MISSOULA, Montana —Montana is coming off its first Big Sky Conference loss of the season with a hungry Eastern Washington team coming to Missoula on Saturday. The Eagles will likely spend the week preparing for two Griz quarterbacks while Montana might be without its star.
“I have some doubts that we will have Dalton on Saturday,” Montana head coach Bobby Hauck said, referring to UM senior quarterback Dalton Sneed, an early front-runner for Big Sky Offensive Player of the Year honors who left Montana’s 49-22 loss at Sacramento State with a lower leg injury last weekend.
“He won’t practice (Monday), he won’t practice (Tuesday). Then we will see Thursday, Friday how he does. The good news is he is not a guy who needs a bunch of reps.”
After Sneed left the Sac State loss, junior Cam Humphrey entered the game and completed 7-of-15 passes for 105 yards in a little over a quarter of action. The former Boise State transfer who came to UM from Saddleback Community College has completed 43.3 percent of his passes for 182 yards and a touchdown this season. He has thrown for 423 yards and three touchdowns in his Griz career but has not started a game.
“He’s (Humphrey) like all the guys we recruit: he runs it pretty well, he throws it, has good arm strength, is a smart guy like everybody in that room,” Hauck said. “We don’t know if we will have Dalton. I’m doubtful we will. But we are confident in Cam’s ability.”
If it is in fact Humphrey, he will take the reigns of an offense that was averaging 48.6 points per game against FCS opponents before Saturday’s loss in Sacramento. The Griz are still averaging 521 yards and 44.1 points per game against like opponents.
The 6-foot-2, 194-pounder would be facing an Eastern Washington defense giving up 36 points and 423.6 yards of total offense per game, including 274.4 passing yards per outing. EWU is giving up 34.6 points, 421.2 total yards and 252.4 passing yards per game.
“Their defense is solid, sound,” Hauck said. “They do a bunch of good things. We expect a bunch of line games, movement out of them.”
A season ago, Eastern Washington rode the strength of a roster featuring 28 seniors including Big Sky Defensive Player of the Year Jay-Tee Tiuli and the breakout second half of the season by then-sophomore quarterback Eric Barriere all the way to the national title game. The Eagles fell to FCS juggernaut North Dakota State as the Bison won their seventh national title in the last eight seasons.
This year’s Eags still feature Barriere, a dynamic dual-threat that Hauck called “the best athlete in the league at quarterback.” But the rest of the roster has struggled to find consistency as injuries, inexperience and a dip in overall talent have all played contributing factors to EWU’s 3-4 start.
“Big game this weekend against Eastern Washington,” Hauck said. “It’s a traditional matchup that people here have paid attention to. It’s a game of importance here and it’s been that way for a long time. We need to get back to work to get ready for them.”
But Eastern Washington, like Montana, is 2-1 in Big Sky play and still very much alive for its sixth conference crown this decade. If Montana was the team of the decade in the league in the 2000s, Eastern Washington was the team of the decade in the 2010s. And EWU has never shied away from calling the Grizzlies their rivals.
“I think everybody treats us like a rivalry game,” Hauck said. “Historically, that’s my take on it. If you watch the post game celebration last weekend down in Sacramento, you would’ve thought it was the Super Bowl. If they had a roof, they would’ve had confetti coming out of it.
“This is always a big game mostly because both teams have generally been competitive.”
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 12,607 total students and a $18.5 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 is currently a Pro Bowl offensive lineman for the Tennessee Titans. EWU is averaging 8,201 fans in three home games this fall.
THE TEAM (2-1 in Big Sky, 3-4 overall in 2019)
The Coach: Aaron Best, third season at Eastern Washington. The longtime EWU offensive line coach was an All-Big Sky player for Mike Kramer’s Eagles in the late 1990s before joining Paul Wulff’s staff as a graduate assistant. Best served as Eastern’s offensive line coach from 2002 until 2006. He spent a season in the CFL before returning to his alma mater as the offensive line coach in 2008, a position he served on Beau Baldwin’s staff until 2016.
In 2017, Best took over as the head coach. The Eagles started 0-2 with losses at Texas Tech (56-10) and North Dakota State (40-13) but finished the season with seven wins in nine games. That 7-4 mark was not good enough to get into the FCS playoffs.
Last season, EWU left no doubt. Despite losing All-American quarterback Gage Gubrud the final week of October, EWU ripped off 12 wins, including seven straight and three in a row in the playoffs to advance to the FCS national championship game. Best earned Big Sky Coach of the Year honors after the 12-3 record that included EWU’s fifth league title this decade.
“Coach Best does a good job,” Hauck said. “He’s a good guy and a guy I enjoy personally. When offensive line coaches are head coaches, they tend to be tough-minded with their football team, which you can see in Eastern. They had a really find year last year in terms of running all the way to the national championship game.”
Best and the Eagles did it with their typical high-scoring offensive ways with an added emphasis on the run game. EWU rushed for 275 yards per game behind an veteran offensive line, the stellar performance of tailback Sam McPherson and the running threat Barriere brings to the offense.
“You go back to Dick Zornes, Mike Kramer, Paul Wulff, I mean Beau was a little bit more of a throwing guy but Paul Wulff was the head coach there, Paul was an offensive line coach too and they were going to run it,” Hauck said. “Everybody was going to run it. Their quarterback was going to run it. Their quarterback was going to line up with two tight ends, two backs, pound it. When they have been successful, they’ve been able to do that.”
“Coach Best’s stamp is on the program.”
