In defensive battle, Eagles fall to 0-3 heading into home opener next week against Montana State at the Inferno
A road breakthrough just wasn’t in the works for the Eastern Washington University football team.
Falling on the road for the third time in as many weeks, Eastern Washington fell to Montana 17-14 Saturday (Sept. 17) in a defensive battle in the Big Sky Conference opener for both schools at Washington-Grizzly Stadium in Missoula, Mont.,
Montana’s John Kanagata’a intercepted a pass with 25 seconds to play to preserve Montana’s victory in front of a record crowd of 26,066 – the 12th-largest crowd to ever watch an EWU football game. The 10th-ranked Eagles out-gained the 12th-ranked Grizzlies 376-350, but fell a few plays short of notching a victory. Eastern held Montana scoreless for UM’s last five possessions, but EWU was scoreless in its last three.
“When all was said and done, they just made a few more plays than we did,” said Eastern head coach Beau Baldwin. “Our defense stepped up and did some great things to keep us in it. Sometimes you get into that type of game against Montana – they also have a great defense with 10 seniors. So it didn’t surprise me that we were in a little bit of a battle and grinder. We just have to find a way to get another score on the board.”
Following its third-straight road game to begin the season, EWU finally plays its home opener next Saturday (Sept. 24) at 4:05 p.m. Pacific time against fellow defending league co-champion Montana State. The fifth-ranked Bobcats are now 2-1 after having easily defeated UC Davis 38-14 (Sept. 10) and Minot State 43-7 (Sept. 17) in its past two outings.
Eastern, the defending NCAA Division I National Champions, are now 0-3 this season with eight games left on its schedule – four of them at home. Montana, meanwhile, is 2-1.
Montana has won 90 percent of its games at Washington-Grizzly Stadium – an impressive record of 165-21 -- since it opened in 1987. Eastern has won four of the 12 meetings there, with victories in 2005, 1997, 1992 and 1990.
“We played a great team on the road – there is a reason they have the home record that they do,” added Baldwin. “It’s a tough place to play.”
Senior quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell, the FCS leader in passing offense (421.0) entering the UM game, was 26-of-49 for 237 yards against UM. His first six passes of the game fell incomplete, and he didn’t have a touchdown pass until 10:32 remained in the game. He also had two interceptions.
True freshman running back Jordan Talley rushed for 102 yards and caught seven passes for 24 more yards for the Eagles. Eastern finished with a season-high 139 rushing yards after finishing with only 31 against Washington and just 11 versus South Dakota.
However, the Grizzlies rushed for 316 as a team, led by quarterback Jordan Johnson with 102, including a 44-yard run to set-up Montana’s first score. Against South Dakota, the Eagles allowed Dante Warren to scramble his way to 59 yards on the ground.
Eastern offensive line continues to be decimated by injuries, with starting guards Steven Forgette (broken fibula) and Jase Butorac (knee sprain) suffering injuries against Montana. Butorac was already taking the place of Ashton Miller, who was lost for the season with a ruptured Achilles tendon in EWU’s opener against Washington.
Eastern pulled former offensive lineman Brandon Murphy away from the defensive line to fill-in for Butorac. Tackle Will Post (ankle), who missed EWU’s first two games, fortunately returned to play versus the Grizzlies.
“Our guys were just scrapping and trying to find a way,” explained Baldwin of fighting through the injuries. “It’s hard when you come up a little bit short. But that’s part of the game, and you just have to keep coming back and fight.”
The Eagles dug themselves an early hold for the second week in a row when Montana took a 10-0 lead 11 1/2 minutes into the game. A week earlier in a 30-17 loss at South Dakota, EWU fell behind 21-0. Eastern’s first and only lead of the season came in the first half by a 10-7 score against Washington on Sept. 3 in a 30-27 loss.
Eastern out-gained Montana in total offense 212-204 in the first half, but all EWU had to show for it was field goals of 41 and 42 yards by Mike Jarrett. The senior kicked the go-ahead points with four seconds left in EWU’s home win over the Grizzlies last season.
Jarrett’s second field goal – the last play of the first half -- came after an interception by T.J. Lee, who returned it 46 yards to the Montana 43-yard line. That came just moments after Eastern had a first-and goal from the Montana 1-yard line – a possession that ended when Mitchell’s TD pass attempt on fourth down was intercepted by Mike McCord and returned 78 yards.
The game became a defensive battle in the second half, but Montana managed to put together a drive and take a 17-10 advantage. Eastern finally scored its first touchdown with 10:32 left in the game on a 4-yard TD pass from Mitchell to Nicholas Edwards, capping 10-play, 76-yard drive. Edwards also gathered in a pass on the two-point conversion attempt and EWU pulled within 17-14.
But Eastern was able to get just two first downs on its next three possessions, with those ending in a punt, downs and the final interception. Edwards finished with 96 yards on five receptions, while Greg Herd caught six passes for 60 yards and Brandon Kaufman had five grabs for just 27 yards.
Linebacker Zach Johnson led the defense with 13 tackles and his twin brother Matt Johnson had nine. Linebacker Ronnie Hamlin, making the first start of his career, finished with seven stops and defensive end Anthony Larry had EWU’s lone sack.
It was 10th time in the last 16 meetings that both teams entered their matchup nationally ranked, but the first time in those 10 meetings that Eastern was rated higher than UM. Eastern was 10th and Montana 12th in The Sports Network/Fathead.com FCS Top 25 poll. The Eagles held the No. 1 position for the first two weeks of 2011, as well as the polls at the end of the 2010 regular season and postseason.
Last year, Montana finished 7-4 overall and 5-3 in the Big Sky, and failed to advance to the FCS Playoffs for the first time since 1993. The Grizzlies also had their 12-year run of winning or sharing the Big Sky title snapped when the Eagles and Montana State were co-champions.
Eastern pulled out a dramatic 36-27 victory over the Grizzlies last Sept. 18 in the debut of Eastern’s new red Sprinturf surface at the “Inferno” at newly-renamed Roos Field. But that was only EWU’s 11th win in 37 all-time games versus the Grizzlies, who had won 14 of the previous 17 meetings until that Eagle victory. Eastern hasn’t had a two-game winning streak versus Montana since 1990-92 when the Eagles won three-straight.