MISSOULA – The bye week, as boring as Eastern Washington football players say it is, presented two gifts: time to heal and two weeks to focus on one particular team.
But 10th-ranked Montana (5-2, 2-1 Big Sky), which hosts EWU (3-4, 2-1) on Saturday at Washington-Grizzly Stadium, isn’t just another conference foe for the Eagles.
It’s a team EWU – which was ranked as high as No. 4 in the media poll before it’s rockiest start in eight years – loves to play and craves to beat.
Montana coach Bobby Hauck said Tuesday that every team in the league looks at the Griz as a conference rival.
Eastern Washington’s rivalry stamp, however, is strictly reserved for the Grizzlies, a former Football Championship Subdivision powerhouse that has lost seven of its past nine games against EWU.
In previous decades, Montana dominated the series – it leads the all-time series 27-17-1 – but EWU has been the most successful Big Sky program of the past decade.
“I don’t think it’s very hard to get excited for this game, especially in that environment,” said EWU tight end Jayce Gilder, who grew up 44 miles south of Missoula. “I think our guys will be very fired up. Everyone’s aware that we haven’t won a game on the road this year. At this point, every game is a playoff game for us.”
Rarely have the Eagles played the Grizzlies without a Top 25 ranking attached to its name. This is one of those times, adding to the game’s intrigue.
EWU can’t lose another one of its five remaining games if it hopes to earn a potential berth to the FCS playoffs.
The Eagles also have two years of pent-up aggression toward the Grizzlies, the product of the Big Sky Conference’s unbalanced 2018 scheduling that strangely didn’t pit EWU and Montana.
There’s a major what-if element to the Eagles’ make-or-break game, too: What if star Montana quarterback Dalton Sneed suits up on Saturday?
Sneed, who has passed for 2,019 yards, 15 touchdowns and six interceptions, and rushed for 217 yards and five touchdowns, went down with an ankle injury in the third quarter of Montana’s 49-22 loss at No. 7 Sacramento State last week.
He was on crutches after the game. Hauck ruled the senior QB doubtful, but said they’d test him later in the week to see if he can go.
Until EWU head coach Aaron Best sees backup Cam Humphrey behind center, he said, he’s preparing for Sneed.
“Toughness. Grit. Bobby Hauck: Part II. Great on special teams, very high-IQ team,” Best said while describing Montana. “Very physical on defense, have playmakers on offense. Mr. Sneed makes them go, but it’s yet to be determined if he plays, but we’ll expect him to play in some shape of form.”
Humphrey, who started his career at Boise State before going the junior college route, has completed 26 of 54 passes for 423 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions in 12 appearances at Montana.
If he starts, it will be the first Division I start of his career.
EWU defensive end Jim Townsend said there isn’t a difference in preparation.
“He’s like Sneed,” Townsend said. “He’s a dual-threat quarterback. He’s not as big of a runner as Sneed is. I don’t think Humphrey is afraid to (run the ball). … We’re going to approach the game plan like we’re going to see Sneed out there.”
Montana’s offense ranks sixth in the country, piling up 481 yards per game. On defense, though, the Grizzlies, who feature Buck Buchanan finalist linebacker Dante Olson, are yielding an ample 440 yards, 311 through the air.
Those are similar numbers to an Eastern Washington team that’s gone quarters looking like the most potent offense in the FCS to quarters where it’s below average.
The Eagles’ offense ranks fifth in the nation (497 ypg), but EWU is giving up 424 yards per game, 274 through the air.
Keeping one of the nation’s best dual-threat QBs – EWU junior Eric Barriere (2,452 total yards, 25 touchdowns) – contained is a major priority for the Grizzlies.
“I think (EWU has) really good skill, always have good offensive linemen,” said Hauck, who called Barriere the most athletic quarterback in the conference. “And they’re just tough to stop, and can get away from people like they have at times this season.”
Hauck went 6-1 against the Eagles in his first stint as Montana’s coach from 2003-09. He hasn’t faced the Eagles since, leaving for UNLV in 2010 before returning to Missoula last year.
The Grizzlies will also likely test EWU’s young cornerbacks with their trio of talented receivers, including Samuel Akem (669 receiving yards), Samori Toure (570 yards) Lake City High graduate Jerry Louie-McGee (331 yards).
Both teams also have impressive running backs in EWU’s Antoine Custer (571 rushing yards, six touchdowns) and Montana’s Marcus Knight (509 rushing yards, eight touchdowns).
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