Big Sky Conference

FIRST LOOK: Montana State hosts red hot Eastern Washington

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Montana State has lost its first four Big Sky Conference games for the first time since 2000 under first-year head coach. On Monday, Choate talked at his weekly press conference about how hungry his team is for a victory. Montana State’s stiffest test yet comes on Saturday against surging Eastern Washington.

The Eagles bring a No. 3 national ranking, a four-game conference winning streak and one of the most potent offenses in the country to Bobcat Stadium to face reeling MSU on Saturday afternoon. Eastern Washington negotiated one of the toughest non-conference schedules in the country valiantly, winning at Pac 12 Washington State 45-42 and rallying to beat Northern Iowa 34-30. In between, the Eagles became the first team to top 40 points against North Dakota State in a regular-season contest this decade but came up just short in a 50-44 loss at the Fargo Dome.

EWU has not lost since, rallying from a 24-7 deficit to beat UNI then ripping off three straight Big Sky Conference victories by closing strong. EWU led 36-28 in the third quarter at Northern Arizona before putting down the pedal, forcing two turnovers and scoring two fourth quarter touchdowns to secure a 50-35 win. The following week, EWU trailed UC Davis 30-28 in the third quarter but ripped off 35 points in the third frame to win going away, 63-30. Against Northern Colorado, EWU trailed 24-21 before exploding for 28 points in the last 20 minutes to win 49-31.

The Eagles took their bye at the midpoint of the season with a 5-1 record, including sitting alongside North Dakota (5-2, 4-0) and Weber State (4-2, 3-0) as the only Big Sky teams without a loss.

EWU head coach Beau Baldwin/by Brooks Nuanez

EWU head coach Beau Baldwin/by Brooks Nuanez

EWU has ascended to top of the Big Sky standings once again — Eastern has four Big Sky titles this decade, including the 2010 title that sparked a national championship run — thanks to an electric offense that is destroying teams with its efficient and explosive passing game. Thanks to a bevy of new concepts implemented by new passing game coordinator Troy Taylor, the Eagles are leading the FCS with 435.7 passing yards per game despite employing a first-year starter at quarterback in third-year sophomore Gage Gubrud.

Eastern Washington is averaging 47.5 points and 567.7 yards of total offense per game. EWU is rolling up 29 first downs per outing and converts 52.9 percent of its third downs, both tops in the Big Sky. Gubrud’s 453.3 yards of total offense per game lead the league by almost 154 yards and three of the top four receivers — Cooper Kupp, Kendrick Bourne, Shaq Hill — in terms of yards per game are seniors for the Eagles.

Montana State will look for its first Big Sky win against the prolific Eagles at Bobcat Stadium on Saturday afternoon.

QUICK HITS

Location: Cheney, Washington

Nickname: Eagles

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 13,453 total students and a $52.2 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 10,259 fans per game this fall.

THE TEAM (3-0 in Big Sky, 5-1 overall in 2016)

The Coach: Beau Baldwin, ninth season at Eastern Washington. Baldwin has established himself as one of the top young coaches in America. The 44-year-old led EWU to a fourth Big Sky crown in five seasons in 2014. As his ninth season reaches its midpoint, Baldwin has posted a 52-14 Big Sky record. Baldwin is 78-31 in his time at EWU, including a 13-2 mark in 2010 en route to the FCS National Championship.

WHAT TO WATCH — THE OFFENSE

Cooper kupp headshotCooper Kupp, wide receiver, 6-2, 200, senior — Each week it seems Kupp breaks more records as his resume becomes as long as a novel. The reigning FCS Offensive Player of the Year is far and away the Big Sky Conference’s all-time leader in catches, yards and touchdowns.

Despite missing a game and a half, Kupp still leads the Big Sky in receiving yards this season with 712. He has 46 catches and seven touchdowns, giving him 357 catches for 5,476 yards and 63 touchdowns. His yardage and touchdown totals are already the best in the history of Division I football, FBS or FCS. Kupp needs 39 more catches over the final five games of the regular season to surpass Terrell Hudgins of Elon’s all-time Division I mark.

In his career against Montana State, Kupp has 29 catches for 463 yards and five touchdowns, averaging about 10 catches for 154 yards and 1.5 touchdowns in three career outings against MSU.

