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Sports >  EWU football

Things to watch: Pass protection important for Eastern Washington against Montana

Nov. 11, 2022 Updated Fri., Nov. 11, 2022 at 5:58 p.m.

By Dan Thompson For The Spokesman-Review

For the fifth time this season, Eastern Washington will face a ranked team on Saturday when it travels to Missoula to play the 16th-ranked Montana Grizzlies (6-3, 3-3 Big Sky) at noon.

The Eagles (2-7, 1-5) are going to miss the playoffs for the third time in Aaron Best’s six seasons as head coach, but with two games left they are trying to avoid losing seven Big Sky games for the first time in their 36 years in the conference.

Just three times have they lost six games in conference: in 1995, 1988 and 1987, their first year as a member of the Big Sky.

This weekend, then, the Eagles are looking to beat a Grizzlies team that sits sixth in the Big Sky standings, certainly not a place Montana can afford to end up and still reach the postseason.

“I can see them coming out and playing as well as they prepare,” Best said, “and they will prepare to play for their playoff lives.”

The Eagles have played five of the eight teams above them in the Big Sky standings. While two have been sound victories for their opponents (Idaho 48-16, Sacramento State 52-28), the other three contests have been close into the second half.

Here are some elements that, if they go in Eastern Washington’s favor, would set the stage for an upset in Missoula:

Can Eastern keep Gunner Talkington upright? Best and Montana coach Bobby Hauck said this week they expect their opponent to bring defensive pressure; giving Talkington time to throw is going to be crucial for the Eagles. Last year when the teams met in Cheney, Montana blitzed the Eagles more than perhaps any other team had the courage to do. It worked for a half, as Montana built a 21-10 lead. But late in the game, Eric Barriere was able to throw and scramble the Eagles back for the lead and the victory. If the Eagles can force the Grizzlies to blitz to get pressure on Talkington, and if Talkington can get the ball out quickly and accurately to his receivers in single coverage, that bodes well for Eastern. “In the passing game, they do a lot of stuff that can be problematic, especially because they have good skill players,” Montana defensive back Nash Fouch said. “… We know what they’re going to throw at us. We’ve just got to go prepare and shut them out.” Eastern’s receivers only have two 100-yard games this year; another would be a good sign.

Can the defense string together enough stops? This has been critical in every game, so it almost seems too obvious to point out. But the Eagles did this on the opening two drives against Idaho last week. The trouble was, their offense only got three points out of those opportunities. “We did what we set out to accomplish,” Best said of that opening sequence of drives. “We just didn’t do it as emphatically as we anticipated.” Doing it emphatically against Montana would conceivably help in two ways. First, it would help the Eagles mitigate the Grizzlies’ home-field advantage by quieting the crowd some. Second, it would put the Eagles in the rare spot of having a two-score lead, something they’ve had only briefly in one game – their season opener. Through nine games, the Eagles have allowed 2,688 rushing yards, 723 more than Northern Colorado, which has allowed the second most in the Big Sky. It seems almost inconceivable that the Eagles could win this game without holding Montana to fewer than 200 yards rushing, a feat Eastern has achieved once this season when it kept Cal Poly to 163 yards on the ground.

Will the Eagles come up with the more decisive special teams play? Too many times this year the Eagles have been on the wrong side of a big special teams play, be it a fake punt or field goal, or a big return. Seemingly, they have the returners to do it, especially when Efton Chism III lines up to take back a punt. Trouble is, Eastern has only returned four punts all season for a total of 5 yards; Montana has returned 24 of them for an average of 14.3 yards and twice brought them back for touchdowns. Montana also leads the conference in net punting (42.2 yards per punt) and net kickoffs (45.4 yards per kick), suggesting that this might not be the week for Eastern to break a big return. But for this game to go Eastern’s way, the game probably needs something unexpected to happen. A big return or a blocked kick in Eastern’s favor would fit the bill.

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