Coming off Eastern Washington’s only loss this season, Debore’ae McClain used extra time available during the bye week to relax, get ahead on his school work and rest his body after playing eight consecutive weekends.
But the week without a football game also gave McClain and his defensive teammates time to mull over a 35-34 home loss to Weber State.
“I think on the defensive side of things,” the defensive end said, “we were up really high on our highs, and low on our lows.”
The Wildcats racked up 482 yards against the Eagles, the most EWU has allowed during the Big Sky season. But the Eagles also forced a pair of second-half turnovers and spurred a comeback effort that ultimately came up one point short.
The task gets no easier – perhaps harder – for the fifth-ranked Eagles on Saturday, when they will play their final regular-season home game and third in a row at Roos Field against the fourth-ranked Montana State Bobcats.
The Bobcats have thrived under first-year coach Brent Vigen, who has them 7-1 overall and 5-0 in the Big Sky. Their formula has been to play stout defense and run the football, and they’ve certainly been good at both.
That presents the Eagles (7-1, 4-1) with a similar task to what they faced against Weber State and against Montana in early October, as Eastern Washington continues its march toward a postseason bid.
It is the marquee matchup in the Football Championship Subdivision this weekend. The victor will have an inside track on claiming a first-round bye and a top-four seed in the 24-team playoff.
Montana State boasts statistically the third-best passing defense in the FCS – Weber State’s ranks ninth – and overall the Bobcats are ninth nationally in total defense.
They have held all of their opponents under 20 points this season and have allowed just 30 points in their past four games. That includes a 13-7 victory at Weber State on Oct. 15.
Both teams have had plenty of time to get healthy, prepare for each other and, in Eastern’s case, learn from their mistakes last game.
The most glaring blemish was the Wildcats successfully executed three fake punts against Eastern. That was something Aaron Best said the team addressed throughout the bye week.
“Every team that we face will try to steal a possession based on the offense we present at Eastern with (quarterback) Eric Barriere,” Best said. “Whether that is a surprise onside kick, whether that’s a fake punt, whether that’s going for it on fourth down in a non-normal situation, they’re trying to possess the ball longer because your best offense is probably keeping (Barriere) off the field.
“We know that, they know that. Weber State just did a better job with it, and really, let’s be honest, in two situations after timeouts where it was addressed. But guys make mistakes. We are human. We’re not perfect. But if we stop those things, then it’s a moot point. But we didn’t stop those things, so it becomes a talking point.”
For as good as the Bobcats have been on defense, they haven’t faced an offense quite as dynamic as EWU’s. Vigen compared Barriere to Portland State’s Davis Alexander, who threw for 266 yards on 18 of 32 attempts in a game on Sept. 25. The Vikings’ 17 points were the most any FCS team has scored against the Bobcats.
Eastern has scored at least 34 points in every game this season.
But Vigen tempered that comparison to the Vikings’ senior quarterback.
“(Barriere) is his own guy, and they, offensively, are different from Portland State,” Vigen said Monday. “I think to beat Eastern Washington you have to have a team effort. Offensively, you’ve got to stay on the field, and you’ve got to keep (Barriere) off the field.”
Vigen said an opponent needs to make plays on special teams, even if those plays aren’t fake punts.
The Bobcats have gained 5.4 yards per rushing attempt, powered by Big Sky rushing leader Isaiah Ifanse. He has 907 yards and seven touchdowns on 150 carries.
Their passing game hasn’t been prolific, as they average 202.3 yards per game, fourth fewest among Big Sky teams. But Matthew McKay has been the conference’s second-most efficient quarterback aside from Barriere, completing 65% of his throws for 1,555 yards and 15 touchdowns to just one interception.
That has contributed to the Bobcats’ FCS-best turnover ratio of plus-12. Eastern Washington’s figure is plus-5.
Best listed off a number of factors as being important for the Eagles winning on any given week: getting stops on third down, holding onto the football, toughening up defensively in the red zone and not settling for field-goal attempts themselves.
Eastern didn’t do all those well against Weber State, but that loss was one the Eagles’ postseason aspirations can absorb.
A victory against Montana State would essentially clinch a playoff spot.
It would restore positive momentum heading into another big game against No. 8 UC Davis. It would almost certainly assure the Eagles play at least one playoff game at Roos Field.
To receiver Andrew Boston, a win Saturday would offer some redemption after a close loss.
“Taking a loss like that,” he said, “and giving yourself time to sort your feelings out and go back and analyze what was going on, and just in general feeling that pain of taking that loss and almost feeling embarrassed the next two weeks, it’s going to fuel the fire into the next game.”
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