WHAT TO WATCH — THE OFFENSE
Eric Barriere, quarterback, 6-0,200, junior — In Barriere’s second career start, Eastern Washington did not score a touchdown for the first time in more than a decade in a 14-6 loss to Weber State.
The following week, the Eagles cruised to a 48-13 win over Northern Colorado, the first of seven straight victories. Eastern Washington scored 38 points or more every game during the run, including 59 against UC Davis to secure a share of the Big Sky title, 74 against rival Portland State to secure the No. 3 seed in the playoff bracket and 50 against a fearsome Maine defense.
In that semifinal game, Barriere hit a peak, throwing seven touchdowns to help the Eagles earned a spot in the FCS national title game.
Barriere threw for 2,450 yards and 24 touchdowns while rushing for 613 yards and eight more touchdowns last season to earn third-team All-Big Sky honors.
“I would say he is the most athletic quarterback in the league,” Hauck said. “He has make you miss ability to keep plays alive for a long time. He is a dynamic guy with the ball in his hands. He’s scary.”
Barriere has not gotten loose in the run game as often this season, but he did score a 92-yard touchdowns. He is averaging 350.3 yards of total offense per game, including 320 passing. His 2,239 passing yards ranks 7th nationally in the FCS. He has thrown 20 touchdowns and four interceptions.
“It starts with the quarterback,” Hauck said. “He is a special guy with the ball in his hands.”
Barriere threw for a career-best 522 yards and five touchdowns in a 59-31 win over Lindenwood. He threw five touchdowns in a 49-45 loss at No. 16 Jacksonville State. He threw for more than 300 yards against Idaho, Sac State and Northern Colorado, including 445 yards and five touchdowns last week against UNC.
Antoine Custer Jr., running back, 5-9, 190, senior — The De La Salle High (California) product burst on to the scene when he returned a kickoff 90 yards for a touchdown against Portland State as a true freshman in 2016. In 2017, he proved he can be an all-purpose running back.
As a sophomore, Custer earned second-team All-Big Sky honors by rushing for 776 yards and 10 touchdowns to go with 21 catches for 276 yards and two more scores. Last season, despite splitting carries with Sam McPherson, Custer rushed for 613 yards and eight touchdowns.
“He has good ability and good speed,” Hauck said. “He has good vision and has the ability to break the big play if you let him out in open space. You have to tackle him because he doesn’t go down easy. He’s a good player.
Custer rushed for 184 yards against Jacksonville State and 134 yards with three touchdowns against North Dakota. This season, he has a team-high 571 yards and six touchdowns. He has also caught 18 passes. In his career, Custer has rushed for 2,388 yards and 29 touchdowns.
Dre’Sonte Dorton, wide receiver, 5-10, 180, senior — Dorton first put the league on notice of his elite speed when he earned second-team all-league honors as a kick returner by averaging 27.4 yards per return in 2017. He also caught two touchdowns that year, including a 32-yarder in EWU’s comeback 48-41 win over Montana in Missoula.
Last season, stuck in a logjam of talent that seems to always highlight Eastern Washington’s wide receivers, Dorton managed six catches for 50 yards and two touchdowns.
In the first game of his senior year against Lindenwood, Dorton caught 15 passes for an Eastern Washington school-record 289 yards and three touchdowns. He has 27 catches for 477 yards and four touchdowns this season overall.
Andrew Boston, wide receiver, 6-3, 190, sophomore — Boston caught 43 passes for 531 yards and four touchdowns to earn third-team Freshman All-American honors from Hero Sports last season. He has carried that momentum into his sophomore year.
The physical, smooth outside receiver has a team-best 30 catches for 392 yards and two touchdowns. He had six catches for 112 and a score in a 47-14 loss to Washington to open the season.
WHAT TO WATCH — THE DEFENSE
Dehonta Hayes, safety, 5-11, 195, senior — The highly recruited safety out of Lincoln High School in Tacoma had a scare in July. Hayes and EWU defensive tackle Keith Moore were shot in downtown Spokane this summer.
The injuries stemming from the shooting did not cost Hayes any game action but it impacted his life no doubt. Hayes still leads Eastern Washington in tackles with 73 this season, 30 more than the second-most by an Eagle. Hayes has one tackle for loss, a team-high two interceptions and a forced fumble.
Dylan Ledbetter, defensive tackle, 6-3, 275, senior — The man with one of the best mullets in college football entered his senior year with 8.5 sacks, 119 tackles and captain status for Eastern Washington.
Last season, Ledbetter was an honorable mention All-Big Sky selection after notching 45 tackles, four tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks. In 2017, filling in for Tiuli, Ledbetter finished with 4.5 sacks.
This season, Ledbetter had four tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks. Hauck said he was one of the Eagle defenders who stood out on film in Montana’s preparation for Saturday’s game.
Jack Sendelbach, linebacker, 6-3, 225, senior — As a freshman, Sendelbach was EWU’s special teams player of the year. As a sophomore, he was a super sub who filled in all over the field, starting four times and playing prevalently. He finished that year in 2017 with 49 tackles and ranked ninth in the country with three fumble recoveries.
Last season, the slated starter redshirted because he suffered a season-ending injury, part of a slew of injuries Eastern endured last season.
Now he’s back and has been EWU’s most productive linebacker. The Seattle native is second on the team with 43 tackles, including 1.5 tackles for loss and a sack. He’s seen his importance increase due to the lingering ankle injury suffered by All-Big Sky linebacker Chris Ojoh earlier this season.