Well, here it is. When Montana travels to Cheney this week to take on Eastern Washington, it will be a matchup between two undefeated teams, No. 4 and No. 6 in the country.
And, with the game broadcast on ESPN2, the whole country will get a chance to see the battle between the Eagle offense and the Grizzly defense.
Eastern Washington leads the FCS in total offense, with nearly 70 yards per game more than second-place Presbyterian. Only five teams in the country average more than 500 yards per game; EWU is at 632. Eagles senior quarterback Eric Barriere is responsible for 446 of those yards, which also leads the country.
Montana is third in the country in scoring defense, with the Griz having allowed a solitary touchdown in each of their first three games. Montana’s defense leads the country in tackles for loss with 11 per game; only two other teams are in double digits. Junior Griz linebacker Patrick O’Connell leads as an individual in that category, as well as sacks per game.
That’s all the info that’s necessary to sell this game. But it’s also a chance for both Bobby Hauck’s Montana and Aaron Best’s Eastern Washington to make an early statement. The Grizzlies under Hauck were the power in the Big Sky Conference for most of the 2000s. The Eagles under Beau Baldwin took over in the 2010s.
Neither has been past the FCS quarterfinals since 2018, when Best took a roster full of Baldwin’s recruits to the national championship game.
Both teams think they’re national championship contenders this year. Saturday will be the first real chance to prove it.
Location: Cheney, Washington
Founded: 1882. Eastern Washington is a public university which is academically divided into four colleges: Arts and Letters; Business and Public Administration; Science, Health and Engineering; and Social & Behavioral Sciences and Social Work.
Enrollment: The school has 12,350 total students and a $25.3 million endowment.
Stadium: Roos Field holds 8,700 fans. Complete with its trademark red turf, the stadium is named after Michael Roos, an All-Big Sky offensive lineman who then went on to be a Pro Bowl offensive lineman for the Tennessee Titans. He donated half a million dollars for the one-of-a-kind “Inferno” turf.
Aaron Best, fifth season at Eastern Washington (33-14)
Best has been coaching at Eastern Washington, his alma mater, for all but one year since he exhausted his playing eligibility in 1999. That one year was 2007, when he went north of the border to work as the offensive line coach for the Toronto Argonauts of the CFL.
Other than that, Best has been in Cheney, first as a graduate assistant, then as offensive line coach, then as offensive coordinator.
He was promoted to interim co-head coach shortly after Baldwin left to take the offensive coordinator job at Cal in early 2017, and officially named the head coach on Jan. 21, 2017.
The Eagles haven’t won fewer than seven games in each of his three full seasons, which included a 12-3 year with a share of the Big Sky title and a 38-24 national title game loss to North Dakota State in 2018.
Best was a first-team all-Big Sky selection as a center during his four-year playing career at Eastern Washington.
THE OFFENSE — PLAYERS TO WATCH
Eric Barriere, Quarterback, 6-1, 210, redshirt senior
Barriere is certainly the best quarterback, probably the best offensive player, and quite possibly the best overall player in the Big Sky.
The redshirt senior from Inglewood replaced injured All-American Gage Gubrud midway through the season in 2018 and ended up leading the Eagles to that national title game appearance.
He finished fifth in voting for the Walter Payton Award in 2019, and second in the 2021 spring season.
Barriere can run and throw, and EWU’s wide-open offense gives him plenty of room to do both. He set a new FCS record with 487 passing yards (and six touchdowns) in the first half against Western Illinois two weeks ago, and added 518 yards and four touchdowns against Southern Utah last week.
He’s been held under 300 total yards just twice in 11 games in 2021, in EWU’s playoff loss to North Dakota State in the spring and a blowout win over D-II Central Washington in the fall when he exited early.
More concerning for Montana this week is that he’s never lost a game on Eastern Washington’s red turf, with a 13-0 career record at Roos Field. And Montana has never won on the Red; the Griz are 0-5 in Cheney since the installation of the turf, including two losses in 2014, the second of which came in the quarterfinals of the 2014 FCS playoffs.
Dennis Merritt, Running Back, 5-10, 180, Redshirt Senior
Eastern Washington has four receivers (Talolo Limu-Jones, Efton Chism III, Andrew Boston and Freddie Roberson) averaging over 60 yards per game, so let’s just acknowledge that they’re all dangerous and put the spotlight on Merritt, who’s been in Cheney since 2015 but didn’t make his first start until 2019 against Washington.
He suffered a season-ending injury the week after that, and couldn’t return until the 2021 spring season, when he started just one game but led the team with seven touchdowns.
So far in the fall season, he has 381 rushing yards in four games. He’s added 189 receiving yards, and has already surpassed his spring total with nine touchdowns (seven rushing, two receiving). That yardage total puts him in the top 20 in the country in all-purpose yards, even though he doesn’t return kicks or punts.
Tristen Taylor, Tackle, 6-6, 320, Redshirt Senior
Taylor, a hulking left tackle from Stockton, California, has started all 47 games he’s been available for since 2016, although he played just three games in 2018 before suffering a season-ending injury.
He’s been all-conference in all those seasons there, with honorable mention selections in 2016 and 2017, a second-team spot in 2019, and a first-team berth in the 2021 spring season.
THE DEFENSE — PLAYERS TO WATCH
Ty Graham, Linebacker, 6-0, 210, Redshirt Senior
Graham had a roundabout route to Eastern Washington. He graduated from Cheney High School but originally went to Idaho, playing 27 games for the Vandals before transferring to EWU, where his father John was the defensive coordinator for eight years, in 2019.
So far in 2021, Ty Graham leading the team with 40 tackles and is second with 4.5 tackles for loss.
Graham also has one of the team’s four interceptions.
Joshua Jerome, Defensive Tackle, 6-1, 280, RS Sophomore
Jerome played in 10 games in 2019 but didn’t break out until the 2021 spring season, when he led the team with three sacks and was named honorable mention all-Big Sky.
Uncommonly for a defensive tackle, the redshirt sophomore from Monroe, Washington, racks up big numbers. He leads the Eagles with 5.5 tackles for loss, is tied with Graham for the lead with two sacks, and also has a forced fumble and a fumble recovery.