Griz face defending national champs in Big Sky opener

2011-09-16T23:45:00Z 2011-09-17T17:33:46Z Griz face defending national champs in Big Sky openerBy FRITZ NEIGHBOR of the Missoulian missoulian.com
September 16, 2011 11:45 pm  • 

No Taiwan Jones, no J.C. Sherritt, still the same Eastern Washington.

That's the theme of Saturday's Big Sky Conference showdown between 10th-ranked Eastern and No. 12 Montana. Eastern may have lost some extraordinary talent off last year's team, but the Eagles remain the league foe with the most success against the Griz.

It doesn't really matter who suits up for 'em or where - a record crowd is expected at Washington-Grizzly Stadium - or what their record is, they bring it.

"We have enough veterans throughout this team who, besides playing in Missoula two years, have just in general played in big games in big arenas, big stages," said coach Beau Baldwin, who guided Eastern to the 2010 Division I Football Championship. "Obviously, it is a great home-field advantage. But at the same time it's not something our guys really get concerned with or worried about."

The Eagles remain talented with defensive tackle Renard Williams, linebacker Zach Johnson and safety Matt Johnson leading the defense and quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell slinging the ball to receivers Brandon Kaufman, Nicholas Edwards and Greg Herd.

Partly because their running game hasn't found its stride, Mitchell has thrown more than 60 passes in each of the Eagles' two losses. He threw for 473 yards against Pac-12 Washington, so the main subplot will likely be how the Grizzlies' secondary bears up.

Yet the Eagle draw play that hurt the Griz a year ago is still in the play book.

"It looks like you have to stop the pass but you can't forget the run game," Grizzlies' coach Robin Pflugrad said. "Because those are the same people who blocked for Taiwan Jones.

"Their center (Chris Powers) is one of the best at our level. Their pass protection is very solid. They did a very good job in Seattle."

For all that, the Eagles are 0-2. A year ago they beat UM on their brand-new red turf and that loss, coupled with one the week before against Cal Poly, got the Griz into a hole they didn't quite get out of.

Now Eastern's in danger of falling in.

"Huge game this weekend," said Williams, Eastern's standout defensive tackle. "We're still looking for a win, so we have to go in there and take it."

Montana's offense hit its stride last week in a 37-23 win over Cal Poly with Jordan Johnson at the controls. The sophomore quarterback will have to deal with Eastern's dangerous defensive line to continue that success.

"Very athletic," Johnson said of a group that includes 245-pound end David Gaylord. "And they have a lot of them. They fly to the ball and they're going to be tough to handle, but I think we can do it."

Zach Johnson moved over to Sherritt's old spot at weakside linebacker and has a team-high 16 tackles, but things seem unsettled. Baldwin said the linebacker corps is still a work in process, and he had Williams moved to backup on the depth chart.

Eastern allowed 198 rushing yards in a 30-17 loss at South Dakota.

"Even last year I felt early in the year we were still somewhat finding ourselves," Baldwin said. "Two games into it I'm not making a lot of assessments. We just have to find a little better consistency in a few areas. And we will."

Mitchell had his problems in South Dakota as well. One pass was intercepted and returned for a touchdown. With the Eagles rallying late he was intercepted again and that return covered 66 yards, setting up a Coyote field goal.

Those could be the by-products of a pass-happy offense.

"I'm not going to use that as an excuse," Mitchell said. "Even if they know we're passing, with the group of guys we've got we should be able to throw it."

Pflugrad and the Griz are wary.

"It's going to be a big challenge for the back seven this game," added Griz safety Mike McCord, who along with cornerback Trumaine Johnson started against the Eagles in 2010. "The front seven had their day last week; now it's going to be our turn to step up.

"They really don't have any weaknesses in the receiving corps, so we're going to have to have a big game. Just play hard, play how we know to play and I think we'll be all right."

The Eagles, as usual, seem to be looking forward to the trip.

"It's a unique experience," said Williams. "The fans are right up on you, they're talking whatever they want to say. It's big, loud, and what every college football player looks forward to."

To that you can add a big dose of a heated rivalry. It's the conference opener for both teams, but it's big.

"Even more so than the Cal Poly game last week," said Griz offensive tackle Jon Opperud. "They are the defending national champions and this is one of the biggest games we'll probably play all year.

It's definitely a revenge game for us, and I think we'll be ready for it."

Fritz Neighbor can be reached at 523-5247 or at fneighbor@missoulian.com.

 

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