With all the hot talk lately about football rivalries, Eastern Washington football fans might want to take a step back and re-evaluate exactly what that means.
If it’s pure football excitement you want, the Eagles’ biggest rival isn’t Montana. Even Portland State has given Eastern better games lately that the Grizzlies.
For all the emotion wrapped into the series with Montana, the Eagles’ best and most consequential games of late have come against the other team from the Treasure State, the Montana State Bobcats.
“There’s been a lot of them,” Eastern coach Aaron Best said Tuesday as the Eagles practiced for Saturday’s Big Sky Conference game against the Cats. “They’re always memorable and they’re always challenging.”
For the better part of a decade, the Bobcats also have been the best measuring stick for Eastern football – and vice versa.
Longtime MSU coach Rob Ash was fired after the 2015 season, partly because he couldn’t win the big ones. These days, any game against the Eagles (50-9 in Big Sky games since 2010) is a big one.
“They play with a lot of swagger and a lot of confidence, and we want to be like that,” said second-year MSU coach Jeff Choate, who bring the Bobcats to Cheney on Saturday afternoon.
You want games that can make or break a season? In 2010, the ninth-ranked Eagles journeyed to Bozeman and lost 30-7. But there was no wallowing after that walloping. Instead, coach Beau Baldwin rallied the troops and they never lost again – all the way to a national title.
How about games that really matter? Two years later, the Eagles returned to Bobcat Stadium and scored two late touchdowns to upset No. 2 MSU 27-24. That win propelled Eastern to the top ranking in FCS, a Big Sky title and another deep postseason run.
You want pure football excellence? On Nov. 11, 2013, Eastern quarterback Vernon Adams Jr. led an offense that snapped the ball just 48 times, yet gained 591 yards in a 54-29 romp. That broke down to a league-record 12.3 yards a play and also clinched a second consecutive league title.
How about some gut-wrenching drama? A year later at MSU, the second-ranked Eagles trailed 51-44 with less than 2 minutes left, but Adams shrugged off 19,000 screaming fans and marched 80 yards to the end zone. Seconds later, Baldwin ordered a two-point conversion try and Adams dived into the end zone for a 52-51 win.
Finally, how about some crazy offensive numbers? In 2015 in Cheney, the Bobcats ran 104 offensive plays for 718 yards, but Eastern prevailed 55-50 thanks to Jordan West’s 410 yards passing, for six touchdowns.
For those last two games, Eastern can thank athletic director Bill Chaves and former MSU AD Peter Fields, who scheduled the home-and-home series after it fell out of the regular Big Sky schedule.
Eastern had its way last year in Bozeman, winning 41-17, but the Bobcats appear to be back.
MSU’s Denarius McGhee – who was on the losing end of those games in 2012-13 – is back as quarterbacks coach.
Together with sophomore quarterback Chris Murray, he would like nothing more than a little payback Saturday afternoon.
And the renewal of a great rivalry.
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