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Primetime primer: Setting the stage for Montana's Top-6 showdown on the national stage at Eastern Washington
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Primetime primer: Setting the stage for Montana's Top-6 showdown on the national stage at Eastern Washington

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MISSOULA — Bring on the heavyweights under the bright lights.

Montana’s football game at Eastern Washington this weekend is an enticing contest because both teams are ranked in the top six of the Stats Perform FCS Top 25. It’s the second top-10 contest in the FCS this season and the first on a conference level, with the Griz at No. 4 and the Eagles at No. 6.

Add to that the fact that each team has one of the 10 FCS-over-FBS wins this season. Even more, both are among the 14 FCS teams that are still undefeated, doing so by dominating on different sides of the ball.

Those ingredients all make the game appetizing to be nationally televised on ESPN2. Kickoff is set for 8:30 p.m. MT Saturday at Roos Field in Cheney, Washington, with Eastern Washington calling for a “blackout game” by encouraging its fans to wear all black.

“It’ll be fun,” Griz junior safety Robby Hauck said. “Obviously, a lot of people will be watching. It’ll be good to represent the state and our university on the national stage. I’m excited, and everybody else on the team is excited. We’re really looking forward to it.”

Montana is off to a 3-0 start for the first time since 2013. The last time the Griz started 4-0 was 2009, when they began 14-0, won what’s still their most-recent official Big Sky title and finished as the national runner-up in the final year of Hauck’s first head coaching stint in Missoula.

Eastern Washington is already 4-0 for the first time since 1997. It’s surprising it’s been that long because the Eagles have won eight of their 10 Big Sky titles and made 11 of their 14 playoff trips since 1998. A win this week to move to 5-0 would equal their best start, coming in 1985.

Montana counts among its wins a 13-7 victory over Washington, which was then ranked No. 20 in the FBS. EWU topped UNLV 35-33 in overtime, although the Eagles were betting favorites.

Furthermore, Montana is ranked 77th in the Sagarin rankings and is third among FCS teams, behind only South Dakota State and James Madison. The Griz are ahead of nine Power Five teams, including Florida State, Washington State and Colorado.

Eastern Washington is 114th overall and ninth among FCS teams in the Sagarin rankings. The Eagles are ahead of three Power Five teams: Arizona, Kansas and Vanderbilt.

Both teams are doing so well that ESPN bumped its regularly scheduled game on ESPN2 to give some high-quality FCS football more exposure than what it would’ve gotten on ESPNU.

“It’s always nice, getting a little bit more exposure,” Griz junior kick returner and wide receiver Malik Flowers said. “But at the end of the day for us, it’s a game. We want to go out there, execute the best way we can and showcase our team in all three phases.

“I just feel like if we could do that, no matter what stage it’s on, it’ll be good for our team. I feel like we’ll go out there and do that. We just got to focus this week and be ready for the game.”

The game will be a matchup of opposing styles. That’s the fun part because we’ll see which style of play wins out when it's strength against strength.

No one has broken Montana’s defense, which has allowed 14 total points in three games. The offense gave up a pick-6 for the only other points of the 21 allowed by UM, seven per game.

No one has stopped EWU’s offense. The Eagles have scored 50 or more points three times and are averaging 52.5 points per game for a total of 210, or 10 times what UM has allowed.

Those stats are so good for both teams in part because Montana hasn’t played a great offensive team yet, while the Eagles haven't played a great defensive squad that's going to punch them in the mouth with their physicality.

“Excited to go on the road in conference play and try to get to 2-0,” Montana coach Bobby Hauck said. “Playing Eastern Washington, their offensive numbers are very impressive, almost video-game like.

“Their quarterback, Eric Barriere, is a good kid. He’s a preseason pick for offensive player of the year in the conference, and he hasn’t disappointed, certainly, anyone that’s paying attention. It should be a good game.”

The coaching pedigree isn’t up to the same level as last Saturday, when Hauck and Cal Poly coach Beau Baldwin patrolled the sidelines, but it’s not too far off. Hauck has led UM to seven Big Sky titles and three national runner-up finishes. EWU fifth-year coach Aaron Best has led the Eagles to one Big Sky title, two playoff trips and a national runner-up finish in 2018.

Both are veteran squads. UM returns 20 starters on offense and defense, led by linebacker Pat O’Connell, who leads the FCS in tackles for loss per game and sacks per game. EWU returns all 22 starters and has 14 players who’ve earned All-Big Sky recognition in their careers, including the All-American Barriere, who surpassed 10,000 career passing yards on Saturday as he earned Big Sky offensive player of the week honors for the third time in four games.

Baldwin, the EWU head coach from 2008-16, refrained from giving his evaluation of the Griz at Eagles matchup. But he shared one thought after his Cal Poly team lost 39-7 in Missoula.

“I just know Montana’s a really good football team,” he said. “But I know Eastern’s a really good football team too. I know that’ll be a good battle. There’s no doubt about it. It’ll be a good battle.”

Poll position

Montana remained at No. 4 in the Stats Perform FCS Top 25 for the fourth consecutive week.

The Griz dropped 11 points, down to 1,089, their second-lowest total in the four regular-season polls, with their highest being 1,110. They did gain one first-place vote, with their three being tied for their second most after topping out at five.

Defending national champion Sam Houston held at No. 1 with 1,208 points and 32 of the 50 first-place votes. South Dakota State stayed at No. 2 with 1,195 points and 10 first-place votes. James Madison remained No. 3 with 1,162 points and five first-place votes.

Behind Montana, North Dakota State continued at No. 5 with 1,070 points. Eastern Washington held firm at No. 6 with 964 points.

Frank Gogola covers Griz football and prep sports for the Missoulian. Follow him on Twitter @FrankGogola or email him at frank.gogola@missoulian.com.

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