MISSOULA — Eastern Washington (10-2) and Montana (9-2) played to a classic college football game back in early October, a game the Eagles ultimately won. But on Friday night under the lights at Washington-Grizzly Stadium, these two Big Sky Conference foes meet again in the second round of the FCS playoffs with even higher stakes on the line.
While Montana had a bye last week, Eastern Washington played Northern Iowa in the opening round, winning a 19-9 contest.
As seen throughout the season, EWU possesses one of the most high-powered offenses in the country led by quarterback and Big Sky Offensive MVP Eric Barriere along with a talented stable of skill players, something Montana knows well and now is set to prepare for again.
"There's some decisions to be made on how much you're going to include the first game in your game planning and then what games," Griz coach Bobby Hauck said. "Are you going to include early season games, late season games, what are you going to include in your gameplan, so that's kind of the art of getting the best plan together in terms of playing a team a second time."
Barriere threw for 422 yards, two scores and two interceptions against Montana in the first meeting, while Talolo Limu-Jones, a first-team all-league selection, caught 11 passes for 231 yards. Receivers Andrew Boston, Efton Chism III and Freddie Roberson were all honored as second- or third-team all-conference players for the Eagles while EWU running back Dennis Merritt — who ran for 103 yards and a score against UM — was a second-team honoree.
EWU's 34 points and 538 total yards of offense against Montana on Oct. 2 were both season-highs against the Griz defense.
But that was then, when film was the only tool either team had to prepare with prior to their matchup. Now, both teams have experience against each other on the field and will make adjustments accordingly.
"It's pretty cool because when you watch them on film and when you haven't played them yet, it's kind of like, OK, when we play them I wonder how it's going to feel being out on the field, how fast they really play, how strong they are," cornerback Omar Hicks Onu said. "So since we actually have a feel for them now, it's going to be a whole lot, I'm not going to say easier, but it's going to go a whole lot smoother."
The Griz played the first game against the Eagles without a number of players and lost a few more during the game as well, including quarterback Cam Humphrey who was injured in the final seconds as Montana was attempting its final drive. The Grizzlies were without defensive end Joe Babros and safety Gavin Robertson in that game, and offensive lineman Colton Keintz had retired from football in the week leading up. Starting slot receiver and punt returner Gabe Sulser also got injured in the second quarter against EWU and has been out for the season ever since.
It's another matchup of strengths in EWU's offense versus Montana's defense, while the Eagle defense and Griz offense have also shown signs of improvement of late since their October meeting.
Humphrey returned for good against Northern Colorado and breakout performances from the likes of tight end Cole Grossman and running back/receiver Junior Bergen have helped pace the offense for UM of late.
Defense has continued to be the Grizzlies staple though, and on UM's current five-game winning streak, Montana hasn't allowed more than 300 yards of total offense in any of those games. During that stretch, UM has forced 10 turnovers and has allowed opposing offenses to convert on just 25.3% of third down opportunities.
With playoffs here, it's now win or go home, as Griz seniors prepare for their final runs in college football and possibly their final home game in Missoula.
"Every opportunity you get to play in Washington-Grizzly Stadium is special," Humphrey said. "The turnout we had for the MSU game, but every opportunity you get in front of Griz nation is awesome and to go out there and play another game at home, playoff atmosphere, it's going to be special."
"It's been nothing short of amazing," Hicks Onu said. "It's been fun being coached by coach Hauck and the rest of the coaching staff. It's been great, got some great teammates, got a great atmosphere, great fans, so I'm just looking forward to prolonging it and making it last as long as possible."