Steven Bethley did not mince words when outlining Montana State’s goals during his first interaction with the media in preseason camp.
Nothing short of winning an outright Big Sky championship and seriously contending for a national title would do, the senior cornerback proclaimed.
“It really starts right here and now,” Bethley reaffirmed on a frigid Tuesday night after practice at Bobcat Stadium.
It starts at the “Inferno” on Saturday afternoon in Cheney, Wash., and with a much-hyped matchup teeming with postseason implications and intrigue.
Montana State produced a win in its first game on Eastern Washington’s distinct red turf in 2011. Pull that off again this weekend in a matchup of top-five Big Sky schools — the first in 19 seasons — and the Bobcats will assume sole possession of first place and have the inside track on the conference crown.
“To be the best, you’ve got to beat the best,” Bethley said. “They got us last year and split the title with us. We’ve kind of had this game marked on the calendar for a long time.”
Earlier Tuesday, a steady stream of MSU players and coaches strolled to the microphone at the weekly luncheon and repeatedly insisted that this week would transpire like any other during the past few months. They insisted that preparations and well-established routines would not waver. Quarterback DeNarius McGhee even intimated that he was as excited to square off with Eastern as he was for last week’s visit to Northern Colorado.
Bethley and fellow senior Brad Daly are convinced the mood permeating the program is decidedly different, however.
“A lot is obviously on the line, and like coach Ash said at the end of practice, you can tell this team is preparing to play a good team,” Bethley said. “Just from the way we practiced, you can tell we were dialed in and just ready to attack this week.”
Added Daly, “There’s definitely more buzz in the locker room, and guys are spending more time in the film room. … The atmosphere in games like these is awesome, and you play football so you can take a shot at the top dog. Right now, that’s Eastern Washington.”
Saturday’s contest, already an announced sellout, pits two Big Sky unbeatens that have taken similar paths to the season’s 10th game. Both are 7-2 and riding five-game win streaks, and both feature two of the league’s most prolific offenses and influential signal callers in McGhee and super sophomore Vernon Adams.
Both of the budding rivals suffered early season losses to Southland Conference and Football Bowl Subdivision squads — Stephen F. Austin and Southern Methodist for the Bobcats, and Sam Houston State and Toledo for the Eagles.
Since 2008, MSU and Eastern are the most successful programs in the Big Sky with 36 and 35 wins, respectively. If the Bobcats win, they will establish one-game leads and possess all-important tiebreakers against both the Eagles and Northern Arizona (7-2, 5-1).
“This is the Big Sky championship right now this week. I’m excited for it; ready to go and play,” senior running back Cody Kirk said. “I think energy and tempo and excitement for practice should not be an issue this week.”
Added Ash, “It seems like the path to the championship has gone through this game the last three years at least, so it’s big in that respect. They’re a great team with a great record of (league) championships and playoff appearances — including a national title — so obviously they’re a team we have to try to compete with. The goods news is we’ve been able to do that.”
The Eagles own a 26-10 series advantage, but the Bobcats have won two of the past three.
Their 30-7 victory in 2010 was Eastern’s lone loss to a Football Championship Subdivision squad on its way to a national title.
MSU surrendered just 211 yards and one offensive touchdown in last year’s 27-24 loss. The hosts were undone by an untimely missed field goal as well as Eagles touchdowns on an interception and blocked punt.
Adams was just 12 of 29 for 140 yards and was picked off twice in his first trip to Bozeman. The player the Bobcats encounter this time around clearly is much improved — and much more dangerous.
The Pasadena, Calif., native piled up 518 yards of total offense and accounted for six touchdowns in a 49-46, Week 1 shocker at Oregon State. The FCS’ passing efficiency leader hardly has been slowed since; in the past two weeks alone, he’s thrown for 889 yards and 11 touchdowns in wins over Montana and Idaho State.
Bethley deems Adams the best offensive player the Bobcats have seen this season.
“There’s just something about him. When you turn on the film, he’s the first guy you see; he’s a playmaker and a game-changer,” the safety said. “I’m sure there’ll be some adversity this weekend — we’ve had it before this year — but I think we have the players and the game plan to hopefully slow them down.
“We’re going to try not to get too overhyped and when we get there just do our talking on the field. It’s very excititng, and I hope we’re ready.”
Jon Maletz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 582-2601. Follow him on Twitter @jmaletz.