During media availability at Montana on Monday, a reporter started in on a question to Grizzlies cornerback Omar Hicks-Onu about Eastern Washington and referred to the Eagles as a rival. Grizzlies coach Bobby Hauck jumped in. “Wait, let me handle that. We have one rival,” he said. “We beat them, last game.” That rival would be Montana State, which lost 29-10 in Missoula two weekends ago. Hauck apologized for the interruption, and Hicks-Onu answered the question with a smile and a laugh (Hauck laughed, too). This playoff game between the fourth-ranked Eagles (10-2) and fifth-ranked Grizzlies (9-2) might not be considered a rivalry game by those involved, but it certainly is an intriguing rematch after their meeting in October came down to the game’s final play, a defensive stand for the Eagles that secured a 34-28 victory. Here are a few aspects of the game to pay attention to in their Round of 16 game Friday:
How will the Eagles fare in the red zone? In their first matchup, the Eagles scored on all six of their red-zone trips, including four touchdowns and two field goals. Against Northern Iowa last week, the Eagles scored on 3 of 5 red-zone opportunities. They likely cannot afford to get so close to scoring and not do so Friday. The Grizzlies have been stingy in the red zone this season: In 28 such opportunities, opponents have scored 13 touchdowns and made five field goals, the lowest scoring percentage (64.3%) among Big Sky defenses. Surely, the Eagles would rather not settle for field-goal attempts, either, considering that they are 11 of 19 this season.
Which team makes a big play on special teams? Montana scored a touchdown on a kickoff return during the teams’ previous meeting. Eastern’s special teams mostly rank among the bottom four in the Big Sky in relevant categories (punter Nick Kokich has been the brightest spot with the seventh-best net average in the conference). “Probably the tipping point in my mind is special teams units,” Eagles head coach Aaron Best said Tuesday. “(We are) trying to make sure that we don’t get in our own way, that we make some plays, some legitimate plays, and maybe get a plus-1 on a special teams unit or flip the field a time or two.” Montana leads the Big Sky in punting and kickoff coverage as well as kickoff returns, and the Grizzlies also rank third in the conference in punt returns.
Does Eric Barriere play at an MVP level? Barriere was the Big Sky coaches’ unanimous choice as offensive player of the year, an award he has won two seasons in a row. Statistically, he has achieved more than almost any other FCS quarterback, and three years ago he led the Eagles to the national title game. These are the kinds of games that great players will often find ways to win. While Barriere won’t be the only great player on the field – Montana is certainly talented as well, in many positions – he is the starting quarterback of an offense that is having one of the greatest seasons in program history, in a program with a rich history of offensive output. His top four receiving targets are healthy, unlike in the previous matchup with Montana, and the Eagles have a reliable if not spectacular running game to keep defenses honest (plus a defense that has played well this season).
It will be a difficult atmosphere, surely, and the Grizzlies will be better rested. But if Barriere gets in a groove, he gives the Eagles a solid chance to advance to the quarterfinals.
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