Eastern Washington (1-1) is looking to win its Big Sky Conference opener against a Montana State program that the Eagles have historically played well against.
They lead the overall series 32-11 and have won seven of the past eight.
That one loss, though, came in their most recent meeting, a 23-20 Bobcats victory in Cheney last November. Had the Eagles won that game, they likely would have earned a bye in the playoffs and, potentially, a different path through the bracket. But instead, it was the Bobcats who got that bye and reached the national title game.
The rematch Saturday is crucial for both teams but especially the 15th-ranked Eagles, who after this game with the fourth-ranked Bobcats (2-1) play at Florida and at Weber State.
Here are three things to watch for when the teams kick off at 1 p.m. Saturday at Roos Field:
1. Can Eastern’s defense handle Montana State’s two-quarterback offense? Isaiah Ifanse ran over the Eagles last year with 32 carries for 217 rushing yards, 75 in the fourth quarter as the Bobcats ate up the clock. This year, though, Ifanse remains out with an injury, and the Bobcats are down their top three running backs. That has led – perhaps even forced – MSU to play two quarterbacks, starter Tommy Mellott and backup Sean Chambers, and to lean on them to run and throw the football. Eastern’s defense has given up 1,151 yards through two games – a win over Tennessee State and a loss at Oregon – nearly equally split between rushing and passing yards. It will be interesting to see how Montana State chooses to attack this Eastern defense – and how the Eagles decide to play the two MSU quarterbacks.
2. How effectively can Eastern’s offense establish a running game? The two-game sample size is small, but the Eagles have yet to see a single running back rush for more than 27 yards in a game. No back has asserted himself as a clear No. 1, and while coaches said in the preseason that they didn’t necessarily need to have one primary back, a strong rushing attack would surely go a long way against the Bobcats. Opposing teams this season averaged 4.8 yards per carry against Montana State, up from their average last year (3.3, second fewest in the Big Sky). Morehead State and McNeese State both lost by more than three touchdowns to Montana State, but they each were also able to gain over 125 yards on the ground. That seems like an important threshold for the Eagles to cross Saturday against the Bobcats’ defense.
3. Are Eastern’s kick and punt coverage teams up to the challenge? Montana State has already returned a punt for a touchdown (against Morehead State) and a kickoff (against Oregon State), and while neither changed the game – both contests were blowouts, one in Montana State’s favor, the other not – a big return could play a crucial role .
Eastern has kicked off nine times this season and has just two touchbacks, a ratio that suggests the Bobcats will have their chances to bring the ball up on kickoffs.
At the same time, the Bobcats also gave up a punt return touchdown last week against Oregon State, and Eastern has a potentially dangerous returner in sophomore Efton Chism III.
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