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ESPN’s FCS Experiment Paid Off - They Should Take Note of Why

Saturday night’s unprecedented primetime showdown between Eastern Washington and Montana lived up to the hype and then some.

NCAA Football: Montana at Eastern Washington James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

If you didn’t go to bed early on Saturday evening because you hadn’t quite gotten your fill of college football, you may have tuned into what was the game of the year (so far) for FCS football. The Eastern Washington Eagles (5-0) defeated Big Sky Conference rival Montana (3-1) in a thrilling contest that may have already shaped the postseason landscape, at least partially.

But the mere fact that you had an option to see that game on your television is the real story here and the contest itself coming down to the final play should be all network television needs to know when making decisions like this one in the future.

The Eagles and the Grizzlies were both top 10 teams going into the contest and were given the dubious honor of partaking in the first ever regular season Big Sky game to be aired on ESPN2. It was clearly an honor neither school took lightly. A back-and-forth contest between two of the nation’s top FCS programs played out exactly as it should have. EWU, playing at home, held on after a last-gasp Montana touchdown attempt fell short as the clock expired. If you’re ESPN you have to be extremely pleased that that’s how it went down, as college football fans rushed to ESPN2 to witness the thrilling finale.

Early on it looked as though Eastern Washington might blow out their “Governor's Cup” counterparts. Phenom quarterback Eric Barriere led his Eagles on an 85-yard scoring drive to open things up and he did so right through the heart of a Griz defense who has established themselves as one of the country’s best. Shortly after, it was Eastern’s defense that forced a punt; all momentum was clearly on the home side. That was good for EWU, but for everyone else it had to be a little worrisome.

NCAA Football: Montana at Eastern Washington James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

After all, the reason this game was bumped up to the network was because of a schedule opening (per Big Sky Commissioner Tom Wistrcill). The original plan was never to have this game on ESPN2. To say the very least, it’s uncommon for FCS football to see regular season action on any major network. There’s no two ways about it, ESPN took a chance in doing this and if the game ended up being a rout, it was a chance they might be more hesitant to take again.

The Grizzlies, though, would not fold and before long found themselves up 21-10 late in the third quarter. Bobby Hauck’s team, led by quarterback Cam Humphrey, strung together three beautiful scoring drives while that tough defense buckled down and held Eastern to just a field goal. If anything, it now seemed as though Montana might be the ones to dominate.

But Barriere and company would not go down quietly. The Eagles, behind a crowd that only grew more raucous with each score, hung 24 points in the final frame. Montana did have a beautiful 99-yard kickoff return touchdown to keep it within striking distance courtesy of Malik Flowers. Humphrey’s passing, though, had gone cold as he tossed two fourth-quarter interceptions. All of that resulted in a dream scenario for ESPN2 as the clock wound down to under two minutes.

The game sat at 34-28 in favor of the Eagles but the Griz had the ball with one final chance. Humphrey, as it turned out, would end up taking a vicious hit on the drive and his freshman backup Kris Brown was called upon to complete the comeback. Now with under a minute to play, the game hinged on the play of a young man who had never been in a situation so dramatic.

Brown got the Griz down to the EWU 13 yard line and had left just enough time for one play. Brown took the final snap, rolled back and ran for his life before launching the pass to the end zone. It tumbled to the ground and fans stormed the field.

Now, for just a second, pretend as though you were not just reading about Montana and Eastern Washington. Instead picture an Alabama-LSU game with a similar outcome. Perhaps a Michigan-Ohio State contest. It’s easy to imagine because we see these sorts of things play out like that on the grand stage almost weekly. Somewhere, it always seems as though high-profile FBS programs give us something wild to talk about all week. But, if you pay attention, so too do their FCS counterparts.

This game ought to serve as a prime example. Good, competitive football knows no level. The Alabamas and Georgias of the world aren’t the only ones allowed to put fans on the edge of their seats. Teams like Montana and Eastern Washington are clearly just as capable.

The folks at ESPN need to take a good look at what went down in Cheney and understand that airing these highly-touted contests doesn’t necessarily have to be seen as a risk. There seems to be no issue in broadcasting blowouts at the FBS level almost weekly, so why not dabble into the FCS pool a little more? It’s understandable saving slots for your moneymaker matchups but is Georgia Southern romping Arkansas State always the better option? Heck, even the Top 10 matchup between Georgia and Arkansas ended up being boring by the end.

FCS football has shown that it can deliver in front of a national audience when presented the opportunity and, while of course every game will not turn out this way, hopefully ESPN takes note in the future. There’s just as many neat traditions, interesting quirks (note that red field) and talented guys at that level as there is at the one we’re all used to. Exposure in college ball should not be relegated to FBS programs just because they’re FBS programs. Teams should have to earn their spot in the limelight and it’s safe to say Montana and Eastern Washington certainly did that.