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Sports >  EWU football

Eastern Washington, Montana State meet for Big Sky Conference opener after lopsided losses to FBS programs

Sept. 20, 2022 Updated Tue., Sept. 20, 2022 at 7:09 p.m.

EWU’s Marlon Jones Jr. (20) breaks up a pass intended for a Montana State receiver during a November 2021 game in Cheney.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)
EWU’s Marlon Jones Jr. (20) breaks up a pass intended for a Montana State receiver during a November 2021 game in Cheney. (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)
By Dan Thompson For The Spokesman-Review

Coming off its earliest bye week since the 2012 season, the Eastern Washington football team had plenty of time to process its 56-point loss to Oregon 10 days ago.

It’s not a game Seth Carnahan wanted to relive.

“It sucked,” the EWU junior offensive tackle said Tuesday. “None of us wants to feel like that ever again.”

But Eagles coach Aaron Best said the team has taken what it could from that 70-14 loss and that it may make the team a little angrier and a little more excited as they prepare for Saturday’s Big Sky Conference opener against fourth-ranked Montana State (2-1) in Cheney.

“We’re still not totally over it, because you want to remember it and learn from it,” Best said of the loss to Oregon, which dropped Eastern – still ranked 15th in the FCS Stats Perform Top 25 – to 1-1 overall.

“But I think getting back to what it was that stung so much can be some of the best things for you,” Best said. “Instead of avoiding it, let’s go attack it, even though it didn’t feel good the last time we were out there and keeping score.”

That’s no doubt a feeling the Montana State Bobcats know well: They are also coming off a lopsided defeat against a Pac-12 program, a 68-28 loss to Oregon State in Portland.

“In the game of football, you have to be able to turn the page, whether you win or lose,” MSU coach Brent Vigen said during his Monday media availability. “Each week is its own week; each opponent brings its own set of both opportunities and challenges.”

As Big Sky members, Eastern and Montana State are much more familiar with each other than they were with their most recent opponents, and this is also a much more significant game as it relates to their postseason aspirations.

Last season Montana State lost in the FCS title game to North Dakota State, the program at which Vigen coached before becoming the Bobcats’ head coach. Eastern Washington won its playoff opener before losing to Montana in the second round.

This will be the second straight game in Cheney between the two programs after Montana State beat Eastern 23-20 last November in what was then a matchup of the fourth- and fifth-ranked teams, respectively, in the FCS. The Bobcats outgained the Eagles 544-314 and held Eric Barriere to his lowest single-game passing total (214 yards) of the season.

They also had their way with the Eastern defense on the ground and through the air, led by a 150-yard performance by wide receiver Lance McCutcheon, who now plays for the NFL’s Los Angeles Rams.

“McCutcheon last year was a beast against us,” Best said.

The Bobcats also leaned on running back Isaiah Ifanse, who gained 217 yards on 32 carries in that game.

But the Bobcats look much different on offense this year.

Tommy Mellott, who didn’t play against Eastern a year ago but led the Bobcats during their playoff run, is now the team’s starting quarterback as a sophomore. And, due to injuries to Montana State’s top three running backs, Mellott is also their leading rusher with 205 net rushing yards through three games.

Backup quarterback Sean Chambers is the team’s second-leading rusher with 185 yards and leads them with seven rushing touchdowns. Ifanse is yet to play this season, though Vigen said he expected he will return “eventually.”

“Our two quarterbacks, I would say those two are our best runners right now,” Vigen said. “I think that’s the truth. So, how much can we tax them? The fact that we have two of them, does that help? Yes.”

“We’re going to look a little bit different than normal,” Vigen said. “It’s the reality.”

That likely means more two-quarterback sets this Saturday against Eastern, which will present some unique challenges for the Eagles defense.

Still, their primary focus, Demetrius Crosby Jr. said, will be on containing Mellott, who completed 27 of 41 attempts for four touchdowns and no interceptions in Montana State’s victories over McNeese State and Morehead State earlier this season.

“It all revolves around him,” the junior cornerback Crosby said, “so we’ve got to prepare for him and for a lot of quarterback runs and play-action passes.”

After this game, Eastern Washington will finish its nonconference schedule with another FBS matchup, at Florida next Saturday. But the Eagles’ focus is very much on the Bobcats, who are also eager to flush out of their system a one-sided loss to a Pac-12 team.

After all, Carnahan said, the Eagles are not going to play Oregon again this year.

“That game’s behind us,” Carnahan said. “Just keep moving forward.”

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