Twenty-one might not be enough this time.
A week after it scratched out a 21-14 overtime victory over Cal Poly, No. 10 Montana welcomes Big Sky Conference rival Eastern Washington to Missoula for a big-time showdown.
The Grizzlies (6-1, 3-1 Big Sky) and No. 3-ranked Eagles (5-2, 3-0) are jostling for position with Montana State and others atop the league standings as the final month of the regular season looms around the corner. Whoever wins this game gets a big lift toward that endeavor.
After sputtering on offense and leaving points on the field last Saturday, the Grizzlies worked all week to make sure there aren’t as many costly lapses against a dangerous EWU team.
“The biggest thing this week is we have to communicate,” said UM center Kjelby Oiland. “They’re going to play some odd (fronts) and rotate their linebackers over into some different looks.
“The biggest thing is to make our points, and when J.J. (quarterback Jordan Johnson) makes his audibles we have to stick with them. We know we’re capable of being a good offensive line, and a good offense in general. We just have to go out there and play like we can.”
Montana didn’t run the ball with as much gusto against Cal Poly as it usually does. The Griz averaged just 2.4 yards on 30 carries, converted only four of 14 third-down plays, and was on the wrong side on time of possession by more than 13 minutes.
Those numbers need to be reversed against Eastern Washington, which boasts one of the top offensive players in the FCS in quarterback Vernon Adams. Defensively, it’ll be a challenge to line up and contain Adams, a dual-threat player that averages nearly 360 yards of offense per game.
“He has a pretty incredible ability, sort of like (Johnson), to keep the play alive,” said Griz defensive tackle Alex Bienemann. “He can get outside and make all the throws.
“Sometimes when you get an athletic quarterback like that, their first instinct the second the pocket starts to come down on them is they run out of there. But he’ll stick in there and make great throws. Vernon does a really good job of sticking in there and delivering the ball where it needs to be.”
It’s not all on the defense, though. The Grizzlies’ offense can do its part, too.
Added Montana coach Mick Delaney: “We’d like to keep him from getting big chunks and big plays running or throwing the ball. But offensively hopefully we can hang on to it and keep it away from him. That’s something we didn’t do very well last week.”
With an unblemished 3-0 mark in Big Sky games, No. 5 Montana State (5-2 overall) loves where it’s at right now.
The Bobcats and Eastern Washington are the only unbeaten teams in the race for the conference title, and MSU can build on that with a victory over UC Davis (3-5, 3-1) on Saturday at Bobcat Stadium.
“We’re in a very good position right now, and it’s exactly where you want to be,” said coach Rob Ash. “All we have to do is play our game. There’s no scoreboard watching or looking at what anybody else is doing. It’s one game at a time.
“We’ll play this game and then we’ll look at the standings and see where everyone lines up. As long as we win, we know we control our own destiny. I’m not saying we’re going to run the table or anything like that, but right now, to know that we are in control is important for our team.”
The Bobcats have seen a number of trends and/or crazy plays go in their favor so far this season. One example is their plus-10 turnover ratio, which ranks at the top of the Big Sky. Another example was Steven Bethley’s 100-yard return of a blocked point-after attempt last week in a 34-16 at Weber State.
Bethley’s play was a huge momentum-builder. After a 1-yard TD run by Weber State QB Austin Chipoletti, the Wildcats were set to tie the game 17-17 with the ensuing extra point at the end of the third quarter.
But Brad Daly blocked the PAT, Bethley picked it up and 100 yards later MSU led 19-16. The Cats pulled away from there, outscoring WSU 15-0.
“The biggest thing about that was that (Bethley’s) response was so quick,” Ash said. “It was a live ball so he picked it up and got going. To me that was the best part about it. And it was a great effort by Brad Daly to get a hand on the kick.”
Big plays have been a big factor for MSU this year, no question.
“They can run,” said UC Davis coach Ron Gould. “They are one of the fastest teams that we will have faced to date. They’re athletic, they move well, they’re very physical especially on defense. When they come and get you they get there in a bad mood. They’re a really, really, really good football team.”
News and notes
n The Grizzlies will be without RB Travon Van this week. Van suffered a high ankle sprain early against Cal Poly and never returned. He was ruled out for the EWU game as early as Tuesday morning.
Leading rusher Jordan Canada will get the bulk of the carries this week, but backups Joey Counts and John Nguyen — who don’t typically get many reps, especially when Van is healthy — could be called on to spell Canada in certain situations.
n MSU’s Michael Foster was thrust into the starting lineup at middle linebacker this offseason when Na’a Moeakiola was declared out for the year following shoulder surgery.
Foster hasn’t disappointed. He ranks third on the team with 43 tackles, and has been Johnny-on-the-spot with a league-high and team-best three fumble recoveries. Those three recoveries already tie Foster for seventh on MSU’s single-season list in that category.
n The crowd noise at Washington-Grizzly Stadium makes every opponent uncomfortable. But it could be even worse for Eastern Washington.
UM is asking its fans to create crowd noise this week on par with professional stadiums, and will use a digital decibel reader during the EWU game to measure it. The world record for outdoor crowd noise of 137.5 decibels was set a couple weeks ago at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City in a Chiefs victory over Oakland.
n Bobcats RB Shawn Johnson had a 9-yard touchdown run versus Weber State, and continues to be a major strength of MSU’s offense and special teams.
Johnson owns the longest run from scrimmage (90 yards), the longest kickoff return (100) and is tied for the longest punt return (28) in the Big Sky Conference this season. He averages about 70 rushing yards per game, but that’s less than half of what he averages in all-purpose yards (144.7), a stat in which he ranks fourth in the league.