Things to watch: Pass protection important for Eastern Washington against Montana

For the fifth time this season, Eastern Washington meets a ranked team on Saturday when they travel to Missoula to play the 16th-ranked Montana Grizzlies (6-3, 3-3 Big Sky) at noon.

The Eagles (2-7, 1-5) will miss the playoffs for the third time in Aaron Best’s six seasons as head coach, but with two games remaining they’re attempting their first never-lost seven Big Sky games in theirs 36 years in the league.

Only three times have they lost six games in the conference: in 1995, 1988 and 1987, their first year as a member of Big Sky.

So this weekend, the Eagles are looking to beat a Grizzlies team that currently sits sixth in Big Sky standings, certainly not a place Montana can afford to land and still make the postseason.

“I can see them coming out and playing as well as they’re preparing,” Best said, “and they’re going to prepare to play for their playoff life.”

The Eagles have played five of the eight teams above them in Big Sky standings, and while two were solid wins for their opponents (Idaho 48-16, Sacramento State 52-28), the other three contests were close to the second half .

Here are some elements that, if thrown in favor of east Washington, would set the stage for an upset in Missoula:

Can Eastern Gunner keep Talkington going? Both Best and Montana coaches Bobby Hauck said this week they expect their opponent to apply defensive pressure; Giving Gunner Talkington time to throw the football will be crucial for the Eagles. Last year, when the two teams met in Cheney, Montana blitzed the Eagles more than perhaps any other team had the guts to do. It worked for one half as Montana built a 21-10 lead. But late in the game, Eric Barrier was able to throw the Eagles back and scramble for the lead and the win. If the Eagles can force the Grizzlies to blitz to put pressure on Talkington, and then Talkington can get the ball to his receivers quickly and accurately in a single cover, it bodes well for Eastern. “They do a lot of things in the passing game that can be problematic, especially because they have good players,” said Montana defenseman Nash Fouch. “…We know what they will throw at us. We just have to prepare and shut them out.” Eastern’s receivers only have two 100-yard games this year; another Saturday would be a good sign.

Can the defense string together enough stops? This has been crucial in every game, so it seems almost too obvious to point out. But the Eagles did so on their first two drives against Idaho last week. The problem was that their offense only got three points from those opportunities. “We did what we set out to do,” Best said of that opening sequence of drives. “We just didn’t do it as forcefully as we expected.” Doing it forcefully against Montana would potentially help in two ways. First, it would help the Eagles soften the Grizzlies’ home field advantage by calming the crowd a bit. Second, it would put the Eagles in the rare situation of having a two-point lead, which they only had briefly in one game — their season opener. In nine games, the Eagles have conceded 2,688 rushing yards, 723 more than Northern Colorado, which has conceded the second highest in Big Sky. It seems almost inconceivable that the Eagles could win this game without holding Montana rushing for less than 200 yards, a feat Eastern accomplished only once this season when they grounded Cal Poly for 163 yards.

Will the Eagles come up with the more crucial special teams? Too many times this year the Eagles have been on the wrong side of a big special team, whether it’s a fake punt or a field goal or a big return. Apparently they have the returnees to do it, especially when Chism queues up to take a punt back. The problem is that Eastern has only returned four punts for five total yards all season. Montana, on the other hand, has returned 24 of them for an average of 14.3 yards and returned them twice for touchdowns. Montana also leads the conference in net punting (42.2 yards per punt) and net kickoffs (45.4 yards per kick), suggesting this may not be the week for Eastern to make a big return. But for this game to go Eastern’s way, something unexpected probably has to happen. A big return or a blocked kick in Eastern’s favor would come into play.

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