wo weeks ago, the Montana Grizzlies and Eastern Washington Eagles played what was then the Game of the Year in the Big Sky. The Eagles came out on top in Missoula that Saturday, but now, they're right back in the Big Sky Game of the Year.
On Saturday, the No.4 Montana State Bobcats (5-0, 7-2) pay a visit to Roos Field in Cheney, Wash., to face the No. 3 Eagles (5-0, 7-2), and no less than the Big Sky title is at stake.
Saturday's game is the biggest showdown perhaps ever between the two bitter rivals, as it's the highest nationally-ranked meeting between the Eagles and Cats. And it will have lasting implications on what happens with both teams the remainder of the season.
"It seems like the path to the championship has gone through this game the last three years, at least, so it's big in that respect," MSU head coach Rob Ash said. "Eastern Washington has a great team, a great record of championships and playoff appearances, including a national championship, so they're obviously a team you have to try to compete with, and the good news is we've been able to do that the last couple of years, three years. They've been great games, we've won two of them, so we've been able to get up there and be on par with them, so that's why it's become a really important game."
Both teams come into Saturday's huge clash off of lackluster performances a week ago. MSU had to put together a late drive to beat lowly Northern Colorado in Greeley, Colo., while EWU struggled for a half against Idaho State. However, don't expect a lackluster performance from either squad with so much riding on Saturday's tilt.
Fans in the Treasure State have already seen what EWU quarterback Vernon Adams and receivers Cooper Kupp, Ashton Clarke and Shaquille Hill can do to a defense. Meanwhile, MSU is right behind the Eagles in scoring offense and total offense, but the Bobcats will look to do something a little different than what Montana did against EWU, and that's successfully run the ball.
MSU senior Cody Kirk is rewriting the rushing record books in Bozeman, and he'll be a make or break factor against EWU. Kirk has rushed for nearly 900 yards this season, but it's his last four games, where he's averaging almost 150 per outing, that have really been impressive. The emergence of backup Shawn Johnson has also given MSU a more dangerous running game, while a healthy DeNarius McGhee will also be more involved in the rushing attack, as he's a true threat to take off on designed QB runs.
But the deciding factor on Saturday will be defense. Both teams possess potent, high-scoring offenses, but the question will be, which defense can get a crucial stop. Montana State has risen to second in the Big Sky in almost every defensive category, but MSU also has injury problems on that side of the ball. Plus, Adams' escapability will somewhat neutralize star defensive end Brad Daly. So the big task of containing the Eagles will fall on MSU's secondary, led by Deonte Flowers and Steven Bethley.
"Sure, they're very talented and they're very diverse," Ash said. "But we have a lot of confidence in our defense, too. Our guys are solid, Jamie Marshall does a very good job putting a plan together, our guys play well in big games, and our guys match up in some of the areas pretty well, so I think it will be a good contest. But I am very respectful of them, obviously."
Meanwhile, No. 10 Montana (7-2, 4-2) takes a break from Big Sky play this Saturday, but the game is no less meaningful. The Griz take a trip to Vermillion, S.D. to take on a much-improved University of South Dakota squad, led by former Griz head coach Joe Glenn.
The Griz walloped USD last year in Missoula, but the Coyotes (4-4) are a much better squad in 2013. USD plays in the difficult Missouri Valley Conference, and has played five Top 25 teams already this season. So there is no way Montana can afford to overlook them Saturday in the Dakota Dome, especially considering the Griz are fighting for the their playoff lives.
Montana is coming off a wild 51-48 overtime victory at Sacramento State last Saturday, and in the last two games, the Griz' defense has given up over 900 yards passing combined, as well as way over 1,000 total yards of offense. That's something the Griz hope to get fixed this Saturday, though they'll see a different style of offense. The Coyotes are a power-run team with a pocket passing QB in Kevin Earl, but where they are stellar is on defense. USD has an outstanding defensive front, and with Montana still missing running backs Travon Van and Joey Counts, the offensive game plan will again fall on star quarterback Jordan Johnson, as well as talented wideouts Ellis Henderson and Jamal Jones, both of whom went over 100 yards at Sac. State.
Saturday's game between the Griz and Coyotes will kick off at 12:05 p.m. and can be seen locally on Max Media or regionally on Altitude Sports. Saturday's huge clash between the Bobcats and Eagles will start at 1:35 p.m. and can be seen nationally on Root Sports NW.