After falling behind by 10 points in the fourth quarter, Eastern scores the game's final 21 points to improve Big Sky record to 4-2 heading into next week's "Showdown on the Sound"
Sophomore running back Taiwan Jones and senior quarterback Matt Nichols sparked Eastern Washington in the fourth quarter as the Eagles rallied for a 35-24 victory over Montana State Saturday (Oct. 24) at Woodward Field in Cheney, Wash., and remain in the thick of the Big Sky Conference football race.
The win snapped a two-game losing streak for the Eagles, who host Portland State at Qwest Field in Seattle next Saturday (Oct. 31) at 1:05 p.m. Pacific time in the "Showdown on the Sound." Eastern, which played its final game of the season in Cheney, is now 5-3 overall and 4-2 in the Big Sky, while the Bobcats fell to 4-3 overall and 2-2 in the league.
The game featured scoring runs of 14 and 21 unanswered points by the Eagles, and a mid-game run of 18-straight points by the Bobcats.
"Obviously it was a wild game and fun for the fans," said Eastern head coach Beau Baldwin. "But as a coach I can't remember one quite like that where there have been so many flow changes."
Eastern was victorious in its 83rd Annual Homecoming game, and is now 48-32-3 in those 83 games. Eastern also used the game to retire the No. 71 jersey previously worn at Eastern by Michael Roos (2001-2004), who is now an All-Pro tackle for the Tennessee Titans in the NFL.
Eastern fell behind 24-14 early in the fourth quarter, but scored the final 21 points, including a pair of touchdown passes from Nichols to Jones. Tyler Hart closed the scoring with a 4-yard run with 1:49 to play -- the first rushing touchdown surrendered by MSU all season.
At one point in the fourth quarter, Eastern was 0-of-9 on third-down conversions and had only 201 yards of offense, compared to 470 for the Bobcats. But Eastern converted its last three third downs in the last five minutes of the game and had 193 yards of offense in the final quarter to finish with 394. Montana State finished with 592 yards of offense.
"In the second half they obviously had a lot of momentum and were running the ball well," said Baldwin. "Then, boom-boom, we ended up hitting a few big plays. We definitely played in spurts and I never felt like we had a great flow. But sometimes that happens against great defenses and great teams. "
Nichols completed 26-of-41 passes for 327 yards and four touchdowns, including catch-and-run scoring plays to Jones of 20 and 38 yards in the fourth quarter. His other two touchdown passes were 16 and 15 yards to senior tight end Nathan Overbay, both in the final 53 seconds of the first half.
"Matt played great," praised Baldwin. "I think there was one ball that I look back on that he forced, but in 41 attempts he took care of the football and was taking hits. He's playing with a lot of young receivers on the outside, with Tony and Nate inside. It was great to see Matt finish his career at Woodward with a win."
Although held to 55 rushing yards on 12 carries, Jones finished with 264 yards of all-purpose yardage in the win. He caught six passes for 149 yards and returned four kickoffs for 60 more yards. Tony Davis added seven catches for 57 yards, with Overbay finishing with five grabs for 60 yards.
Junior linebacker J.C. Sherritt, who entered the game leading FCS with an average of 14.4 tackles per game, had 18 versus the Bobcats. Sophomore safety Matt Johnson added 14 tackles with an interception, a sack and a fumble recovery.
Johnson was a huge factor in the first half, with his interception coming at EWU's 8-yard line in the first quarter to squelch a MSU threat. Later, Eastern drove 80 yards on seven plays to score with 53 seconds remaining in the first half. On the next offensive play, Eastern's Bobby Gentry forced a MSU fumble that Johnson returned 14 yards to set-up a 15-yard touchdown pass from Nichols to Overbay with 32 seconds left.
But the Bobcats scored on their next offensive play to pull within 14-12 at halftime, then scored the first 12 points of the second half to take a 24-14 advantage with 14:04 remaining in the game.
On its next possession, Eastern faced a fourth-and-10 play from the MSU 42, but true freshman Brandon Kaufman hauled in a 12-yard pass from Nichols to keep the drive alive. Kaufman was making the first start of his career in place of senior Aaron Boyce, whose prolific 42-game career came to an end with an Achilles tendon injury suffered against Montana on Oct. 17.
"Kaufman maybe had the biggest play of the game as you look back on how the game unfolded," said Baldwin.
One play after Kaufman's catch, Jones scored the first of his two touchdowns that gave EWU a 28-24 lead with 10:12 remaining. His second touchdown was set-up by a 21-yard punt return by Davis, who also had a 24-yard return in the first half.
Eastern clinched the victory with a 12-play, 96-yard drive that took 5:53 off the clock and gave EWU a 35-24 lead with 1:49 remaining. That came after a MSU fourth down touchdown pass was ruled an incompletion with 7:42 to play.
"(Matt) talked about it the other day that he's never really had a comeback," Baldwin said of his senior quarterback, who has nearly 11,000 passing yards in his career. "He won a lot of games in high school without a lot of close games, and here he really never had a comeback. To be down 10 late in the game and to not have Aaron Boyce, he stood up big-time and made some huge plays to bring us back."
Coming off losses to nationally-ranked foes Montana (41-34) and Weber State (31-13), the Eagles regained their winning form against the Bobcats. Eastern was not in this week's Sports Network NCAA Football Championship Subdivision top 25 poll, but received enough votes to rank 26th. The coaches poll rated EWU 21st.
Eastern has now come out on top in 25 of 33 meetings against MSU, including the last six meetings and 16 of the last 19. In fact, Eastern has not lost to Montana State in the last seven times they have met at Woodward Field, dating back to a 28-25 double-overtime victory by the Bobcats in 1990. Since that game, EWU's only losses to them came in 1997 (17-7 in Bozeman), 2001 (48-38 in Spokane) and 2002 (25-14 in Bozeman).
This week's game in Seattle is believed to be the first time in Eastern's 100-year football history that it has played a game in Seattle. The Eagles will play their first game in the Puget Sound area since Oct. 30, 1982, when Eastern won at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma.
Montana State was ranked 24th nationally after a 26-21 road victory over Weber State before falling 23-10 to Northern Arizona on Oct. 10. The Bobcats received enough votes this week to rank 32nd.
"This is a team that put it to Weber State's great offense," said Baldwin. "They have a lot of great players, and they like to run the ball and play great defense. They make it tough on you, but some of our big-time players made some big plays at crucial times."