Missoulian reporter FRITZ NEIGHBOR assesses the strengths of both teams
(Check EWU) QUARTERBACK: The last time I gave the edge to the opposing quarterback, UM's Jordan Johnson went off. You're welcome, Griz fans (and sorry, Bobcats). But while Johnson has been making serious hay of late while running a more up-tempo offense, Eastern's Vernon Adams gets the edge here. The dude is averaging 391.5 yards of total offense a game.
(check Griz) OFFENSIVE LINE: The edge swings to the Griz mainly because in the November matchup, the Eagles allowed five sacks and couldn't run the ball effectively. UM didn't run it a whole lot better than Eastern in Cheney, but Montana's unit seems to have gelled.
(check EWU) WIDE RECEIVERS/TE: Nothing changes here. Cooper Kupp and Kendrick Bourne now have 24 combined TD catches for Eastern. That doubles up the combined total of Montana's Jamaal Jones and Travon Van. Tightening up things are the tight ends: I will note that EWU's Zach Wimberly is no Mitch Saylor.
(check Griz) RUNNING BACKS: Quincy Forte and Jalen Moore are both questionable for Eastern, while Jordan Canada enjoyed his third straight 100-yard game last weekend for Montana. If healthy, Forte could swing this back Eastern's way, since he is averaging 6.9 yards a carry and 116 a game.
(check Griz) DEFENSIVE LINE: The Grizzlies' Zack Wagenmann keeps racking up sacks, to the tune of 14.5, and forced fumbles, as in six this year. The leaders for Eastern are sophomore Samson Ebukam and senior Dylan Zylstra, who have nine sacks among them. Tyrone Holmes adds another 6.5 sacks for UM, and man, has Tonga Takai played great of late.
(check Griz) LINEBACKERS: Eastern's Ronnie Hamlin needs 24 tackles to set the FCS career record. He did enough damage to the Griz in November with nine (to go with an interception). I'm sticking with The Law Firm: Gamboa, Kose and Van Ackeren have been all over the place, and will be again Saturday.
(check both) CB/SAFETY: This could be a sore spot for the Griz, who didn't tackle or cover well against Eastern's explosive offense in the first 2.5 quarters in Cheney. Well, who does? Washington didn't. And since that game UM safety Matt Hermanson had made four interceptions, and Joshua Dennard is now up to 10 passes defended. Safety Tevin McDonald is the real deal for Eastern.
(check EWU) SPECIAL TEAMS: It's tough to go against Eastern, even after John Nguyen took a punt to the house for the Grizzlies last week. Cooper Kupp made a house call on a punt against the Griz four weeks ago. The kicking game has evened up, with Daniel Sullivan's having a hot foot for the Griz. Jake Miller booms punts for the Eagles, who have blocked one more punt (3) this season than UM.
(Check Griz) INTANGIBLES: The check marks are pretty square here, so we have to dig deeper. History shows that in previous all-Big Sky playoff games -- at least where Montana is concerned -- whoever won the first game lost in the playoffs. Beau Baldwin had the same history while an assistant at Division II Central Washington. And Eastern won the first game. That seems pretty flimsy, now that I type it out. Still: The Griz get the edge.
Eastern is at home, playing in a sold-out Woodward Stadium that we can no longer call "Eastern Washington-Grizzly Stadium." The Eagles have won their last 17 November home games. I can't say it won't happen for the Griz, but their last win at Cheney came by a 19-3 score in 2008. This Eastern team is better and gets the edge.