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Eagles need no extra motivation for Montana

It was a long day in Missoula last year when EWU lost 57-16. (Patrick Record / Associated Press)
It was a long day in Missoula last year when EWU lost 57-16. (Patrick Record / Associated Press)

The Eastern Washington football players didn’t need any extra motivation when they stepped onto the practice field Tuesday afternoon.

This is Montana week, after all.

The Eastern coaches understood; they didn’t even bother to put up last year’s score from Missoula: Montana 57, Eastern 16.

It was the Eagles’ worst Big Sky Conference loss in 20 years.

Instead, the Roos Field scoreboard focused on a new beginning: “Eagles 0, Grizzlies 0.”

“I get it, everyone’s competitive, and they had it their way last year,” coach Beau Baldwin said as the third-ranked Eagles warmed up behind him.

“But if we had had our way, I wouldn’t want to bring that up a bunch, because every year is different. Regardless of what happened last year, I’m more concerned with what this 2016 Montana team is doing,” Baldwin said.

Which is just fine. Despite an 11-point loss at Northern Arizona last weekend, the Grizzlies are 5-2 overall, 2-2 in the Big Sky and chasing another berth in the FCS playoffs.

So are the Eagles, who at 6-1 and 4-0 are on the cusp of returning to the postseason they missed last year partly because of that pratfall in Missoula.

As Baldwin likes to point out, previous games have little bearing on the future. Last year’s Eastern team had been teetering for weeks; this year’s version appears to be getting better in every way.

The Eagles are coming off a 41-17 win at Montana State that was their most complete yet: a 5-0 turnover margin, a second-half shutout by the defense and a school-record 520 passing yards from Gage Gubrud.

In some ways, Gubrud’s record-breaking season got its start on that disastrous day at Washington-Grizzly Stadium.

The Eagles were coming off a 52-30 homecoming loss to NAU, and Baldwin decided to roll the dice by using all three of his quarterbacks against the Griz.

Jordan West, Reilly Hennessey saw most of the action, but the game was special for Gubrud.

“It was a weird feeling because it was the first time I played quarterback for Eastern Washington,” said Gubrud. “We got beat pretty good, but I got to play.”

Gubrud’s stat line was unimpressive: 7 for 13 for 66 yards and a pick. However, he scored on an 18-yard run. Perhaps that gave him some confidence – he’s not sure – but Gubrud was a different player in spring ball and even since the season-opening win at Washington State.

Said Baldwin of Gubrud: “He’s taking care of the football a ton better than he did at the beginning of the year. Those are the steps he’s taken that I’ve been most impressed with, and how he’s growing as a quarterback.”

Now he’s come full circle.

“I came in knowing that there was a rivalry, but you didn’t really understand it until you go and play there and you see why,” Gubrud said.

For the rest of the Eagles, motivation is all about the future. The Montana game is one of three problematic games out the final four; the others are the Nov. 12 date at Cal Poly and the regular-season finale at Portland State on the night of Nov. 18.

Win them all and Eastern could host playoff games as long as they’re still playing.

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