Turnovers have been an Achilles heel in Rob Ash’s tenure as coach at Montana State.
And though they’ve largely cleaned it up in the past couple years, the Bobcats (4-0, 1-0 Big Sky) are still minus-18 in turnover margin since Ash took over the program in 2007.
Through four games this season, No. 2-ranked MSU is minus-3 in turnovers. Big Sky Conference newcomer Southern Utah, the Bobcats’ opponent Saturday, is at the opposite end of that spectrum. The Thunderbirds (2-2, 1-0) lead the league with a turnover margin of plus-7.
Naturally, the battle of give-and-take will be under a microscope when this game kicks off at 1:30 p.m. at Eccles Coliseum in Cedar City, Utah.
SUU exhibits a slew of playmakers on defense, all of which have a knack for taking away the football.
Tackle Cody Larsen, one of the top overall defensive players in the league, and end Austin Anderson have each recovered two fumbles for the Thunderbirds, which rank at the top of the league.
Freshman linebacker Zak Browning has been a big surprise. He’s already forced a conference-high three fumbles. And freshman defensive back LeShaun Sims has picked off two passes, which is tied for the lead in the Big Sky.
“I’m really impressed with how physical they are,” Ash said. “They’ve got some great guys up front. Larsen is a really good player. And the other guys flanking him are tough. They’ve got solid linebackers.
“We’re very respectful of them. We’ve got our hands full. They are a big, physical team.”
The Bobcats are coming off their first turnover-free performance this year in a 41-16 drubbing of Northern Colorado. To keep it going, the Cats will continue to rely on the efficiency of quarterback DeNarius McGhee.
“I thought DeNarius’ game (last) Saturday was magnificent,” Ash said. “DeNarius is playing fast, throwing accurately, and knows exactly where he’s supposed to go with the ball.
“We’re not spending a lot of time at the line of scrimmage checking plays, we’re letting things happen after the snap and I think that caters to DeNarius’ decision-making and ability to just sort of let things happen.”
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If any Big Sky Conference team has consistently given Montana fits, it’s Eastern Washington.
The Eagles have beaten the Grizzlies three times since 2002, including a victory two years ago in the inaugural game on the red turf at Roos Field in Cheney, Wash. And several meetings between the schools in the last 10 years have come down to the wire.
Montana held on to win last year’s game 17-14 when linebacker John Kanongata’a intercepted Bo Levi Mitchell late in the fourth quarter. In 2009, the Griz won a shootout 41-34.
Two years before that Montana squeaked out a 24-23 triumph, thanks in large part to a diving fourth-down catch by receiver Ryan Bagley on the winning drive.
The No. 21-ranked Grizzlies (2-2, 0-1) lost their Big Sky Conference opener last week 41-31 at home to Northern Arizona. First-year coach Mick Delaney says his team has moved on in preparation for a big matchup at Roos Field against No. 7 Eastern Washington (2-1, 1-0).
“We put that game away immediately Sunday night after we made the corrections from the game tape on it,” Delaney said. “And we moved on toward Eastern Washington, which is every bit as good a football team as Northern Arizona is.”
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Just as the Grizzlies had to pay close attention to Northern Arizona return man Austin Shanks last week, the Bobcats must do their part to slow Southern Utah returner Josh Smith.
Smith had six kick returns for 173 yards in a 49-42 comeback win over Portland State last week, including a 95-yard touchdown return of the opening kickoff of the second half. As a result, Smith was named the Big Sky’s special teams player of the week.
“He’s a great return man,” Ash said. “He does a great job on all their returns.”
The Bobcats have a good weapon in kickoff specialist A.J. Silva. Silva has sent 15 of his 27 kickoffs into the end zone for touchbacks. Otherwise, the Bobcats have done a nice job in coverage by limiting opponents to roughly 19 yards per kickoff return.
“You never know how it’s going to work out, especially if you have a wind going one direction or another,” Ash said. “But A.J.’s a good bet to get (the ball) deep.”
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Against EWU, the Grizzlies’ defense might have to contend with two quarterbacks with contrasting styles.
In a surprise move last week, the Eagles started redshirt freshman Vernon Adams at quarterback in place of usual starter Kyle Padron. Adams, a dual-threat player, threw for 75 yards and rushed for 62 more before giving way to Padron in the second half.
Padron, a drop-back passer who transferred from Southern Methodist, came in to throw for 149 yards and a TD.
“They both played last week, and they both played really well,” Delaney said. “(Adams) wants to get going quickly. He’s not going to stand there with any pressure because he’s extremely fast and extremely quick.
“And (Padron) is a guy who is going to stand in the pocket, move his feet, use good technique and throw the ball.”
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EWU WR Brandon Kaufman had his third straight 100-yard receiving game last week with 126 yards and a touchdown. Kaufman missed most of last season with an injury. … Sacramento State WR DeAndre Carter is one of only three players in the country to have caught one touchdown in each of the first four games of the season. Sac State (2-2, 0-1) travels to Idaho State (1-2, 0-0) this week. … UNC LB Clarence Bumpas has had at least 10 tackles against his last 10 Big Sky opponents. Bumpas made 11 stops in the loss last week to MSU. The Bears have a bye this week.