In the 21 years Aaron Best has faced Montana State as a coach and player, the Eastern Washington head coach can point to two constants from the Bobcats: toughness and a raucous venue.
He expects more of both Saturday when the fifth-ranked Eagles (3-1, 1-0) visit the resurgent Bobcats (3-1, 1-0) at noon in a Big Sky Conference game.
Best said he doesn’t give much thought to EWU’s recent dominance of the Bozeman school, a 14-4 series since the turn of the millennium. EWU has won the last six meetings.
When the Eagles lock up with third-year head coach Jeff Choate’s ascending program at Bobcats Stadium – MSU went 4-7 in 2016, 5-6 last season and is now off to its best start since 2012 – they expect a big test, especially up front.
“Their offensive line is very solid and well-coached,” Best said. “They get downhill in the run game and don’t play too much on the edges. They want to establish the run. That’s their identity.”
EWU tight end Jayce Gilder, a Corvallis, Montana, native who grew up watching the Bobcats, agreed.
“They’re a team that plays hard and fast, so I think it will be a good challenge for us,” Gilder said. “I think we’ll be ready for it.
Do-it-all quarterback Troy Andersen is a big part of the Bobcats’ run-you-over approach, averaging 105 yards on the ground. The 6-foot-3, 215-pound sophomore, who has also started games at linebacker and running back last season, shares a backfield with true freshman Isaiah Ifanse.
Ifanse, a Bellevue High product and Washington’s 2017 Gatorade Player of the Year, has rushed for 261 yards and three touchdowns on 50 carries.
Montana State, which averages 194 yards on the ground and 180 through the air, has done most of its damage in the passing game with quarterback Tucker Rovig. He’s thrown the ball nearly twice as much as Andersen, completing 38 of 61 passes for 535 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions.
The Bobcats offer different looks with their two quarterbacks, but Andersen’s presence forces linebackers to keep their head on swivel.
“When (Andersen) is at quarterback, it’s like they have two running backs back there,” EWU linebacker Kurt Calhoun said.
“He is a very, very fine football player who creates headaches for any defensive coordinator,” Best said of Andersen, a Dillon, Montana, product. “We don’t put all our eggs in one basket, but we have to make sure he’s accounted for no matter where he is on the field – especially when they get in their two-quarterback system. We have to have our antennas up and still play fast and fearless.”
The Bobcats’ offense sputtered in a season-opening 26-23 win over Western Illinois and a 45-14 loss at third-ranked South Dakota State, a game without Andersen at QB (hand injury). It was efficient in back-to-back routs of struggling Wagner (47-24) and Portland State (43-23).
In its three wins, EWU’s defense has given up an average 18.6 points.
Montana State boasts an experienced defensive front that is tasked with slowing down a balanced, high-octane EWU offense that ranks third in the county in production (570 yards per game).
Choate, a St. Maries, Idaho, native, hopes his defense limits the Eagles’ big plays. It’s allowing 421 yards a game, slightly less than the number of rushing yards EWU tallied (441) in a 70-17 win over Cal Poly last week with its four-pronged backfield.
“They use tempo, multiple formations, multiple personnel groups. They’ll run some option, they’ll run some (quarterback) run game, so they make you defend a lot,” Choate said of EWU. “One thing you don’t want to do is you don’t want to blitz, because now you’re one-on-one with all these great receivers that they have down the field. They’re going to get their yards. That’s who they are. What we’ve got to do is we’ve got to play really, really good red-zone defense and try to limit them to field-goal opportunities when they’re down there.”
In EWU quarterback Gage Gubrud’s last two games against Montana State he’s totaled 774 passing yards. His arm hurt the Bobcats in 2016, as he passed for 520 yards and four touchdowns. Gubrud’s feet did them in last year.
EWU led Montana State 24-19 late in the fourth quarter. Gubrud helped put the game away by converting on a fourth-and-4 situation on a scramble, setting up an Antoine Custer touchdown that that put the game away.
Gubrud is 327 passing yards away from 10,000 for his career.
“He’s really impressive. Obviously, the stats don’t lie,” Andersen said of Gubrud. “He’s very mobile and athletic and he doesn’t make poor decisions with the football. He doesn’t turn it over that much. And he has a lot of weapons around him. We’ll need to contain him.”
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