In the FCS Huddle: A conference title comes first

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Updated: 10/27/2013 1:16 am

Missoula, MT (SportsNetwork.com) - You can't get to Thanksgiving Day without marking Halloween Night. You won't celebrate Christmas or Hanukkah without reaching Thanksgiving first.

It's true we live in a big-picture world, and for good reason. But the smaller picture is still the fabric of the FCS because the regular season still matters, as Saturday proved across the nation.

Eastern Washington at Montana, a game suited for full combat gear between its two participants on "Military Appreciation Day" at high-decibel Washington- Grizzly Stadium, served as a reminder of how important winning a conference title remains in college football.

In yet another thriller, EWU quarterback Vernon Adams and his band of receivers were too dynamic for the Grizzlies in a 42-37 win. The redshirt sophomore threw for a career-high 457 yards as well as six touchdowns for the third time in his last nine games.

Third-ranked Eastern Washington (6-2) has national championship aspirations again. No. 10 Montana (6-2) hopes to be in that mix as well.

All that mattered on Saturday was their rivalry, and the chance to take a step toward winning the Big Sky Conference title.

"I love the test of it," EWU coach Beau Baldwin said after collecting his 50th win in six seasons of guiding the Eagles. "Yes, this is a huge league game. But this is a national implication-type game, whether we're in the same league or not, when we're both Top 10 teams.

"Our guys, they embrace coming into environments, whatever they might be, and love the challenge of that. We love the challenge of that going into this."

All across the FCS, big conference matchups ruled the day. But postseason goals were kept a stiff arm away as Maine (CAA Football), Samford (Southern Conference), Eastern Illinois (Ohio Valley Conference) and Bethune-Cookman (Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference) were among the big winners.

Appropriately, the lone battle of two FCS Top 10 teams was held at the mecca of all FCS stadiums. Visiting teams to Washington-Grizzly Stadium are usually goldfish in a piranha tank, but the 26,082 on hand saw how Adams, though only 6 feet tall, has been the biggest fish in the Big Sky this season.

Baldwin lauds Adams for becoming a complete quarterback and having "the guts to take shots, the guts to make the big plays."

The Grizzlies would have been content before the showdown if they had known they would score 17 points by halftime. But they were left grasping for Eastern Washington wide receivers when Adams turned on the spigot of touchdown passes, including three in the second quarter while the Eagles built a 28-17 halftime lead.

EWU receivers positioned themselves so well in the Montana secondary, which was without cover cornerback Anthony Goodwin. All Eagles redshirt freshman Cooper Kupp does it catch touchdowns, and he added his 10th and 11th of the season in the decisive quarter, the second with just 18 seconds left. Burner Shaquille Hill added the play of the game with an over-the-shoulder, in-stride snatch near midfield, which he turned into an 86-yard score and a 28-17 halftime lead.

The advantage increased on Ashton Clark's second touchdown of the game, a refuse-to-be-denied weave of 52 yards around defenders to the end zone pylon. Running back Mario Brown then scored on a 9-yard dump and Eastern Washington seemed to be on cruise control with a 42-17 lead through three quarters.

"It's all about executing and getting my playmakers the ball," said Adams, who completed 27-of-40 passes, throwing two interceptions.

"They were putting pressure on us. I just had to be quick with my throws and my reads, and putting my O-line in the right protection, which I didn't do that much - that's why I took some hits. We just finished with a win and we found a way."

Still, Montana made the Eagles work to finish off the win. Quarterback Jordan Johnson, who has enjoyed a comeback season after serving a year-long suspension (http://tinyurl.com/lrcg5vk), led three touchdown drives of at least 60 yards in the final quarter. Ellis Henderson caught three of Johnson's four scores and had 212 all-purpose yards.

When Jordan Harper's TD pass pulled the Griz within 42-37 with 1:44 left, it was heart attack city.

But not for long. Eastern Washington recovered an onside kick with 1:41 left. From there, Adams only needed to down the ball because Montana was out of timeouts, and the Eagles still had a share of first place at 4-0 with Montana State.

"I know there's a bit of grit," Montana coach Mick Delaney said.

"We did lose to a good football team. We're a good football team. We just made too many mistakes, which you can't do against a good football team. We got ourselves buried."

The next time you walk into your favorite FCS stadium, you might be at one of the small handful that has a national championship banner, like Montana.

Note the conference championship signs. They'll be even more prevalent and no less important to the teams involved with them.

Conference titles matter as Big Sky football will attest.

TOP 25 SCOREBOARD

A roundup of games in The Sports Network FCS Top 25 can be found at http://tinyurl.com/npt53mp.

