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Eastern Washington University Football

Clash of styles: Eastern Washington’s offense, Montana’s defense collide Saturday on ESPN2

By Dan Thompson For The Spokesman-Review

Eastern Washington football players and coaches have talked all season about how they prepare similarly for each week, and that is still the overarching approach, they said, heading into this weekend.

But the fact that a rival, fourth-ranked Montana (3-0 overall, 1-0 Big Sky), is coming to Roos Field for a prime-time, nationally televised game on Saturday, well, that does change the tone as the sixth-ranked Eagles (4-0, 1-0) prepare for the matchup between unbeaten teams.

“You don’t have to get ready for games like this,” Eagles senior Talolo Limu-Jones said Monday. “You have to be ready for games like this.”

The game presents a classic clash of strength-versus-strength when the Eagles’ offense faces the Grizzlies’ defense.

Montana has allowed just three touchdowns through three games, and technically the offense gave up one of those on an interception return. Between an opening-drive touchdown allowed at Washington in the season opener and a fourth-quarter score by Cal Poly on Saturday, the Montana defense went 165 minutes without allowing a point.

“We were just playing the football our coaches teach us to play every day in practice,” Montana senior defensive end Justin Belknap, who scored a touchdown against Cal Poly, said after the victory. “It was disappointing that fourth quarter when they scored, for sure, but we’re just gonna buckle down and get ready for next week.”

The Eagles, meanwhile, have scored 210 points in their four games this season and lead the nation in passing offense (449.5 yards per game) and total offense (635.8).

It seems, then, that one side has to give.

Limu-Jones was aware of how highly ranked the Montana defense is: No. 3 in the nation in scoring defense and 13th in total defense (268.3 yards per game).

But, he asked, who have they played?

“They haven’t played an offense as good as our offense,” Limu-Jones said. “We have the best quarterback in the nation right now. He lives in Cheney. Having him on our side, it gives us a plus-1. They have to worry about Eric (Barriere). They haven’t seen a group like our group.”

After Barriere’s latest 500-yard performance against Southern Utah, the senior quarterback was named Big Sky Offensive Player of the Week again, for the third time in this season. He has thrown for 1,698 yards and 16 touchdowns through four games while completing 69.6% of his passes.

Barriere has become the fourth Eastern Washington quarterback to throw for more than 10,000 yards in his career and is among the top 10 Big Sky quarterbacks in all-time passing yards with 10,437. He still has at least seven games to go.

But the same question – who have they played? – could be applied to the Eagles.

After losing in double overtime to the Eagles in the season opener, UNLV lost to Arizona State (37-10), Iowa State (48-3) and most recently Fresno State (38-30). Central Washington, a Division II team, is 2-2. Western Illinois earned its first win in four games last weekend. Southern Utah is 1-3.

The Grizzlies also played Western Illinois, hosting them in Missoula and beating them 42-7. That’s a much larger margin of victory than the six point-victory the Eagles earned over the Leathernecks, albeit the Eagles beat them on the road in Macomb, Illinois.

It’s not just the Grizzlies’ defense that has been great. Against Cal Poly, the Grizzlies scored touchdowns on a kickoff return and then on a blocked punt.

“The kicking game kind of carried the day for us. It was really good,” Montana coach Bobby Hauck said in the postgame news conference Saturday. “… Coverage teams were terrific. The return game was terrific. Scoring twice is huge in terms of the outcome of the game.”

Only three teams have punted fewer times than the Eagles have (nine), but they have struggled to make field goals. After making 18 of 21 field-goal attempts before this season, redshirt sophomore Seth Harrison is 4 of 9 on such attempts this season.

Eagles coach Aaron Best said Tuesday that “Seth’s been battling some aches and pains along the way, (and) that’s probably led to a little bit of his field goal percentage.”

“His job is not in jeopardy,” Best said. “He’s not been as good as he or we anticipated, but last time I checked he’s human just like you and me. He’s able to make mistakes; he’s just made more of them this year than he has in the first two years.”

Best also pointed out that while the Eastern offense and the Montana defense get a lot of attention heading into this matchup, each team’s other units will be just as crucial.

“Special teams is going to factor in way more so than their defense and Eastern’s offense,” Best said. “And I do think Eastern’s defense versus the Montana offense may factor in.”

The last time the teams met was in October 2019, when the Eagles built a 17-10 halftime lead in Missoula only to watch the Grizzlies outscore them 24-0 in the second half. Montana outgained Eastern 430-365 and held the football for nearly 38 minutes of the game.

Andrew Boston, one of four current Eastern receivers who played in that loss, said he is not one to water down the significance of this weekend’s rematch, even though in some sense it is just one more game.

“I think in the preparation, that has to stay the same. But there’s definitely a chip on our shoulder,” Boston said. “We know we’re about to play a top team in the league. … The stage is going to be exciting. I’m excited to get to Saturday.”