Montana State must make the journey up I-90 West to play at Inferno for the second straight year.
The last time MSU covered the 418 miles from Bozeman to Cheney, the Bobcats delivered a 23-20 win in their first win over the Eagles since 2011. Eastern has still won 14 of their last 16 games against the Bobcats and is 32-11 overall in the 43-game streak dating back to 1948.
Eastern had a seven-game winning streak against Montana State last season, one of two landmark victories in places where the Bobcats have struggled recently. the other a 13-7 win over Weber State in Ogden.
Eastern has won six of their last seven in Bozeman and eight of their last ten home games (including a 2003 win in Spokane). Overall, Eastern is 17-6 at MSU, 14-5 in home games, and 1-0 on neutral fields.
This week, Montana State ranks the No. 4 team in FCS, while Eastern Washington is 15th in the most recent poll. Eastern Washington has consistently ranked in the top 10 for the past 15 years, winning six Big Sky titles (2010, 2012-2014, 2016, 2018) and making the playoffs 12 times since 2004, including nine times since 2010 and three times below fifth-place-year head coach Aaron Best.
Each team is blown up by west coast powers. Two weeks ago, Eastern Washington lost 70-14 in Oregon. The Eagles had a bye this week leading up to their conference opener. EMU goes into play with a 1-1 win over Tennessee State in their opener, 1-1, and a third non-conference game is in Gainesville, Fla. next week.
“If you look at their two games this year, it’s not a holistic view of them; It’s two games, one they won and one against a really good opponent in Oregon,” Vigen said. “I think we’re a long way from seeing what this team is capable of. We have to assume that they are very well prepared for the extra week and will do their best.”
In Portland, Oregon on Saturday, Oregon State settled right in downtown Providence Park, though the Beavers hadn’t played a game there since 1986. OSU scored a goal every time they touched the ball, rolled 32 first downs averaging 14.7 yards per completion, and rolled to a 68-28 win in front of a nearly sold-out crowd of more than 25,000.
“If some of those games look a little different, the lead wouldn’t be what it was, and if you can get that game in the second half where the lead is achievable, it would be different,” Vigen said. whose Bobcats dropped the most points since 2008 last week. “I thought our guys played hard and stayed in the fight but we certainly didn’t play well enough. Certainly some of that credit goes to Oregon State, but I think there are things we can correct.”
Eastern Washington ranks 15thth in the nation but is outside the top 5 this week Skyline Sports Power Ranking (soon). The Big Sky got five teams into the FCS playoffs last season and EWU need to stay in that group of contenders for a top-five spot in the league until someone ousts them.
Saturday marks a crucial game for both teams to open conference play. EMU almost certainly faces another one-sided defeat in Florida in two weeks time. Montana State has a national TV date under the lights with UC Davis that same week. What kind of momentum can the MSU carry and how do the Bobcats recover from a hit? Vigen openly acknowledged the importance of the game.
“In a football game, you have to be able to turn the page,” Vigen said. “When you win you win, when you lose you lose, but each week is its own week with its own opportunities and challenges. You must be able to own the previous achievement. And we did.
“It helps that it’s the Big Sky opener and we’re playing in east Washington. Both factors should help us.”
location: Cheney, Washington
Founded: 1882. Eastern Washington is a public university organized academically into four colleges: Arts and Letters; economy and public administration; Science, Health and Technology; and social and behavioral sciences and social work.
enrollment: The school has a total of 10,892 students and is endowed with $25.3 million.
Stadion: Roos Field holds 8,700 fans. The stadium, with its signature red turf, is named for Michael Roos, an All-Big Sky offensive lineman who is currently a Pro Bowl offensive lineman for the Tennessee Titans. EMU drew just 3,932 on its opener.
THE TEAM (1-1 agg, 0-0 in Big Sky game)
The trainer: Aaron Best, sixth season and fifth year at the helm of his alma mater. The longtime EWU offensive line coach was an All-Big Sky player for Mike Kramer’s Eagles in the late 1990s before joining Paul Wulff’s staff as a research assistant. Best served as Eastern’s offensive line coach from 2002 to 2006. He spent a season in the CFL before returning to his alma mater in 2008 as offense line coach, a position he held on Beau Baldwin’s staff until 2016.
Best took over as head coach in 2017. The Eagles finished that first season 7-4 and ranked 21st in the national rankings in the most recent poll, but were eliminated from the FCS playoffs. In 2018, the Eagles were playing for a national championship when Eric Barrier first showed up as a starter.
Over the past three fall seasons plus the spring 2021 season, Barriere has become the most prolific quarterback in EMU and Big Sky Conference history, guiding the Eagles to a 10-win season last fall. Barrier was the winner of the Walter Payton Award.
This season begins the first without a barrier for best as Eastern’s head coach. The rest of the list has Best’s fingerprints all over it. Can the consistent run of elite quarterbacks and wide receivers continue, especially as EWU’s place on the college football landscape remains bleak?
Saturday will be a big step towards answering that question.
WHAT TO SEE – THE INJURY
Gunner Talkington, Quarterback Redhirt Senior, 5-10, 215 — Talkington became Big Sky Offensive Player of the Week after completing 29 of 46 passes for 348 yards and five touchdowns with 60 rushing yards in Eastern’s first win of the year. Against Oregon, he was 12 of 21 for 87 yards and two points while rushing eight times for 22 yards.
Efton Chism III, wide receiver, sophomore, 6-0, 200 — The seedy but powerful in-state product caught 57 passes for 735 yards and nine touchdowns to earn third-team All-Big Sky and HERO Sports Freshman All-American honors last fall. He’s starting his sophomore year with 90 catches for 1,064 yards and 10 TDs thanks to seven games last spring.
Freddie Roberson, wide receiver, redshirt junior, 6-2, 195 – Roberson now has 29 games experience (19 starts) in his career and five 100-yard receiving performances. He’s caught 96 passes for a total of 1,469 yards and 10 touchdowns, and he’s also rushed for one touchdown.
He was a third-team All-League honoree last season after catching 49 passes for 779 years and six touchdowns. He has nine catches for 124 yards this season. His only touchdown came against Oregon.
Wyatt Musser, offensive tackle, redshirt senior, 6-5, 310 — The former three-star recruit has 22 games in the starting XI for EMU.
WHAT TO SEE – THE DEFENSE
Anthany Smith, safety, redshirt senior, 5-11, 190- Like Montana and Montana State, EWU has a legacy number: It’s the number 4 at Eastern, which Smith will wear during his senior year with the Eagles. Smith was an All-Big Sky first-team selection in the spring season but was limited to just six games last season.
Mitchell Johnson, defensive end, redshirt senior, 6-3, 245 – Once upon a time, at least vaguely on Twitter, Johnson was committed to the state of Montana. He ended up at Eastern and he was a standout. He has started 32 games and played 47, rolling over 148 tackles, 26.5 tackles for loss, 13.5 sacks and five interceptions during his career. He was a first-team selection from all leagues last spring and a third-team selection last fall.
Joshua Jerome, defensive tackle, red shirt junior, 6-1, 280 – Jerome was also a third-team All-League pick and a HERO Sports Sophomore All-American last fall. He led EWU in the loss with seven sacks and 13.5 tackles.
Photos by Blake Hempstead, Jason Bacaj and attributed. All rights reserved.