Montana All-American linebacker Jace Lewis was scrolling through Twitter early last week when he got the notification that the Oct. 2 game at Eastern Washington was being moved from ESPNU to ESPN2. EWU All-American quarterback Eric Barriere also got an alert on his phone around that time and saw that he’ll be playing in front of a national audience.
The primetime game (9:30 p.m. CT) on a main ESPN channel is just another added dynamic to a game loaded with implications.
Montana is undefeated and ranked No. 4. EWU is undefeated and ranked No. 6. EWU beat FBS UNLV in Week 1. Two days later, Montana beat then-No. 20 FBS Washington. The Grizzlies are looking to return to dominance in the Big Sky after winning at least a share of the conference title every year from 1998-2009. They have not won it since, while EWU has won at least a share of the Big Sky title in 2010, 2012-2014, 2016, and 2018.
And from a national perspective, this game could very well end up determining a Top 4 FCS playoff seed, if not a Top 2 playoff seed, which gives a team home-field advantage until the championship game.
With all of that said, the on-field storyline for Saturday’s matchup is EWU’s high-octane offense going up against the suffocating Montana defense.
Through four games, Barriere has 1,799 yards of total offense. There are only six teams in the FCS that have more than 1,799 yards of total offense, one being EWU with a subdivision high of 2,528 yards.
— Big Sky Football (@BigSkyFB)
“Watching their offense, they are very explosive,” Lewis told HERO Sports. “They get the ball out, the quarterback is very good, and we’re going to have our hands full. … They like to rip the ball around and keep you honest with the run. We’ll have a good game plan coming into it and try to execute it on every level.”
Through three games, Montana’s defense has allowed just two touchdowns and 805 yards of total offense.
Something, as they say, has to give.
“It’s definitely going to be a test for us,” Barriere told HERO Sports. “They go out there week in and week out and show why they are the best defense. It all started with that Washington game. It’s definitely going to be a challenge for us. And I know as an offense we are excited for it.”
The Eagles and their All-American quarterback put on a show every time they take the field. Their 445.8 passing yards per game leads the FCS while the 186.2 rushing yards a game is 26th. EWU’s 52.5 points per game ranks No. 2 in the nation behind JMU’s 53.3.
Barriere has thrown for 1,698 yards, 16 touchdowns, and two interceptions. Four EWU receivers have 250 or more yards receiving, led by Talolo Limu-Jones’ 345.
“It’s a big task going up against a guy like [Barriere],” Lewis said. “You have to have good eyes and play with a lot of speed and quickness. Each guy has their job this week, so you do your 1/11th and hopefully we can contain him.”
— Big Sky Football (@BigSkyFB)
Montana kicked off this season by beating then-No. 20 FBS Washington 13-7, holding the Huskies to 65 yards rushing on 27 carries. The win vaulted the Grizzlies into the discussion as national title threats as the defense every week since continues to show it is arguably the best unit in the FCS.
The aggressive, swarming defense is physical up front and has linebackers and defensive backs with great range who can close off running angles in a hurry. Montana is fundamentally sound in its tackling, making this an even more intriguing showdown as EWU stretches a defense vertically while also getting the ball quickly to their athletes in space.
Montana ranks No. 3 in the FCS in points allowed per game (7.0), No. 6 in rushing defense (50.7), No. 3 in sacks per game (4.3), and No. 1 in tackles for loss per game (11.0). Lewis and safety Robby Hauck are the household, All-American names on Montana’s D. But former walk-on LB Patrick O’Connell has risen to be a star. In three games, he has been a wrecking ball with 28 total tackles, 9.5 TFLs, and 5.5 sacks.
That #GrizD is SALTY🧂🧂🧂
— Montana Griz Football (@MontanaGrizFB)
“They just fly around to the ball,” Barriere said. “They are an experienced group, so they’ve been in that system. They make you work, man. They have a great d-line, great linebackers, and a great secondary too. But that d-line, they play hard every snap. If you miss a block or you miss any little thing, they are going to be right there to make a play.”
The Griz rank No. 57 in passing defense with 217.7 yards allowed a game, which may be a product of teams playing from behind and knowing early in games that trying to move the ball on the ground is a bold strategy. But it’s an area EWU will look to exploit as it averages 15.2 yards per completion. The Eagles do keep defenses honest, though, if they don’t respect the run. Dennis Merritt is averaging 6.6 yards per carry and has seven rushing TDs.
EWU has an 18-game home winning streak that dates back to 2017. Barriere is 14-0 on the red turf as the starter and is currently playing like he has something to prove.
Last season, Barriere came within seven voting points of winning the Walter Payton Award, given to the best FCS offensive player. Southeastern Louisiana University quarterback Cole Kelley earned the honor with 16 first-place votes and 137 total points. Barriere had 13 first-place votes and 131 points.
That served as motivation for Barriere during the rather short offseason.
“That was definitely a push,” Barriere said. “I felt like I’ve put in a lot of work, but then when you come up just short like that it gives you extra motivation. I’m taking all of that into this season and trying to do something special.”
With more than 150 FCS players transferring to the FBS for the 2021 season (including standout EWU LB Chris Ojoh and standout Montana WR Samori Toure), Barriere kept an open mind about the transfer portal and potentially playing his final season of college ball elsewhere. But he ultimately knew EWU was the best spot for him.
“If I’m really being honest, I probably knew what I was going to do after the North Dakota State game,” Barriere said. “I knew I was going to stay at Eastern. But you hear different things and stuff like that, so I kept my eyes and ears open. But at the end of the day, I felt I had unfinished business here.”
This is his first chance at playing an elite defense this season to show how good he is. UNLV is the No. 124 scoring defense in the FBS, Central Washington is D2, Western Illinois is No. 110 in FCS scoring defense, and Southern Utah is No. 113.
Montana’s defense has improved vastly since the 2019 season, where the Griz ranked No. 75 with 399.1 yards allowed per game and No. 38 in scoring defense (25.1 PPG).
— Montana Griz Football (@MontanaGrizFB)
“I think that COVID year, as bad as it was that we didn’t play last year, it gave a lot of guys that extra year to learn and get into the playbook,” Lewis said. “And we did end up playing a lot of football and we were with each other for a long time. We’ve developed a lot of depth at every position, so we can rotate guys in when we get tired. But I also think a lot of guys really bought in this year to coach Hauck’s system of how we play hard-nosed and fast and physical.”
Montana opted out of the spring season, instead electing to play two games that were not a part of the Big Sky schedule. Bobby Hauck drew the ire of many fan bases when he questioned the legitimacy of the spring national championship, his reason being “We’re not in it.”
After beating Washington to kick off this season, his claim perhaps became more valid. And after dominating Western Illinois 42-7 (a team EWU beat 62-56 a week later) and Cal Poly 39-7, the Griz appear to be back in the national title discussion.
The true gauge comes this weekend, though, as Montana looks to prove it is among the FCS elite and its defense is the top unit in the country.
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This content was originally published here.