Winless EWU, Montana St. set for early showdown
A showdown between the two teams expected to vie for the league title in one of the premier conferences of the FCS would be considered huge regardless of the date.
However, this early season Big Sky clash carries extra importance for Eastern Washington given its winless record.
Trying to avoid digging themselves into too big of a hole, the 14th-ranked Eagles face No. 11 Montana State in Saturday's highly anticipated matchup at Roos Field.
Eastern Washington has measured up well against a pair of powers but has come out on the losing end each time, falling 61-42 to Oregon - then the seventh-ranked team in the FBS - and losing at FCS No. 9 Northern Iowa 38-35 last week.
Off to their worst start since 2008, the Eagles have been hampered by injuries with three starters out last week and star receiver Cooper Kupp unable to play in the second half due to a hip pointer, but coach Beau Baldwin isn't using that as an excuse.
"We have to own up to what we are right now. We have to own the fact that it is going to take even that much more," Baldwin said. " ... We have to fight our way out of it."
The Eagles get to finally play their first game of the season at Roos Field, where they've won 12 straight against conference opponents, but the competition isn't getting any easier.
Montana State finished just behind Eastern Washington as the media's preseason favorite to win the Big Sky - each team received 17 first-place votes - and Rob Ash's team will be well-rested, having been off since beating Fort Lewis 45-14 in its season opener Sept. 3.
These teams have won or shared eight of the last 12 Big Sky titles and Ash isn't putting too much stock in the Eagles' record.
"At the end of the season they're going to be right up there at the top again," he said. "They're the same Eastern Washington they've always been."
This marks the sixth straight meeting both teams will be ranked and the two were involved in a wild affair last season, with second-ranked Eastern Washington winning 52-51 at No. 14 Montana State - its third straight victory in the series.
The Bobcats' Dakota Prukop totaled 316 yards and five touchdowns in the losing effort and is the focal point of Ash's imaginative offense. The dual-threat quarterback, named to the STATS Offensive Player of the Year Watch List, passed for 197 yards and two touchdowns and rushed for 69 yards and another score last week. He amassed 3,505 yards of offense and 31 TDs a year ago.
Mitch Griebel led Montana State with 45 receptions for 445 yards last season and was among 11 Bobcats to catch a pass in the opener.
"With Dakota at the helm, they have one of the best offenses not only in the league but in the country," Baldwin said. "It's going to be a tremendous challenge."
Baldwin can counter Prukop and company with a high-flying offense of his own, though it's uncertain if the unit will be at full strength.
Kupp, also named to the Offensive Player of the Year Watch List, leads the FCS in receptions (24), receiving yards (425) and touchdown catches (five) - achieved in just six quarters of football. He's listed as questionable.
With 42 TD receptions, Kupp ranks 11th all-time in the FCS and second in school history, four shy of Eric Kimble (2002-05).
The Eagles have racked up 1,101 yards - fourth-most in the FCS - and are averaging 8.5 yards per touch. Jordan West has picked up right where Vernon Adams Jr. left off last season, throwing for 642 of the FCS-best 964 passing yards racked up by Eastern Washington.
"There won't be any pep talks needed this week," Ash told Montana State's official website. "This feels like a rivalry week."