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Eastern Washington University Football

Big Sky notebook: No. 2 Montana State’s road to league championship continues at Kibbie Dome

Courtesy Idaho Athletics Idaho huddles during a game against Montana on Oct. 14 at the Kibbie Dome.  (Courtesy of Idaho Athletics)
By Dan Thompson The Spokesman-Review

It’s still a couple of weeks until Eastern Washington plays Montana State, but it appears that when the Eagles do face the Bobcats in Bozeman, they will play a Bobcats team that isn’t just contending for a Big Sky title.

Montana State looks like a team that could win a national title.

The second-ranked Bobcats (6-1, 4-0 Big Sky), a national semifinalist last season whose only loss this year came at No. 1 South Dakota State, beat Sacramento State 42-30 last week on the road. The victory separated the Bobcats from the rest of the conference, and they remain the only team without a Big Sky loss.

“I am pleased with that victory because it didn’t come easy,” MSU coach Brent Vigen said Monday during his weekly news conference. “That was a really good team we were able to beat on Saturday night.”

Halfway through their Big Sky schedule, the Bobcats still have two more ranked matchups, both on the road. The first is Saturday at No. 9 Idaho (5-2, 3-1). After home games against Northern Arizona (2-5, 2-2) and EWU (3-4, 2-2), they close out against No. 7 Montana (6-1, 3-1) in Missoula.

The Kibbie Dome crowd of 14,588 was loud during the Vandals’ last game, a 23-21 loss to the Grizzlies that gave Montana a crucial victory as it also seeks a first-round bye in the FCS playoff bracket.

“Those places, when they’re full, they’re just going to be that much louder,” Vigen said of Dome settings. “We have to be able to respond to an electric atmosphere. At the same time, (you) relish playing in that kind of environment. These guys want to play in front of people. You don’t want to go to a place where you’re playing in front of a couple thousand people.”

The Bobcats appear to be equipped to handle the noise, namely because of their running game. Montana State averages 325 rushing yards per game, at least 100 more than any other Big Sky team and 23 more than the next-best attack in the FCS (Davidson, at 301.7 per game).

The Bobcats’ passing game, while not prolific, ranks second in the Big Sky in yards per play (9.0), just behind Idaho’s (9.3). They have also thrown a conference-low two interceptions, contributing to a plus-six turnover margin that ranks 12th nationally (Eastern Washington’s is plus-four, tied for 26th).

Montana State’s defense also leads the Big Sky with 21 sacks and has scored two defensive touchdowns.

Idaho State: no fluke?

One week after beating the Eagles 42-41, the Bengals won at Portland State 38-24 on Saturday and are tied with Montana and Idaho for second place in the Big Sky at 3-1.

The victory ended Idaho State’s 17-game road losing streak and gave the Bengals back-to-back wins for the first time since 2018.

With a 3-4 overall record, Idaho State likely needs to win out and reach seven wins for playoff consideration.

The Bengals play at Sacramento State this week and then have home games against Weber State (3-5, 1-4) and UC Davis (4-3, 2-2) before ending the season at Idaho on Nov. 18.

But they are just two wins from finishing with a winning record in Big Sky play, something they have done just twice since 2003 (in 2018 and 2014).

The Bengals, under first-year head coach Cody Hawkins, have won with an emphasis on their passing game, which ranks first nationally at 342.6 yards per game.

Montana settles on starting QBAfter a surprising 28-14 loss at Northern Arizona on Sept. 23, the Grizzlies have won three games in a row over Idaho State, UC Davis and Idaho. That streak coincides with Montana’s choice to turn to senior transfer Clifton McDowell as its full-time quarterback.

McDowell, who transferred from FCS school Central Arkansas, didn’t join the team until after spring practices, and in the team’s first four games he attempted just 14 passes.

But following the loss to NAU, McDowell has taken over the pocket, completing 42 of 70 attempts for 579 yards, five touchdowns and zero interceptions. He’s been a capable rusher, too, gaining 153 yards and scoring twice in the past three games.

“I am super proud of (McDowell) and what he’s been able to do since he’s taken the starting job,” Montana senior center AJ Forbes said Monday during media availability. “He obviously adds a dynamic element with his running ability. He’s improved week over week as a passer. Watching him carry the ball, he’s a guy you want to block for. I think everybody’s loving him as the quarterback.”

Montana hosts Northern Colorado (0-7, 0-4) this week, the first of three Grizzlies home games over the final four weeks of the regular season.