Taiwan Jones has career-high 221 rushing yards as Eastern beats Montana for the first time since 2005 in the first game at re-named Roos Field
It was REDemption for Eastern Washington University's senior class, but it was underclassmen who made the biggest plays down the stretch in one of the greatest victories in school history.
The first football game on Eastern's new red Sprinturf surface was a huge success as the 18th-ranked Eagles knocked off No. 6 Montana 36-27 Saturday (Sept. 18) in the Big Sky Conference opener for both schools at Roos Field in Cheney, Wash.
Junior All-America running back Taiwan Jones had 305 all-purpose yards -- including a career-high 221 rushing yards -- to lead EWU's 503-yard offensive output. Junior kicker Mike Jarrett nailed a 31-yard field goal with four seconds left to give Eastern a 30-27 lead, then the Eagles iced it on the final play of the game with a 34-yard fumble return for a touchdown by junior defensive tackle Renard Williams after a sack and forced fumble by sophomore end Jerry Ceja with additional pressure by senior Tyler Jolley.
It was Eastern's first victory over Montana since 2005, and the first in Cheney, Wash., since 1991.
"It feels amazing," said Eastern head coach Beau Baldwin. "And more than anything, I love it for the players. These seniors have never been a part of beating Montana. For these seniors it was huge, and that's who I am most happy for. The players deserve it because they are the ones who came out and made the plays when we needed them. I'm happy for the team."
It was the ninth time in the last 15 meetings both teams enter the game nationally ranked. Since 1990, Eastern has won four times on UM's home field in Missoula, but Eastern had won just twice at home in that span until this year.
The lone win since then at Roos Field (formerly Woodward Field) came in 1991, and Eastern was hoping the change of turf and change of name altered its success in Cheney where the Eagles had a six-game losing streak.
"Obviously it was a huge game and we couldn't have drawn it up any better in a lot of ways by winning," said Baldwin, whose team plays at Montana State next week. "But it's still one game."
The sold-out stadium featured a crowd of 11,702 as it set a new Roos stadium record. The previous record of 11,583 was set on Oct. 7, 2006 versus Montana. Eastern also set a new record for student attendance of 3,105, as the previous high was 2,218 in a 2008 game versus Montana.
That student crowd -- and other Eagle fans -- swarmed the field following the win. And they did it twice.
Eastern rallied from a 14-0 deficit and overcame three turnovers and a 2-of-15 performance on third down to pull out the win. A 12-play, 56-yard drive resulted in Jarrett's go-ahead field goal with four seconds to play, then Montana tried several laterals on the ensuing kickoff before fumbling and recovering.
Fans thought the game had concluded and stormed the field, but officials assessed a penalty on Eastern and gave Montana one last untimed down. Ceja's sack and the return by Williams clinched the victory, and once again, fans stormed the field.
Eastern improved to 2-1 while the Grizzlies fell to 1-2 for the first time since 1992 -- the last time Montana failed to reach the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision Playoffs. Eastern, which has been to the playoffs four of the last five seasons, handed Montana its first regular season two-game losing streak since 2002, and snapped Montana's 15-game winning streak in Big Sky games.
"It felt great and I'm so proud of our players," said Baldwin. "It obviously didn't start the way we wanted going down 14-0. We started bad but our guys are so resilient. We want to get past starting like that because that's two out of three games where we've done that -- Nevada was the same way. I am so proud of our guys -- they kept fighting back and kept believing."
The previous career best for Jones was 190 against Sacramento State on Sept. 26, 2009. His total of 305 all-purpose yards (second-most in his career behind the 322 against Nevada on Sept. 2) was his ninth career performance of at least 200 yards. His 27 carries were also a career high by nine.
A candidate for the Walter Payton Award given to the top player in FCS, Jones scored on a 72-yard run in the second quarter and also had a 45-yard pass reception. He now has eight plays of at least 70 yards in his career, and 27 of at least 32 yards.
Perhaps the biggest run of the day for Jones was a 13-yard run during Eastern's final scoring drive, including a brilliant spin move that got him the extra yards needed for an important first down. It was on a third-and-10 play, and was just Eastern's second third down conversion of the day in 14 attempts -- including a string of nine-straight misses to start the game. Jones accounted for 35 of the 56 yards on that 12-play drive.
"He's huge," praised Baldwin. "He comes up big in big games -- that's the type of player he is. At the same time, he's an amazing teammate. He cares about his teammates and his team first more than anything else. He never ceases to amaze me. You put him in that position and he's one of those guys who has talent but he also has a huge heart. He's not afraid of any situation."
Eastern junior quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell completed 17-of-37 passes for 234 yards and a touchdown, but was intercepted twice with one resulting in a 53-yard interception return for a touchdown. Sophomore Brandon Kaufman had five catches for a career-best 119 yards, including a diving 32-yard touchdown grab from Mitchell (he also had a diving 47-yarder earlier in the game).
Senior J.C. Sherritt, a Buck Buchanan Award candidate who led FCS in tackles a year ago, paced the Eagles with 12, and sophomore free safety Jeff Minnerly and junior linebacker Zach Johnson each had 10. Junior strong safety Matt Johnson chipped in eight tackles and a pair of interceptions -- giving him 12 in his career to rank fourth in school history -- and Jolley had a sack.
Jarrett was short on his first field goal attempt from 41 yards out, but made a pair of 20-yarders before his clutch kick at the end of the game.
"We were struggling a little bit with our red zone offense -- we couldn't punch it in there," said Baldwin. "But I'm so proud of Mike Jarrett for making three field goals, including the last one."
Junior Darriell Beaumonte also had a huge special teams play by blocking a punt and returning it six yards for a score -- EWU's first blocked punt returned for a TD since 2004. Matt Johnson also forced a fumble on a punt return that was recovered by sophomore Artise Gauldin, and freshman redshirt J.C. Agen recovered a fumble on yet another UM punt return.
"Special teams were huge," added Baldwin. "We've put an emphasis on special teams this year. We're giving out special teams awards and we're doing things like letting them eat first at team meals. We feel like we needed to improve on that, and that was an area in the past that I felt Montana had an edge on us. Based on what I saw live, I felt like we created it to be an advantage for us this year."
Montana finished the game with six turnovers -- four fumbles and a pair of interceptions. Eastern, which ranked sixth in FCS in turnover margin a year ago, hadn't forced six turnovers in a single game since 1997 against Portland State. In the last two seasons, Eastern is 8-0 when it has won the turnover battle, with a 31-9 advantage in those eight game (6-0, 22-4 in 2009) .
Eastern's defense also held Montana to a 3-of-15 performance on third down.
"It was huge and that was a goal for us, but I still want to be better on third down offensively," Baldwin added. "But going into this game (improving on third down defense) was a team goal. Defensively it proved to be huge. At different times our defense was on the field and they had to keep making stops. That's the way a Montana-Eastern game might go. Sometimes it's a grind and defense and special teams are what makes the difference."