The Eastern Washington football team certainly is no stranger to the postseason, with 12 appearances in the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs in the past 18 seasons.
But playing a true road game – as it will Friday – has been a rarity, at least during the past decade.
From 2010 to the spring of 2021, the Eagles played 17 consecutive preliminary playoff games at home. That streak ended at North Dakota State last spring – and even that game was played in front of fewer than 4,000 fans due to pandemic restrictions.
There is perhaps a bit of a baptism-by-fire feeling to this second-round playoff game between the fourth-ranked Eagles (10-2) and the fifth-ranked Montana Grizzlies (9-2) at Washington-Grizzly Stadium in Missoula, one of the loudest college football atmospheres at the FCS level.
“It screams excellence, all those years playing those home games,” Eagles coach Aaron Best said. “It’s an earned deal. When you see a number next to your logo, that means you’re going to be playing at home for the most part as long as the bracket goes to chalk.”
Yet that wasn’t the setup this year: The seeding committee gave the number to the Grizzlies – a No. 6 seed – and the Eagles got no seed despite the teams having identical records and similar resumes.
Thus, it will be the Eagles wearing the road jerseys Friday, when they will look to improve to 7-0 this season on the road in a stadium that, when Montana beat Montana State two weeks ago, hosted a record crowd of 26,856.
“In practice we try to simulate what it’s like,” EWU redshirt sophomore receiver Freddie Roberson said of the crowd noise. “We’ve got speakers out there (to) try to simulate the crowd and work on offensive signals that will help us out there, because we know it’s going to be loud, and we’re going to have to communicate really well with each other.”
Clear communication and sound execution were themes Eastern Washington’s players brought up this week heading into a rematch with Montana, a team Eastern beat 34-28 on Oct. 2 in Cheney.
Montana is 6-1 since then, the loss (28-21) coming to Big Sky champion Sacramento State. Eastern is 5-2 over that span, the losses to Montana State (a playoff team) and Weber State costing them a playoff seed.
Neither team seems to expect that the other is going to add any major wrinkles.
“I don’t think there’s going to be too many changes (from last time),” Eagles senior safety Calin Criner said. “Montana, they’re a really good team, and so when you’re a good team, why do you need to switch up a bunch of things?
“Just watching the film, certain things have changed, but that goes with every team just throughout the course of a season. They’re one of those teams where they have great pieces everywhere, so they’re going to line up and try to beat you and win the one-on-ones. That’s just how good teams go.”
The October matchup bred familiarity, though, something you just can’t get from studying a team’s tendencies.
“Watching a team on film, you don’t really have a full understanding of what they’re going to do and how they’re going to play,” said Montana quarterback Cam Humphrey, who was injured against the Eagles and then missed the Grizzlies’ next three games, including the loss to the Hornets.
“But in going at them a second time,” Humphrey said, “you really have a good feel of their players, their play style and their scheme, so we’re really looking forward to it.”
While Eastern Washington’s offensive output has sagged , that’s relative: The Eagles continue to lead the Big Sky Conference in total yards of offense at 551.3 yards per game, almost twice as much as the Montana defense’s game-by-game allowance (291.3).
Since racking up 538 yards in the victory over Montana, Eastern has committed just five turnovers in seven games. The return of senior running back Tamarick Pierce has also given the Eagles one more player to cycle into the backfield, taking some pressure off starter Dennis Merritt.
Senior Eric Barriere is still second nationally in passing yards per game (377.1) and passing efficiency (172.9), and he has continued to spread the ball among four top receivers, who each have at least 46 receptions and 700 yards.
One of those receivers is Roberson, who didn’t play against the Grizzlies earlier this season due to an injury. He did play against Montana in 2019 in Missoula, a game the Grizzlies won 34-17.
“It’s loud. It’s rowdy,” Roberson said. “So, I’m looking forward to just taking in the moment, just being there, and playing.”
The Grizzlies will also have senior safety Gavin Robertson back for this matchup after he missed the previous one.
In October, the Eagles gouged the Grizzlies’ secondary like no other team has this season, racking up 422 passing yards. That’s nearly twice as much as teams averaged through the air against Montana all year (216.2).
But that hasn’t dented the Grizzlies’ confidence.
“We love (playing Eastern),” cornerback Omar Hicks-Onu said Monday. “In the corner room, we love it. We love all the screens. We love the deep shots. So we’re just going to keep doing what we’ve been doing all year. If they want to throw a screen, we’re going to demolish it. If they want to throw a deep ball, we’re just going to make sure it’s not caught.”
On the other side of the ball, Montana looks about the same as it did earlier in the year to Eagles defensive end Debore’ae McClain.
The Grizzlies gained 358 yards on the Eagles, with slightly more of that on the ground (187) than through the air (171).
The 358 yards were just about their season average (365.5), eighth most in the Big Sky and less than a yard per game behind Weber State.
“From the film I’ve watched, they do exactly what they did (before); they just do it cleaner and with more confidence,” McClain said.
“A few guys have changed, but at the end of the day they are still the same to their core, their DNA, making sure they want to be that run-first team.”
Eastern’s task is to beat a team twice in one season, something it did in 2018 against UC Davis. But both those matchups were at Roos Field.
This time, the Eagles will need to complete the home-and-home sweep in order to advance to the quarterfinals.
“We’ve just got to come in with our heads on straight,” Roberson said.
“We’ve just got to stay level-headed and execute the game plan, and I think we’ll be fine.”
COMING UP Friday: FCS Playoffs: Eastern Washington at Montana, 6 p.m. TV: ESPN+