BOZEMAN — Eric Morris has had a family trip to the Bitterroot Valley planned for quite some time. He’ll make a more impromptu trip to the Gallatin Valley on Saturday.
Next summer when Morris and his wife visit the Triple Creek Ranch luxury ranch resort, he’ll be get a taste of the Treasure State from a different perspective than the one his University of Incarnate Word football team will experience at Bobcat Stadium.
UIW makes its debut in the FCS playoffs on Saturday in Bozeman. The Southland Conference co-champions will face a Montana State team making its first playoff appearance since 2014 and its ninth in program history.
In his first year as a head coach, the 33-year-old Morris led the Cardinals to a 6-4 record that included a 6-2 mark in Southland play. On Saturday, his team will take on a surging Montana State team fresh off a thrilling 29-25 victory sealed with a goal line stand last week against rival Montana in Missoula.
To make the Treasure State welcoming complete, the Cardinals will have to endure the Montana elements. The forecast is for snow throughout the day with a high of 31 degrees and a low of 14 degrees.
“It doesn’t matter where we are playing, if it’s snowing, it’s raining, it’s hot as well, we are just going to go play it,” Morris said. “That’s how excited we are.
“As a team, we’ve talked about the environment there. They have a great crowd. It’s going to be their type of weather. In my opinion, all those are distractions. If we can eliminate distractions and play our brand of football, stay ahead of the chains and have some sort of running game, I think we will be just fine.”
Incarnate Word has only had a football program since 2009. UIW began playing Division I football in 2013 and joined the Southland in 2014. The Cardinals won 20 games in six seasons under Larry Kennan, including a 12-30 record in Southland play. Last season, Kennan’s final campaign ended with a 1-10 record.
In August of 2017, UIW hired Dr. Brian Wickstrom as its athletic director. Wickstrom is widely acknowledged as one of the nation’s top fundraising athletic directors. During his career, he has been personally responsible for securing more than $91 million in commitments.
After a stellar prep career in Shallowater, Texas, Morris stood out at Texas Tech under Mike Leach from 2005-2008. He caught 184 passes for 1,965 yards and 19 touchdowns. Morris concluded his collegiate career as one of four players in NCAA FBS history to be part of multiple receiving trios where each player recorded at least 60 receptions in a season.
One of Wickstrom’s first calls was to Morris following the dismissal of Kennan. Morris initially turned Wickstrom down.
“I had a couple of buddies reach out to me who really knew this AD and they said, ‘Hey, just give him the time of day. He’s a first-class guy, hard worker, has a great worker, has a great vision, has been a lot of successful places,” Morris said. “I gave him the time of day and I flew down to San Antonio.
“I’ve always recruited Central Texas. It’s always been an area that’s been under recruited. That’s one thing that intrigued me. Once I had dinner with him and heard his vision for the place, the changes he had in mind for the program both financially and giving us all the support we needed to run a successful day to day operation for a Division I program. They were a little behind the times before. He’s come in guns a blazin’ and worked hard for us each and every day.”
“I’ve always wanted to put my name on something and I thought this was a perfect opportunity to do so.”
During his college days, Morris had West Virginia head coach Dana Holgerson, former Cal and current SMU head coach Sonny Dykes, North Texas head coach Seth Littrell and Oklahoma head coach Lincoln Riley as position coaches while playing at Texas Tech.
After playing a season in the Canadian Football League, Morris became an offensive graduate assistant for Kevin Sumlin at Houston. In 2012, he joined Leach’s firs staff at Washington State. Montana State head coach Jeff Choate coached linebackers on that staff.
In 2013, Morris returned to Lubbock to coach wide receivers and serve as the offensive coordinator under Kliff Kingsbury, Texas Tech’s quarterback during Morris’ playing days. All along the way, he’s picked up a wealth of knowledge from some of the gurus of the spread offense.
“I was lucky to be in good regards with those guys,’ Morris said. “To have all those guys as resources when I started this, I called them all the time and asked them constant questions. I’ve tried to take a little bit from each of them for what I thought we have here both resources wise and our personnel. I’ve been blessed to learn from so many smart guys who have molded me into the coach I am today.”
Incarnate Word’s turnaround has come largely on the arm of talented freshman quarterback Jon Copeland. But multiple sources reported this week that Copeland suffered a torn ACL that will cost Southland Freshman of the Year the rest of the season. Sean Brophy, UIW’s starter last season, will be handed the controls of Morris’ Air Raid spread offense.
This season, UIW threw for 327 yards per game and averaged 493 yards per outing. Senior running back Ra’quanne Dickens rushed for 1,054 yards and 14 touchdowns in earning first-team All-Southland honors.
“The thing I like about what he’s doing on offense that makes it a little more challenging to defend and I think it’s a critical element and is more what Holgerson has done at West Virginia to turn to not necessarily a pro-style running attack but they run power, they run counter, they force you to defend some things that maybe a traditional air raid doesn’t make you defense. You definitely see Eric putting his own spin on it.”
It’s easier to build an offense with spread principles in the heart of Texas than just about anywhere else in the country, Choate said. The proliferation of talent combined with the number of high schools running the system and the fact that spring football and 7-on-7 are part of the year round fever has helped UIW make a splash quickly.
“The main position is quarterback,” said Morris, who claimed Copeland would be a game-time decision despite the conflicting reports he is out. “These guys come in so ready. They are throwing the ball year round these days. They are making the same reads we are making. The offenses are similar. It was huge for us to get a guy like Jon Copeland in here, get him here this summer and show him what we want to do. He’s taken the job and run with it. Any time you have a good quarterback at the college football level, you have a chance to win football games.”
For UIW to win another football game this season, the Cardinals will need poise from Brophy, consistency from Dickens and a stout effort from a defense faced with slowing down power running quarterback Troy Andersen.
“We are going to have to stop that quarterback,” Morris said. “He’s big, strong, physical. A quarterback run game isn’t something we’ve seen this year so that makes me a little bit nervous. And you can’t replicate it in practice.”
“I’m looking forward to going and shaking his hand and telling him how much I respect him but I’m not looking forward to us trying to tackle him for four quarters,” Morris said.
UIW would have had one more game this season, FCS playoff berth or not. The Cardinals cancelled their December 1 game at Iowa State once the playoff bracket was revealed.
During his time coaching with Choate at Washington State, Morris remembers MSU’s head coach as a smart, tough football coach, two traits Morris sees when he watches the Bobcats on film. For UIW’s historic season to continue, Morris will have to win on the road in wintery conditions against one of his former colleagues.
“We know it’s survive and advance right now,” Morris said. “Any time you get in the playoffs, everything tightens up a little bit and every play matters a little bit more, every series a little bit more. They’ll feel the electricity once they get in the stadium.
“Whoever is able to go out there and withstand the adversity and stack up the most routine play will win this football game. Hopefully we’ll be able to do that and have a fighting chance.”
Photos by University of Incarnate Word Athletics. All Rights Reserved.