You don’t need to remind Montana State about the ramifications surrounding Saturday’s game at Eastern Washington.
“It’s what we talk about all year round,” said defensive end Brad Daly. “Everything we did in winter conditioning to two-a-days in August, it’s all coming down to this game. We realize how big of an opportunity this is and we have to seize it.”
The No. 3-ranked Eagles and No. 4-ranked Bobcats — both 7-2 and 5-0 in the Big Sky Conference — are the last remaining unbeaten teams in the league. First place, not to mention the inside track for the conference crown, is on the line.
Montana State’s defense is working on a plan to do something no one has really done this year — contain EWU quarterback Vernon Adams.
Montana couldn’t do it. Adams burned the Grizzlies for 457 yards and six touchdown passes in EWU’s 42-37 victory two weeks ago. Idaho State had just as much trouble, surrendering 432 passing yards and five TDs as the Eagles won 55-34 last week.
Actually, EWU put up a school-record 743 yards of total offense against the Bengals.
What’s it going to take? Daly knows much of it comes down to pressuring Adams in the pocket.
“That’s one of the biggest keys to the game,” Daly said. “He’s pretty poised, so we want to make him feel uncomfortable. If we can’t do that, I don’t know how Saturday is going to go.”
Through nine games, Daly has been the best defensive player in the Big Sky (if not nationally). He leads the FCS with 12 sacks and 17½ tackles for loss. Because of this, MSU owns one of the top pass defenses in the league, having intercepted more passes (10) than they’ve allowed TDs through the air (9).
The Bobcats don’t blitz that often on passing downs. Defensive coordinator Jamie Marshall prefers to rely on simple four-man pressure up front, allowing the linebackers to help in coverage.
Daly and fellow end Odin Coe, tackles Taylor Sheridan, Taylor Dees and Craig Ashworth, and (when healthy) end Preston Gale always seem to find their way to the quarterback. Montana State leads the Big Sky with 26 sacks.
“They do a great job of finding ways to put pressure on the quarterback — they are one of the top teams in the league,” said Eastern coach Beau Baldwin. “And they tackle really well in space. You have to earn it all against Montana State.”
Adams has already thrown for 3,078 yards and 35 touchdowns. Receivers Cooper Kupp, Ashton Clark, Shaq Hill, Cory Mitchell and tight end Zack Gehring give him five outstanding targets.
“Everybody’s tried different things,” said MSU coach Rob Ash. “Some people tried to play soft and defend the long pass and they’ve gotten gouged with the run. Other people have tried to play a very cautious containment on Vernon, and when he has time to throw he can pick you apart sitting comfortably in the pocket.
“People have tried to pressure him and he’s gotten away and made good plays. They’re just a good football team, and they’ve handled everything that they’ve seen so far.”
EWU’s receivers do plenty of damage running with the ball after the catch, and that’s another area on which the Bobcats are focusing.
“I think that’s a huge key, if we can limit their yards after contact,” Daly said. “We’ve got to be very good tacklers, and that’s everywhere. We can’t have any groups lack in that area. We have to tackle well.”
NOTES: MSU CB Deonte Flowers’ 12 pass breakups are tied for the most in the FCS. His 13 total passes defended rank second. … The Eagles have given up just five sacks in their past 178 pass attempts. … EWU is 20-3 on its red turf at Roos Field (a.k.a. The Inferno) since it was installed prior to the 2010 season. … Daly’s 42½ career tackles for loss rank fourth in Bobcats history.