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Big Sky notebook: Eastern Washington looks to break Montana State’s 25-game home win streak

Eastern Washington wide receiver Efton Chism III, left, and quarterback Kekoa Visperas celebrate after a touchdown against Weber State on Oct. 21 in Cheney.  (James Snook/The Spokesman-Review)
By Dan Thompson The Spokesman-Review

A couple of days ago, Aaron Best polled Eastern Washington’s upperclassmen to see how many had played Montana State in Bozeman before.

“No one raised their hand,” Best said during media availability on Tuesday.

Perhaps it is just as well the Eagles haven’t played there in a while, as the Bobcats have turned it into quite the home-field advantage. Heading into Saturday’s game against Eastern Washington, Montana State has won 25 consecutive home games at Bobcat Stadium, the longest current streak in the FCS.

The last road team to win there was Sacramento State, a 34-21 result on Oct. 12, 2019.

Since the start of the 2018 season, the only other team to win a game at Montana State is Eastern Washington, which won 34-17 in its last visit on Sept. 29, 2018. The Eagles racked up 480 yards of offense and held the Bobcats to 360. Eastern never trailed and led by as many as 24 points.

This year, the Eagles (4-5, 3-3 Big Sky) enter Saturday’s game as heavy underdogs to the fifth-ranked Bobcats (7-2, 5-1), who are assured a playoff spot and are playing for a bye in the first round of the FCS playoffs.

“They’ve got everything to gain. You want to play in the playoffs at home,” said Best, who has led the Eagles to the playoffs in three of his six-plus seasons as head coach. “They’re going to give us everything they have.”

The Bobcats certainly have plenty for the Eagles to contend with.

Montana State ranks second nationally in rushing yards per game (305.1), third in total offense (482.2) and 14th in total defense (308.8). It has converted half of its third downs this season (45 of 90), the fourth-best rate in the FCS. The Bobcats have committed just five turnovers, tied for the fewest in the nation.

“They’re good at a lot of things in all three phases,” Best said. “We don’t have to play perfectly, but we have to play pretty darn well.”

Last year these teams met in September and Eastern Washington had the ball and a 35-31 lead with 3:52 left in the fourth quarter. But Micah Smith fumbled on the drive’s first play, and three plays later the Bobcats were in the end zone, taking a 38-35 lead. That was the final score.

“That game seems like a long time ago,” MSU head coach Brent Vigen said Monday during media availability. “That was a game we probably shouldn’t have won (but) found a way to at the end. Our eyes are open, certainly, against this opponent.”

While the Eagles haven’t returned to the record-setting heights of their offense two years ago, they have climbed back to 21st nationally in total offense (418.9 yards per game) and, like the Bobcats, they have taken good care of the football: Eastern has just seven turnovers this year, tied for the ninth fewest in the FCS.

The Eagles have scored at least 31 points in all but two games this year and are coming off a dominant 48-13 win over Cal Poly in which they scored 45 points before halftime.

There is also an outside possibility that the Eagles could reach the FCS playoffs with a 6-5 record, considering that would include five Big Sky wins and a ranked road win over Montana State, if they can pull off the upset Saturday. Two years ago in the playoffs, Eastern Washington hosted a 6-5 Northern Iowa team that was an at-large selection out of the Missouri Valley Football Conference.

“We’re going to go in and do everything we can,” Best said, “because we’ve got nothing to lose, but they have everything to gain.”

Eastern Washington leads the all-time series 32-12. The Bobcats have won the last two, which ended a seven-game winning streak for the Eagles, which included three wins in Bozeman.

In the Big Sky’s scheduling format, Montana State and Idaho are the two other conference teams that Eastern Washington plays every season.

They are scheduled to meet in Cheney next season and in Bozeman again in 2025.

Johnson named player of the week

Da’Marcus Johnson was named Big Sky Defensive Player of the Week on Monday, becoming the first Eagles player honored with a weekly award this season and the first EWU defensive player to earn the distinction since Nzuzi Webster in 2018.

Johnson, a fifth-year senior who transferred from Fresno State last offseason, forced two fumbles against Cal Poly and recorded five tackles.

Defensive end Johnson leads the Eagles with 3.5 sacks and five quarterback hurries. He also has the team’s fifth-most tackles (36).

Haucks, Barnums, Hawkins to face each other Saturday

Two Big Sky head coaches will coach against their sons this weekend, when Montana plays at Portland State and UC Davis plays at Idaho State.

Montana head coach Bobby Hauck, the conference’s winningest head coach in history, will line up across the field from Robby Hauck, his son who is in his first year as nickelbacks coach and special teams assistant for Portland State. Robby Hauck, who played at Montana from 2018 to 2022, is the Big Sky’s all-time leading tackler with 482.

Similarly, Portland State coach Bruce Barnum will coach against his son, Cooper, who has played in nine games this year for the Grizzlies. Cooper Barnum played baseball at Washington State in 2021 and 2022.

“He’s gone from player to coach. He’s a professional now. He’s gonna be trying his darnedest to beat us, that’s for sure,” Bobby Hauck said of Robby during his weekly media availability. “And Barny doesn’t want Cooper at home for Christmas talking smack to him either, so these guys, they’re going to want to win.”

Montana (8-1, 5-1) is ranked No. 3 in the FCS Stats Perform Top 25. Portland State is 4-5 and 3-3 in Big Sky games.

In Pocatello, Idaho State coach Cody Hawkins will coach against Dan Hawkins, his father, who is the head coach at UC Davis. Cody Hawkins was the Aggies’ offensive coordinator last season before the Bengals hired him as head coach.

The Aggies (5-4, 3-3) are fifth in the Big Sky standings and face rival Sacramento State (6-3, 3-3) in the final week of the regular season.

Idaho State is 3-6 and 3-3, its most Big Sky wins since 2018.