New year, new challenges for Cats, Griz

2014-08-23T22:15:00Z 2014-08-26T14:39:24Z New year, new challenges for Cats, GrizBy GREG RACHAC The Billings Gazette

A juggernaut has sent a clear message to the Big Sky Conference. Eastern Washington is picking up right where it left off.

EWU steamrolled the league last season as star quarterback Vernon Adams threw for 4,994 yards and 55 touchdowns. And in a 56-35 victory over No. 17 Sam Houston State on Saturday -- a game broadcast by ESPN for all to see -- Adams and the No. 1-ranked Eagles put up 624 yards and made 37 first downs.

Eastern did to the Bearkats what it did to just about everyone else in 2013. They simply outran them. The Big Sky title goes through the defending champs. Neither Montana nor Montana State could stop the Eagles last year. How do they turn the tide?

Eastern has “a lot of really good football players back from a very, very good team,” Montana coach Mick Delaney said. “The rest of us have to chase that. That’s what the season is all about.”

How do the Cats and Griz stack up to EWU and everyone else? Here’s a look ahead to the 2014 season:

Stage is set

It took the Bobcats a couple months to wrap their minds around what happened last year -- a puzzling three-game losing streak at the end of the season. It was a year of high expectations, and the Cats were on the outside looking in on the playoffs for the first time since 2009. Thud.

But after a few months of self-scrutiny, MSU cleaned its slate. There’s not a pall over the Bobcats; there’s no feeling of loss in the wake of the graduation of all-timer DeNarius McGhee, the second-winningest quarterback in Big Sky history. It’s a new day in Bozeman, and a return to the playoffs is just one of many aspirations.

“We’re going to create a new football team in 2014,” coach Rob Ash said. “We have 18 seniors, but a lot of them have flown under the radar because they’ve been behind really good players. It’s going to be exciting. It’ll be different, fun, there will be new heroes. And we’re not looking back at all.”

At Montana, the Grizzlies’ offense is locked and loaded with the return of quarterback Jordan Johnson, running back Jordan Canada and, if healthy, receiver Ellis Henderson, all of whom put up huge numbers in 2013. The main questions reside on the offensive line, where young players need to grow up in a hurry.

Montana must replace some studs. Those include linebackers Jordan Tripp and Brock Coyle, who are competing for roster spots in the National Football League. Tripp is actually in the running for a starting job with the Miami Dolphins.

The Griz doubled their win total last season and made the playoffs. It’s interesting to note that Johnson has only lost six games, and has taken UM to the playoffs in each of his two seasons as the starter.

Players to watch

 MSU: Quarterback Dakota Prukop. The heir to McGhee’s throne, Prukop won a tight competition in camp by beating out Jake Bleskin and Quinn McQueary. Prukop is a 6-foot-2, 195-pound sophomore who is a dual run/pass threat, and the coaches believe he’s the right fit in an evolving spread offense.

• UM: Linebacker Jeremiah Kose. Despite his injury history, the Grizzlies are sure of Kose’s talent. In his two years at UM, he has suffered two ACL injuries and has played in just two games. Tripp, Coyle and John Kanongata’a are all gone, so if Kose meets his potential and stays on the field, the Griz will benefit.

• MSU: Defensive end Garrett Marino. There’s been a lot of hype surrounding Marino, an über-talented true freshman from Mission Viejo, Calif. Marino originally committed to Arizona State but didn’t clear academically. He sat out last season before joining the Bobcats. He could be a star.

• UM: Left tackle Jackson Thiebes. Starter John Schmaing was ruled academically ineligible, and another tackle, Trevor Poole, is out with a back injury. Thiebes, a former tight end who was once cut by the Griz and has never seen a live game as an offensive lineman, is now the man to protect Johnson’s blind side.

Games to see

• Portland State at Montana State, Nov. 8: Portland State had the No. 1 offense in the FCS last season, not Eastern Washington. The Cats will be coming off a stretch of having played just one home game in a five-week span, and will need this game in the push toward the finish line.

• Montana at Eastern Washington, Nov. 8: This one could have huge league and postseason implications. Eastern wants to hang on to its outright league title; the Grizzlies want to reclaim it. This game should decide a lot.

• Montana State at Montana, Nov. 22: Of course. The 114th meeting between the arch-rivals kicks off at 3 p.m. at Washington-Grizzly Stadium. The Cats and Griz have split the past four meetings, and the road team has prevailed in the previous five.

Did you know?

 The Bobcats’ season-opener at FBS Arkansas State on Saturday is the second meeting between the schools. The first was a 31-14 Bobcat victory in the first round of the playoffs in 1984. MSU ruined the Red Wolves’ unbeaten season and went on to win the NCAA Division I-AA national championship.

 Montana’s game Sept. 20 at North Dakota State pits the Grizzlies against the three-time reigning national champion. The matchup will be “Game 7”: The series is tied 3-3. It will be the Grizzlies’ first-ever trip to the Fargodome.

Copyright 2015 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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