BOZEMAN — For the first time in a long time, the Montana State football team will enter Roos Field with good memories.
The then-No. 4 Bobcats beat then-No. 5 Eastern Washington 23-20 at Roos in November of last year. It was MSU’s first win on the red turf since 2011, and it improved MSU’s record against the Eagles in Cheney, Washington, to 3-13.
The teams will meet again on “The Inferno” at 2 p.m. Mountain time Saturday.
MSU is 2-1 and tied for fourth in the latest Stats Perform FCS rankings, while EWU is 1-1 and No. 15. The Cats are 2 ½-point favorites to win their second straight game at Roos, something they’ve never done.
Saturday's game will be televised on MTN (CBS stations in Montana), streamed on ESPN+ and broadcast on the Bobcat Radio Network, the Varsity Network and msubobcats.com.
Here are five things to watch:
MSU’s pass rush
MSU’s defense struggled in every area during last week’s 68-28 loss to Oregon State, but Cats coach Brent Vigen spotlighted his team’s subpar pass rush. After totaling 10 sacks in the first two games combined, MSU didn’t sack either of OSU’s quarterbacks who played.
The Cats probably won’t face another offensive line as good as OSU’s, but EWU almost certainly has a better offensive front than either of MSU’s first two opponents’; McNeese State and Morehead State are 0-3 and 1-2, respectively.
The Eagles graduated All-Big Sky first-team O-lineman Tristen Taylor but returned all-conference third teamer Wyatt Musser, who will start at left guard on Saturday. They also added right tackle Seth Carnahan, an Idaho transfer.
EWU quarterback Gunner Talkington was sacked once in a season-opening 36-29 win over Tennessee State and twice in a loss at Oregon. MSU has talented pass rushers such as D-tackle Sebastian Valdez (4 ½ sacks) and ends Brody Grebe and Ben Seymour.
If the Cats can bother Talkington, who threw for 348 yards and five TDs against Tennessee State, they’ll have an excellent chance to leave Cheney with a win.
Clevan Thomas Jr.
Thomas has been MSU’s starting “H” receiver since he transferred from Kentucky in June. A breakout game feels imminent.
Against McNeese State, Thomas rushed two times for 4 yards and didn’t make a catch. He found the end zone on an 8-yard pop pass against Morehead State but didn’t record any other stats. He led MSU with three receptions against OSU and finished with 24 yards, while rushing once for a loss of 2.
All three games have provided glimpses of exciting contributions Thomas could give to MSU’s offense, he just hasn’t put together a standout game like MSU’s other starting receivers Ravi Alston and Willie Patterson.
Thomas might get ample opportunities to make plays Saturday, especially if EWU directs more attention toward Alston, Patterson and MSU’s mobile QBs.
EWU’s run game
EWU rushed for 2,017 yards and 28 touchdowns at a 4.2-yards-per-carry rate last season. Dennis Merritt accounted for most of those numbers, finishing with 933 yards, 15 TDs and 4.6 ypc. He and his backups provided crucial balance in an offense headlined by Walter Payton Award-winning QB Eric Barriere, who led the Eagles to a 10-3 record.
Barriere and Merritt were both seniors last season. No one can replicate Barriere’s production (5,070 yards and 46 TDs last season), but Talkington showed against Tennessee State that EWU still has a dangerous passing game.
Talkington also leads the team with 82 rushing yards. EWU’s second-leading rusher last season, Justice Jackson, has 41 yards on 11 attempts (3.7 ypc) through two games this fall.
A two-game sample size is too small to judge an offense, especially one that faced a Football Bowl Subdivision Power 5 team and trailed that entire game (Oregon won 70-14). Perhaps EWU will find balance on Saturday and earn a win.
If the Eagles’ rushing attack remains quiet, MSU will gain a major edge.
MSU’s kick and punt coverage
OSU returned both a punt and a kick 80 yards against MSU last Saturday. A week earlier, EWU’s Efton Chism III returned three kicks for 87 yards against Oregon, with a long of 47.
The Beavers have athletes few FCS teams can match, so MSU’s punt and kick coverage issues last week might’ve been an outlier. Maybe Cats kicker Blake Glessner and punter Bryce Leighton will kick the ball long and high on Saturday, preventing Chism, a preseason all-conference receiver, from getting any good opportunities to make momentous returns.
In a game that is projected to be close, every special teams play will be magnified.
EWU’s Jerome was a third-team All-Big Sky defensive tackle last season and a preseason all-conference pick this year. The now-redshirt junior finished with 61 tackles, 13 ½ tackles for loss and a team-leading seven sacks in 2021, and he’s second on the team with 14 tackles this fall. Jerome played in the Eagles’ last win over MSU, 34-17 at Bobcat Stadium in 2018.
The Cats seem to have a creative enough offensive playbook to run on any defense, but the Eagles are well-coached and had a bye last week, so they’ve had more time than most teams to come up with counters to MSU’s option-heavy attack.
They also have a player who can plug the A gaps. If Jerome continues to do that on Saturday, MSU’s offense might struggle.