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Bill Speltz: Crank up hype machine for Montana's 'monster movie' at Eastern Washington next Saturday

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MISSOULA — The stage is set now for a late-night thriller on the blood-red field in Cheney, Washington.

Actually it's more like bright red, but blood red sounds more chilling, so we're going with the gore.

Next Saturday at 8:30 p.m., Montana's undefeated, sky-high football team will take on Big Sky Conference powerhouse Eastern Washington. It's the Eags' explosive, scary-good offense led by elusive quarterback Eric Barriere versus Montana's cat-quick, historically-stubborn defense.

"The media will eat it up ... Apollo Creed meets the Italian Stallion. Sounds like a damn monster movie." 

A tip of the cap to "Rocky" for that apropos promo. For fans of Big Sky Conference football, the match-up between the No. 4 Grizzlies and No. 6 Eagles most definitely feels like a heavyweight title fight. Fortunately it's on ESPN2 and not pay-per-view.

For all Montana has accomplished this season, including Saturday's predictable 39-7 win over confused Cal Poly, there are still questions to be answered. Blitzing the ill-prepared Mustangs (1-3) to within an inch of their life worked fine at sun-splashed Washington-Grizzly Stadium in front of homecoming friendlies, but will Barriere be impressed?

We'll find out.

Never in my 15 years in Missoula can I remember a Griz defense quite so impressive through three games. That includes those two seasons Montana made it to the FCS title game. It's speed and pressure schemes dialed up by defensive coordinator Kent Baer combined with impressive depth.

Eastern Washington's dangerous offense will provide the ultimate FCS test for the Griz. Through their first three games — not including Saturday night's test at Southern Utah — the Eagles have totaled 158 points. Thirty-three of those came against an FBS team, UNLV.

Barriere, the Big Sky preseason offensive player of the year, is going to be a handful, even for the relentless Grizzlies. Will Baer stay as aggressive as he was this weekend or dial it back a little? It's going to be fun to find out.

In the mean time, it's nice to savor Saturday's blowout win for Montana. There wasn't much suspense in the second half, but it was a blast watching the defense try to extend its uncanny string of 10 straight quarters without allowing a point. Yes that's right, not even a measly field goal in 164-plus minutes of football starting way back on Sept. 4 at the University of Washington.

For old-school, tried-and-true fans of Treasure State athletes, Saturday's Griz game was a real treat on both sides of the ball.

It was heartwarming to see Eureka's Garrett Graves in the starting lineup at linebacker. He had a team-high 11 tackles and one pass breakup. Former Missoula Big Sky star Levi Janacaro blocked a punt, recovered it in the end zone and recorded five tackles. Linebacker Patrick O'Connell of Kalispell continued to amaze with nine tackles, including 3.5 for lost yardage and a sack.

And there's more. Marcus Welnel of Helena had six tackles and five quarterback hurries. Former Missoula Sentinel star Mitch Roberts had four catches for 32 yards and rushed for a two-point conversion. Gabe Sulser, the pride of Bilings, had two catches for 27 yards. 

The only thing that makes Montana fans feel better than a big win is to see the Grizzlies earn that win with homegrown talent.

Happy days are indeed back again for Montana football. But glory is fleeting and nothing short of a Big Sky Conference title is going to satisfy the Montana faithful now.

The Grizzlies can take a huge step toward getting it done next weekend in a small Washington town the Seahawks once called home for training camp. The Eagles have their own versions of Jim Zorn and Steve Largent, so Montana better be buckled up.


Bill Speltz is Missoulian Sports Editor and has served as Sunday columnist the past 15 years. Do you have a story idea? Email Bill at


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