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Things to watch: Eastern Washington will need to slow rushing attack to upset Montana State

By Dan Thompson The Spokesman-Review

Eastern Washington’s football team has improved on its record from a year ago by winning four games.

The Eagles (4-5, 3-3 Big Sky) aren’t satisfied with that, of course.

They would rather double their three wins from last year, something they could do if they beat Montana State on Saturday and Northern Arizona in the final week of the regular season.

But beating the fifth-ranked Bobcats (7-2, 5-1) is no easy task. Their running game is averaging a best-in-the-nation 7.5 yards per carry, a feat all the more remarkable considering the Bobcats don’t have an individual player who ranks among the FCS’ top 45 rushers.

“They’ve got many, many guys that touch the ball and can do magical things with the ball in their hands,” EWU head coach Aaron Best said this week during media availability.

“They try to get your eyes in different spots, and before you know it the gap opens and no one’s there, because we’ve got two in one gap and they’ve got one in a gap that we’re not in.”

Just two teams have been reasonably up to the challenge of slowing the Bobcats. In Week 2, top-ranked South Dakota State limited Montana State to 211 yards on 48 carries. Two weeks ago, fourth-ranked Idaho kept the Bobcats to 128 yards on 23 carries.

The Bobcats lost both those games.

But those were also on the road, and in every other game – including five wins in Bozeman – the Bobcats have rushed for at least 300 yards.

The Eagles, who have allowed four teams to rush for more than 270 yards, might not seem like a team equipped to stop such a rushing attack. But they will surely try.

Here are three key elements of the game to watch for when it kicks off at noon Saturday.

How well do the Eagles contain MSU’s quarterbacks?

Best pointed out that last year the Bobcats were more apt to employ Tommy Mellot and Sean Chambers on the field at the same time, much like the Eagles have done at times with their quarterbacks. But this year, the Bobcats have healthier running backs who have helped carry the rushing load: Junior Julius Davis (593 yards) and redshirt freshman Jared White (506) have given them balance. Part of Idaho’s success against Montana State was that the Vandals held Mellot and Chambers to a combined 27 rushing yards. This season, those two have thrown for a combined 1,441 yards, while Eagles redshirt sophomore Kekoa Visperas has 2,142 passing yards alone. Containing Montana State’s running game requires a defense to shut down Mellot and Chambers, and forcing those two to throw would be a good sign for the Eagles.

How quickly can the Eagles pile up points?

Eastern scored 45 first-half points against Cal Poly last week, 10 shy of the program record for points scored in the first two quarters. It’s improbable the Eagles can match that against a much better Montana State defense, but it was a good sign for an offense that scored 13 and 14 points in its previous two first halves. Eastern’s offense began to hit its stride once Jared Taylor started playing some at quarterback, but the junior can only play in one more game if the Eagles still hope to redshirt him. Whether he plays this week or next might also depend on the health of fellow junior quarterback Michael Wortham, who exited in the first half against Cal Poly with an ankle injury. The Eagles are better when at least one of those two is available, but they also possess plenty of other offensive weapons on the outside, like junior receivers Efton Chism III (67 catches, 735 yards) and Nolan Ulm (33 for 401). And they definitely don’t want to fall behind on the road against a team that can run the ball.

Which team gets yardage in the biggest chunks?

Eastern Washington’s offense has been more methodical than explosive this season, as no Big Sky team has run more plays than the Eagles (682) but four teams have a better yards-per-play average: Eastern’s is 5.5, whereas Montana State leads the conference at 7.9. The Eagles have yet to gain more than 39 yards on a rushing play, and their longest pass has gained just 46 yards. That’s been well and good for the Eagles, contributing to a nearly 3-minute increase in possession time per game over last year. But it has also made them labor through 40 red-zone trips, 15 of which ended in field-goal attempts. Montana State, on the other hand, has six players with a run of at least 47 yards and six players with at least one catch for 40 or more yards. That’s a big reason why the Bobcats have gained the most yards per game in the conference (482.7), about one good drive more per game than the Eagles, whose offense ranks second at 418.9 yards per game.