The Big Sky Conference race is proving to be a difficult one to get a handle on this season. There is no clear-cut favorite and six of the conference's 13 teams have a record of at least 3-1 or better in conference play.
This weekend, there are a couple matchups featuring teams in those top six in the Big Sky. None is bigger than the game between traditional powerhouse No. 10 Montana and rising FCS power, No. 3 Eastern Washington.
Let's preview that matchup, which could have a profound impact as to which Big Sky team takes home the conference championship this season.
When: Saturday, Oct. 26, 3:30 p.m. ET
Where: Washington-Grizzly Stadium; Missoula, Mont.
Eastern Washington's Season So Far
The Eagles are 5-3, with a 2-2 record on the road and a 3-0 record in conference play . They started their season by pulling off arguably the biggest upset in college football since Appalachian State beat Michigan, traveling to Corvallis and defeating Pac-12 team Oregon State, 49-46.
The Eagles then handily dispatched Division II Western Oregon before dropping two games in a row. First came a 33-21 loss to Toledo of the FBS, in which the Eastern Washington offense looked vulnerable for the first time. That was followed by a 49-34 loss to two-time FCS runner-up Sam Houston State, in which the Eagles' offense got back on track while the defense looked quite hapless.
EWU then started off conference play with three straight wins, taking down Weber State, North Dakota and Southern Utah with relative ease.
Who will win this game?
Montana's Season So Far
The Grizzlies are 6-1, with a 4-0 record at home and a 3-1 record in conference play. They began their season with a 30-6 dismantling of traditional FCS powerhouse Appalachian State, which is in the process of transitioning to the FBS.
Montana began its conference play by avenging last year's loss to North Dakota with a 55-17 drubbing in Grand Forks, N.D. That was followed up with an easy win over Division II Oklahoma Panhandle State.
The Grizzlies then went into Flagstaff, Ariz., and suffered their first loss of the season against a surprisingly stout Northern Arizona team, 34-16.
The Grizzlies bounced back with three consecutive conference wins against Portland State, UC Davis and Cal Poly.
Major Storylines For the Game
Does the EWU defense have the personnel needed to slow down Montana's offense?
Overall, Montana's specialty is defense and Eastern Washington's is offense. But with the exception of two games apiece, Montana's offense and Eastern Washington's defense have both been quite solid.
Each obviously has its flaws. Montana's offense was stifled by both Northern Arizona and Cal Poly while Eastern Washington's defense was torched by both Oregon State and Sam Houston State. The real question is whether or not Eastern Washington's defense is a good matchup against Montana's offense. While both of those units can be exploited, it takes the right type of opponent to do so.
Which quarterback will have the bigger game?
Both quarterbacks have been the centerpieces of their offenses this season. Montana's Jordan Johnson has thrown for 1,564 yards and 18 touchdowns with only one interception while rushing for an additional 69 yards. His running ability has been utilized much less this season than in the past. Adams meanwhile, has been a true dual threat. He has thrown for 2,189 yards, with 24 touchdowns against only six interceptions. Eastern Washington's Vernon Adams has 318 yards and three touchdowns on the ground. This game could very well turn into a duel between two of the top FCS quarterbacks.
How will Travon Van's injury affect the Montana offense?
Part of the reason that Johnson has needed to run so sparingly this season is that the Grizzlies had one of the best running back tandems in the country, with Jordan Canada and Travon Van combining for 1,018 yards rushing and 11 touchdowns this season.
Unfortunately for Montana, Van sustained a high ankle sprain against Cal Poly last week and will miss this game. His absence could make the offense much less dynamic because he was also the best receiving running back on the roster, totaling 172 yards with a touchdown catch. The Grizzlies will turn to Joey Counts to provide the complement to Canada, and it remains to be seen whether Counts can fill Van's shoes, especially in such a big game.
How much of a home-field advantage will Montana get?
Washington-Grizzly Stadium is one of the most difficult places to play in the FCS, and the stadium is sure to be packed for this one.
The stands are steep and the field is set down in the ground, causing crowd noise to flood onto the field and stay there. In addition, few FCS teams have as raucous a fanbase as Montana, ensuring that the Eagles will be walking into an incredibly hostile environment.
Eastern Washington, however, already proved that it can handle loud, boisterous crowds this season with its win at Oregon State. It will be interesting to see whether or not the Grizzlies' home crowd can shake the Eagles.
Prediction: Eastern Washington 31, Montana 27
Van is such an integral part of Montana's offense that the Grizzlies will inevitably have some hiccups in their offense without him. Although Montana's defense will likely hold Eastern Washington well below its season scoring average, Montana's offense isn't likely to be able to keep up without Van.