opponents, I take the record out of it,” added Baldwin, who’s won his last four meetings with the Bobcats, but only one of them by more than five points.
All have been high-scoring games. In the last three meetings, the teams have combined for 3,608 yards of total offense, with each team eclipsing 500 yards each time. Last year in Cheney, Eastern won 55-50 and had 667 yards on just 57 plays, compared to 718 yards and 104 plays for the Bobcats.
The big question Saturday: Can MSU hold up its end on offense? The Bobcats figure to give mobile freshman quarterback Chris Murray his second start after he showed some promise the loss at Weber State.
MSU ranks 11th in the Big Sky in total offense at 365 yards a game – more than 200 fewer than EWU. The Bobcats also have settled for too many field goals, including five in a 17-15 loss to North Dakota.
Notes: Because of Saturday’s early kickoff, the Eagles elected to hold their walkthrough at Roos Field then board buses for the trip to Bozeman without a late session at Bobcat Stadium … This will be the first meeting in the last seven that both teams will not be nationally ranked.