Cats ready for key conference clash

BOZEMAN — Rob Ash didn’t have to study in geography in college to know that Interstate 90, which stretches across much of the northern United States and runs through Bozeman and Missoula in Montana and directly past Cheney, Wash., is an important byway in the Big Sky Conference.

“The road to the conference championship goes through Eastern (Washington), just like it goes through Bozeman and Missoula,” said Montana State’s sixth-year head football coach, who was speaking figuratively. He could just as easily have been making the literal case for the 420 miles of I-90 from Bozeman to Cheney as the Football Championship Subdivision’s most important stretch of highway. Ash’s Bobcats meet Eastern Washington Saturday afternoon at 1:30 pm in Bobcat Stadium in a game pitting the second- and sixth-ranked teams in the FCS.

Eastern already claimed superiority in the 200 miles or so stretching from Cheney to Missoula, using a furious comeback to defeat the Grizzlies 32-26 in Cheney on Sept. 29. That win established the Eagles as a favorite in the title race in the newly-configured 13-team conglomerate that the Big Sky has become.

EWU grabbed the attention of Ash and the Bobcats long before the Eagles’ win over Montana. “They’re one of the premiere teams in the (FCS),” Ash says. “Eastern is a fabulous program, they’ve been one of the key programs in the conference, and if you have aspirations to be at the top of this conference you’ve got to play well against Eastern Washington.”

Historically, Eastern Washington is known as an offensive juggernaut, pouring the ball into the end zone and piling up points in flurries. That remains the case, Ash said. “(EWU’s offense) is a huge, huge challenge,” he said. “(Receiver Brandon) Kaufman is a fabulous player, (quarterback) Vernon Adams is throwing the ball beautifully, right on target, but you can’t just concentrate on one guy. They have other excellent receivers that catch the ball, running backs are running hard.”

Offensive efficiency defines this year’s Eagles squad, Ash says. “The scariest part to me watching the North Dakota game was that they only threw the ball 15 times, but they had four touchdown passes. They dominated that football game. So you can’t say they’re just a passing team, and you can’t say they’re a one-receiver team by any stretch of the imagination.”

Adams, particularly, brings an extra dimension to the Eagles offense. A redshirt freshman, it was widely expected that he would serve as understudy for SMU transfer Kyle Padron. But Adams won the job in-season, led the team to its late heroics against UM, and has completed 67% of his passes with a 7-to-1 TD-to-INT ratio.

This year’s Eagles defense has emerged as a standard-bearer in the Big Sky, leading the league in fewest points surrendered and not allowing a team to score 30 points in a game yet in 2012. “They’re very athletic defensively,” Ash said. “Their front four’s very good. They’re probably the best front four we’ve played so far this year. Their linebackers are rangy and fast, their DBs are excellent, they’ve got an all-conference corner. They’ve got talent at every position, so we just have to work our schemes, do what we do. We’ve got to get a hat on a hat, try to make some (big) plays if we can, be patient, and try to move the ball a little bit against a very good unit.”

A major storyline through the first half of Montana State’s season has been missing personnel, and that remains the case entering this weekend. All-America linebacker Jody Owens and All-Big Sky running back Cody Kirk – the team’s leading tackler and rusher – hit Wednesday as 50-50 propositions to play, and each will likely be game-time decisions on Saturday. Tiai Salanoa will be out indefinitely with a leg injury, but otherwise the Bobcats enter Saturday’s showdown with most key pieces intact, including offensive guard Matthew Devereux, who has missed the last two games.

— MSU Sports Information