Gage gubrud headshotGage Gubrud, quarterback, 6-2, 195, sophomore — Jordan West threw 30 touchdowns after taking over for Vernon Adams when Adams transferred to Oregon in the off-season. Early and late last season, West split time with redshirt freshman Riley Hennessey. Gubrud threw just 13 passes and hardly played.

When Taylor entered the equation, his spread offensive concepts also put a premium on using the quarterback in the run game. Gubrud’s ability to run between the tackles and scramble on designed pass plays helped him beat out West and Hennessey in the off-season.

The results so far have been breathtaking. Gubrud has four of the top 10 single-game total offense performances in school history midway through his first season as a starter. He threw for 474 yards and five touchdowns and rushed for 77 yards and a touchdown in EWU’s win over Washington State. He threw for 450 yards and four touchdowns against NDSU. He threw two interceptions and was benched in place of Hennessey in the comeback over UNI only to rally the next week to throw for 392 yards and rush for 95 yards against NAU.

Gubrud barely missed a school record by throwing for 486 yards and six touchdowns against UC Davis, adding 39 yards rushing and a TD on the ground. Two weeks ago against Northern Colorado, he was 33-of-39 for 450 yards and five touchdowns and had 79 yards on 11 carries.

Gubrud leads the country in completion percentage (70.6), passing yards (2,366) and passing touchdowns (23).

Kendrick Bourne headshotKendrick Bourne, wide receiver, 6-3, 190, senior — Kupp draws all the headlines but Bourne has put himself in a position to play on Sundays as well. The two-time All-Big Sky selection is having arguably the best season by a receiver in the Big Sky by a player not named Kupp. He is averaging 102.7 yards per game. He has 44 catches for 616 yards and three touchdowns. In his career, Bourne has 176 catches for 2,545 yards and 23 touchdowns.

Shaq Hill, wide receiver, 5-10, 180, senior — Since earning a fifth-year of eligibility — Hill sat out last season with a knee injury — one of the fastest players in the league has been an X-factor for the Eagles. Hill has caught at least five passes in five games, surpassing 100 yards on two different occasions. He caught seven passes for 153 yards and tied a school record by grabbing four touchdowns in EWU’s win over Northern Coloraod. This season, Hill has 35 catches for 522 yards and a team-high eight touchdowns.

THE DEFENSE

Samson mugSamson Ebukam, defensive end, 6-3, 245, senior — EWU’s Buck end has assumed more of a hybrid role in second-year defensive coordinator Jeff Schmedding’s scheme. The long, lean Ebukam plays more in space but still has the ability to rush the passer. The two-time second-team All-Big Sky pick is tied with Jay-Tee Tiuli for the team lead with 2.5 sacks and his 4.5 tackles for loss are a team best. He has 29 total tackles and has recovered two fumbles. Ebukam switched from number 93 to 3 in the off-season.

Miquiya Zamora, linebacker, 6-1, 230, senior — The captain has been a starter in the middle of Eastern’s defense for three seasons. The two-time All-Big Sky selection is second on the team with 48 tackles, including two tackles for loss and a sack. He has also broken up a pass.

Zach Bruce headshotZach Bruce, safety, 5-10, 195, senior —  Bruce earned honorable mention All-Big Sky honors in 2014 but injuries plagued him last season. This season, he is back to full health and is the anchor of EWU’s much-improved secondary. His 56 tackles lead the team. He has two tackles for loss, a forced fumble and two interceptions.

D’londo Tucker, cornerback, 6-0, 170, junior — Tucker earned a starting job as a true sophomore in 2014 only to see that season end with knee surgery. He struggled to fight his way back into the starting lineup until this fall. This season, he ahs two interceptions, including one he returned 27 yards for a touchdown to spark EWU’s avalanche of UC Davis. Tucker Has 12 tackles, a tackle for loss and three pass breakups.

Photos courtesy of Eastern Washington Athletics or noted. All Rights Reserved. 

About Colter Nuanez

Colter Nuanez is the co-founder and senior writer for Skyline Sports. After spending six years in the newspaper industry with stops at the Missoulian, the Ellensburg Daily Record and the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, the former Washington Newspaper Association Sportswriter of the Year and University of Montana Journalism School graduate ('09) has cultivated a deep passion for sports journalism during his 13-year career covering the Big Sky Conference. In August of 2014, Colter and brother Brooks merged their passions of writing and art to found Skyline Sports.

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