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Return of Gavin Robertson, Joe Babros bolsters Montana's defense for rematch with Eastern Washington

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Griz vs. EWU 35

Montana junior defensive end Deari Todd (50) attempts to sack Eastern Washington quarterback Eric Barriere (3) during the 34-28 loss on Oct. 2 at Roos Field in Cheney, Washington. The Griz will host the Eagles in the second round of the FCS playoffs at 7 p.m. Friday at Washington-Grizzly Stadium in Missoula.

MISSOULA — When Eastern Washington put up over 500 yards of offense in a 34-28 win against Montana on Oct. 2, the Eagles did so against a Griz defense that was missing two senior starters.

Safety Gavin Robertson, one of the most experienced players on the defense, was absent due to an illness, forcing sophomore Garrett Graves to make just his second collegiate start. Robertson has played in six games since returning, and his presence should make it more difficult for the Eagles to pass the ball after they threw for 422 yards, the most UM has allowed in 11 games this season.

The Eagles connected on seven passes of 20 or more yards that game. The Griz have allowed 37 plays of 20 or more yards, meaning their 10 other opponents averaged just three per game. The Eagles also had four plays of 35 or more yards; UM’s other opponents have combined for three such plays.

“Gavin’s been starting in this secondary for a while, so having him back, having that leadership, that accountability there, it’s just going to dictate the game a whole lot better,” UM senior cornerback Omar Hicks Onu said. “I feel like he gives us a great opportunity to win.”

Montana was also missing senior defensive end Joe Babros against EWU after he got hurt early in the previous week’s game, leaving him in a walking boot. Junior D-end DeAri Todd made his first collegiate start in place of Babros, who had a season-high two tackles for loss on Nov. 20, but he left early in the second half because of his own injury, although he’s since returned.

The secondary and D-line work hand in hand, with better coverage giving the line more time to work, while quicker chaos up front shortens the time the secondary has to cover. EWU put up 538 total yards, the most allowed by UM, and ran for 116 yards, the second most the Griz have given up, but they’ll now have to face a healthier defense with Robertson and Babros back.

“I think both those guys have played well,” UM coach Bobby Hauck said. “Defense is a team game. We’ve played really well on defense. Obviously, those two are key parts to what we’re doing. They’re with the first group for a reason. So, it’s good to have them back obviously.”

Getting offensive

UM’s offense was also missing key players in the first game against Eastern Washington.

The Griz were playing without starting right guard Colton Keintz, who had just retired the week of the game. Senior Moses Mallory has taken over since then, and the offensive line has had time to better establish some chemistry. The normal starters were back together in the regular season finale after some of them missed time at the start of November.

Running back Isiah Childs was limited in the first game against EWU because of a knee injury, and he didn’t have a carry. He gives UM a big-body back, and he showed that by scoring a touchdown in each of his first two games back on Nov. 6 and Nov. 13.

Senior quarterback Cam Humphrey got hurt while leading the potential game-winning drive, resulting in him missing four games until he came off the bench Oct. 30 and started Nov. 6. He’s scored five touchdowns since his return but looked to have hurt right throwing hand early in third quarter against Montana State.

“Watching a team on film, you don’t really have a full understanding of what they’re going to do or how they’re going to play,” he said. “But in going at them a second time, you really have a good feel of their players, their play style and their scheme. So, we’re really looking forward to it.”

The Griz needed the first-round bye last week to get some time off after playing nine straight weeks because of an early open date in the third week of the season. Montana’s injuries began piling up after the first bye week, and the Griz lost twice in a three-week stretch as they were missing multiple key players at a single time.

Junior Gabe Sulser, the starting slot receiver and punt returner, suffered a season-ending injury in the first half of the EWU game, taking away that weapon the rest of the game. After weeks of struggles, Montana might’ve found its punt returner with Junior Bergen, who had returns of 21, 22 and 31 yards in the previous game.

The Griz did have wide receiver Keelan White against EWU, but he hasn’t played the past two games. The Griz have also been without defensive tackle Eli Alford the past two games.

This past week off was important for them to heal up some bumps and bruises.

“Playing nine straight is hard,” Hauck said. “It’s kind of luck of the draw on injuries. Most of our injuries are long term, so we’re not going to get a bunch of guys back or something like that. But I think it’s good physically and mentally to get refreshed. Certainly, coming off of the rivalry game, it’s nice to be able to regroup and get ready for this one.”

Eastern healing

EWU was also missing some key players in the first game against UM.

The Eagles were without Anthany Smith, who was an All-Big Sky first-team defensive back in the spring. He’s played the past five games, averaging 7.4 tackles per game.

The Eagles were missing preseason All-American kicker Seth Harrison, but he’s struggled this year and hasn’t kicked since Oct. 23. They went to Jackson Cleaver, who was 2 for 2 that game, but he’s also struggled and got pulled Saturday for Wyatt Hawkins, who went 2 for 2.

Safety Keshaun King only got to play about half of the first quarter against UM before he was ejected for targeting on Sulser on a punt return. He had two interceptions last week.

Receiver Talolo Limu-Jones left early in the fourth quarter against the Griz because of a left leg injury after he had 11 catches for a career-high 231 yards. He missed the next two games and has averaged just 66.2 receiving yards in his five games since returning from the injury.

Eagles All-American quarterback Eric Barriere surely is excited to have back Limu-Jones, who said Montana “didn’t deserve” a playoff seed. Barriere is also looking forward to the rematch.

“I’m excited,” he said. “They don’t get no better than this, playing on a Friday night, against another Big Sky team, against a rival. So, it’s going to be a lot of high energy. I know Missoula’s going to be crazy, and I can’t wait.”

Frank Gogola covers Griz football and prep sports for the Missoulian. Follow him on Twitter @FrankGogola or email him at frank.gogola@missoulian.com.

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