This one is big.
A lot is on the line when No. 4 Montana State takes on No. 3 Eastern Washington on Saturday at Roos Field in Cheney, Wash. — not the least of which is the inside track to a Big Sky Conference championship.
It’s right where the Bobcats want to be.
“This is the expectation for our program,” said MSU coach Rob Ash. “We’re looking forward to this game with anticipation, not pressure. It’s a big opportunity and we’re excited for it.”
But a challenge it’ll be. Eastern Washington (7-2, 5-0 Big Sky) has made mincemeat of their last five opponents, and quarterback Vernon Adams is the catalyst.
Adams, a sophomore, has already thrown for 3,078 yards and 35 touchdowns. He is a master of the big play: 21 of Adams’ TD passes have gone for 20 yards or longer, and eight have gone for 50 or longer.
A key element to EWU’s passing game is freshman receiver Cooper Kupp. Kupp has caught at least one touchdown in every game, and his 13 TDs average out to a staggering 37.8 yards per catch.
“It’s amazing how far (Adams) has come in the passing game,” said Bobcats defensive end Brad Daly. “When we played him last year he was a huge threat on the ground, but this year he’s super dynamic throwing the ball.”
“They’ve got such good receivers,” Ash said. “They have excellent rout combinations and concepts. They’ll beat you one-on-one. (Adams) loves to throw the ball down the field.”
Adams and the Eagles’ offense have gotten a lot of hype this season, and they deserve it. But the Bobcats have been superb in their own right, averaging more than 40 points in five conference games.
Behind Cody Kirk’s league-high 16 rushing TDs, MSU has beaten teams up on the ground. And quarterback DeNarius McGhee is as efficient as he’s ever been, having served up just one interception.
Like Eastern, the Bobcats have won five straight.
“We play the game different than Eastern does,” Ash said. “We take far fewer shots down the field than they do. We don’t put up as many points and we don’t throw for as many yards, but our total offensive production is competitive near the top of the conference.
“We’re not necessarily as explosive (as EWU) on offense. It will come in handy if we can have some long, sustained drives. We have to be explosive though. We’re going to have to score some points in this game. That’s no secret at all. We have to put points on the board.”
Griz face South Dakota
Montana is shooting for a better defensive performance at South Dakota.
The No. 10-ranked Grizzlies (7-2, 4-2 Big Sky) surrendered 90 points and more than 1,100 yards in its previous two games — a 42-37 loss to Eastern Washington and a 51-48 overtime victory at Sacramento State.
Grizzlies defensive coordinator Ty Gregorak addressed his unit’s struggles earlier this week, saying:
“I can promise you we will work our butts off to try to get this thing right. I expect our team to get better this week. I really do. I know the defense is ticked. We’re definitely frustrated and disappointed. This time of the year we should be playing our best football and we’re not."
South Dakota (4-3, 3-3 Missouri Valley) isn’t as big-play oriented as UM’s past two opponents (the Coyotes average just 18.9 points per game) but has held its own. The Coyotes put up big points in a 38-31 overtime victory over 11th-ranked Northern Iowa on Oct. 19, and they nearly knocked off a top 10 Youngstown State team last week but the Penguins scored with less than a minute left for a 38-34 victory.
“South Dakota is as competitive as any team we’ll play,” said Montana coach Mick Delaney.
The Grizzlies and Coyotes play for the second straight season; UM won 35-24 last year in the season-opener at Washington-Grizzly Stadium.
USD is coached by Joe Glenn, who was the coach at Montana from 2000-02 and guided it to a national championship in 2001.
“Montana will want to win this game for every reason we want to win it,” Glenn said. “This is a really important game for them if they want to position themselves for the playoffs. We're trying to establish our program, so you just take all that personal stuff out of it really.”
News and notes
♦ Cody Kirk has scored at least one touchdown in six consecutive games (he has 12 TDs in that span).
Kirk’s 45 rushing touchdowns are tied for the sixth-most in Big Sky history with current Northern Arizona RB Zach Bauman. Kirk’s 16 TDs this season are three shy of the league’s top 15 for single-season touchdowns.
♦ It will be a homecoming of sorts for Grizzlies S Matt Hermanson. Hermanson grew up in Sioux Falls, S.D., which is roughly 65 miles from the USD campus in Vermillion.
Hermanson has experience playing in the DakotaDome.
"It's always been like a dream to play in there,” Hermanson said. “I played in there four years for the championship in high school (at Washington High) and I have to go back and try it again."
♦ Eastern Washington’s WRs are coached by former Bobcat Junior Adams. Adams was a WR for MSU in the early 2000s.
As a senior in 2002, Adams caught 66 passes for 983 yards and eight touchdowns to earn All-America honors. He helped MSU to a 7-5 record as the Bobcats finished 5-2 in the Big Sky to earn a piece of the league title.
♦ Montana RB Jordan Canada scored four rushing touchdowns in the win over Sacramento State last week.
It tied Canada with four other players for the most rushing TDs in single-game history at UM. The last player to rush for four touchdowns was Lex Hilliard in a first round FCS playoff game against Northwestern State in 2004.
♦ Altitude TV will pick up Max Media’s broadcast of the Griz game for out-of-market viewers in Idaho, Utah, Colorado, Wyoming, Kansas, Nebraska, northern New Mexico, western South Dakota and northeast Nevada.
The game will only be available in Montana on Max Media stations.