FCS-FBS SCOREBOARD

Furman's loss at LSU and Abilene Christian's defeat at New Mexico State dropped FCS teams to 14-83 against FBS programs this season.

Furman, though, only trailed LSU 20-16 at halftime in a 48-16 loss. Abilene Christian led New Mexico State entering the fourth quarter before falling, 34-29.

There are 10 more FCS-FBS matchups this season, including six on Nov. 23.

STOCK RISING, STOCK FALLING

Rising: Let's hear it for the tight conference races, especially in the Pioneer Football League which is sending its champion to the FCS playoffs for the first time. Saturday's action left Dayton, Butler, Marist and San Diego tied for first place at 4-1 each, with Mercer just off the pace at 3-1.

Falling: The Lehigh Mountain Hawks were incensed a year ago that the FCS playoff selection committee kept them out of the postseason at 10-1. The Patriot League team just may blow the opportunity itself this year, losing on Saturday to a struggling Bucknell team, 48-10. The Mountain Hawks (6-2), who don't deserve to be nationally ranked in Monday's new poll, although they probably will remain in the Top 25, can still win the league title and automatic playoff bid with a sweep of their final three games following next weekend's bye.

AROUND THE NATION

The 72nd Magic City Classic - a 31-7 Alabama State win over Alabama A&M - drew an FCS season-high 63,113 fans to Legion Field in Birmingham. ... North Dakota State (8-0) continued to march toward the No. 1 overall playoff seed by thumping Indiana State, 56-10, as Brock Jensen threw for four touchdown passes. The two-time defending FCS champions have won 17 straight games dating to last season. ... Northern Iowa has dropped four straight Missouri Valley Conference games and gone from 4-0 and fourth-ranked to 4-4. The run started with a one- point loss to North Dakota State and has followed with three straight in overtime (Southern Ilinois, South Dakota and South Dakota State). ... In a win over Georgetown, Colgate senior quarterback Gavin McCarney became the third player in FCS history to have 5,000 passing yards and 2,500 rushing yards in his career. The others are Appalachian State's Armanti Edwards (2006-09) and Morehead State's David Dinkins (1997-2000). ... Bryant wide receiver Jordan Harris finished with 91 yards on six catches in a 42-14 win over Duquesne to become the Northeast Conference's all-time leader in career receiving yards with 3,494. ... Western Carolina snapped a 26-game Southern Conference losing streak, outlasting Elon, 27-24, on Richard Sigmon's 39-yard field goal in overtime. In the loss, Elon quarterback Mike Quinn extended his streak of passes attempted without an interception to 207, a SoCon record. ... Mason Mills' five touchdown passes led San Diego past Butler, 42-14. ... Dartmouth's 56-0 blanking of Columbia was its largest margin of victory since defeating the University of Vermont by the same score in 1936. ... The big Ivy League matchup didn't disappoint as Princeton outlasted Harvard, 51-48, in triple overtime. Quarterback Quinn Epperly finished with 407 total yards and six touchdown passes. Roman Wilson scored on a run and reception in overtime. ... Coastal Carolina running back Lorenzo Taliaferro's 126 yards in a 66-27 win over VMI gave him the school's new single-season record at 1,112 yards. ... Jackson State (7-2, 7-0) moved closer to a second straight SWAC Championship Game berth as Clayton Moore accounted for five touchdowns in a 51-38 triumph over Prairie View A&M. ... Chattanooga pushed its winning streak to four with a 28-24 win over The Citadel. But the Mocs (6-2) have a brutal November stretch ahead: a home game with Wofford and away games against Appalachian State, Samford and Alabama. ... Teams still winless: Grambling State (0-9), Austin Peay (0-8), Davidson (0-8) and Columbia (0-6).

A LOOK AHEAD

After this weekend's terrific schedule of games, next weekend's Week 10 action isn't as strong. At least on paper.

CAA Football has solid matchups with Stony Brook-Maine, New Hampshire-William & Mary, Villanova-James Madison and Delaware-Towson.

In the Southland Conference, there's Stephen F. Austin versus Sam Houston State at Houston's Reliant Stadium and Southeastern Louisiana at McNeese State.

Other key games: Big Sky, Montana-Sacramento State and Cal Poly-UC Davis; Ivy, Penn-Brown and Dartmouth-Harvard; MEAC, Bethune-Cookman-North Carolina Central; Missouri Valley, Youngstown State-South Dakota; Ohio Valley, Tennessee State-Eastern Kentucky and Murray State-UT Martin; Pioneer, Butler-Dayton and Jacksonville-Marist; and Southern, Chattanooga-Appalachian State.

In addition: non-conference, Monmouth-Sacred Heart and Charlotte-Coastal Carolina; and FCS-vs.-FBS, Alabama State-Kentucky.

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