Montana State boasts the No. 2-ranked scoring defense (21.7 points-allowed per game) and total defense (360.1 yards-allowed per game) in the Big Sky Conference, and that'll come in handy in Saturday's showdown with Eastern Washington. But MSU's fourth-ranked pass defense is going to get a workout.
Right now, the Bobcats have given up a league-low nine touchdown passes and surrender just 222.4 yards through the air per game. Yet against EWU quarterback Vernon Adams and his vast receiving corps -- notably freshman Cooper Kupp -- the Bobcats must make tackles on first contact, pressure the pocket and, yes, get a turnover or two. If they don't, it could be a long afternoon.
Kupp is on track to win the Big Sky Conference's newcomer of the year award. The frosh from Yakima, Wash., has put up huge numbers through nine games: 52 catches for 982 yards and 13 touchdowns. Kupp averages a staggering 18.9 yards per catch, and his 13 TDs are the second-most in the FCS. But Kupp has especially been on fire the past three weeks. Here's a deeper look at his per-game numbers in each of his previous three outings:
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As you can see, the 6-foot-2, 195-pound Kupp has dominated opponents of late. I saw him first hand when EWU played (and beat) the Grizzlies, and he does everything right. He has great hands, he secures the ball, he can adjust to the pass in the air ... he's got all the tools. But if Kupp doesn't beat you, somebody else will. Ashton Clark, Shaq Hill and Cory Mitchell also do big damage. Of Adams' 35 touchdown passes, Clark, Hill and Mitchell have combined to catch 14 of them.
Eastern Washington is nothing short of "Wide Receiver-U." The Eagles lost the All-American trio of Brandon Kaufman, Nicholas Edwards and Greg Herd off of last year's team, which seemed like it'd be a big blow. But now it's clear EWU simply reloads, and Kupp is a prime example.
The Bobcats will need all hands on deck in order to keep Adams from throwing for 400 yards and five TDs again this week. That means the defensive line must get pressure. The linebackers must be sound with their drops and be good tacklers underneath to keep Kupp and Co. from getting big yards after the catch. The corners must cover as well as they have all year.
You have to work your tail off on defense for 60 minutes in order to beat Eastern Washington. Brad Daly will be a key factor in how the game turns out. If Daly and the d-line can crash the pocket consistently and force Adams to throw under duress, it'll give MSU a big lift. The Bobcats played their best defensive game of last season against Adams and Eastern Washington. It'll be interesting to see how they fare this time.