Oct. 13, 2007
There was concern but no panic when Eastern Washington University quarterback Matt Nichols left the game with an injury in the second quarter Saturday (Oct. 13) at Woodward Field in Cheney, Wash.
But it was only a scare as the sophomore quarterback returned from a stomach contusion to throw for 257 yards and three touchdowns to help the Eagles pull away from 11th-ranked Montana State for a 35-13 Big Sky Conference football victory.
The victory evens Eastern's conference record at 2-2 and gives the Eagles a 4-2 record heading into next week's non-conference game at BYU. Eastern had lost its last two games by a combined total of eight points -- 24-23 to top-ranked Montana on Oct. 6 and 28-21 to Portland State on Sept. 29. Montana State had its four-game winning streak snapped and fell to 4-2 on the season and 2-1 in conference play.
Nichols, who passed for 451 yards a week earlier, left the game in the second quarter with Eastern trailing 10-7. But his backup, junior Alex Smart, engineered a 71-yard scoring drive and tossed the touchdown pass that gave Eastern the lead for good.
"The second half our kids played real well and I'm really happy about that," said Eagle head coach Paul Wulff, whose team has won the last five meetings against the Bobcats. "I think we were a little uneasy when Matt went down, but things happen. We settled in and played a lot better in the second half."
Nichols led Eastern's offense, completing 15-of-24 passes a week after throwing 59 times at Montana in a 24-23 loss. He finished with 300 yards of total offense as the Eagles rushed for an additional 183 yards en route to a 475-yard day on offense. He had 203 yards of offense in the second half alone, and was not sacked in the second half after getting sacked twice in the first half.
"We had to settle him down at halftime," said Wulff. "I am really proud of him because he came back and played well in the second half after being rattled physically. He ran the ball effectively to get us some key first downs and he was accurate, so he did a really good job."
Smart was 2-of-3 for 35 yards on the decisive drive in the second quarter. His 13-yard touchdown pass to senior tight end Tom McAndrews gave EWU a 14-10 lead with 10:08 in the second quarter.
"That was a great drive," said Wulff. "We ran the ball well and that kind of kept Alex in the flow and he made a couple of nice throws. That says a lot about our team -- we have two players that can definitely step in and lead us against good quality opponents, score points and win games."
Eastern's defense held MSU to a just a field goal in the second half, and chased MSU starting quarterback Jack Rolovich from the game in the third quarter with a shoulder injury. Rolovich had passed for 251 yards and a touchdown, but Eastern held MSU to just a field goal in the second half.
The Eagles allowed MSU just 315 yards of offense and had five sacks, and held the Bobcats to just 22 yards of rushing.
Eastern defensive Tackle Lance Witherspoon, who missed one full game and parts of two others with a high ankle sprain, returned to his starting position to register a team-high 10 tackles. He had one sack for a loss of eight yards, and three other tackles for loss totaling 10 yards.
Linebacker Makai Borden, who also missed a game and parts of two others with an injury (toe), added six tackles. He had an interception on third down in Eastern's end zone to thwart a MSU drive.
"It's nice to have Lance back -- we have missed him for awhile now and it hurts our defense not having him," said Wulff of the junior from Federal Way, Wash. "Having him back, we are a better defense."
Besides the efforts of Nichols and Smart, Eastern had plenty of contributions on offense. Receiver Aaron Boyce, coming off a 17-catch, 232-yard performance against Montana that earned him Sports Network National Offensive Player of the Week honors, caught five passes for 126 yards. Dale Morris rushed for 59 yards and a touchdown on 16 carries, and Alexis Alexander and A.J. Jimerson added 32 and 30 yards, respectively, on the ground.
Jimerson, a junior fullback filling in for the injured Toke Kefu, scored the first touchdown of his Eastern career with a 5-yard pass from Nichols in the first quarter. Freshman tight end Matt Martin also had his first career TD with a 20-yard catch from Nichols in the third quarter that gave Eastern a 21-13 lead with 5:54 left in the period.
Morris scored on a 2-yard run late in the third quarter and Alexander scored on a 22-yard pass from Nichols with 8:19 left in he game as EWU scored the final 21 points of the afternoon.
"That's what we always strive to have," said Wulff of his team's offensive execution. "We felt that if we executed well we could move and score points on this defense even though they have only allowed two touchdowns the last four games. We put up five today and we just felt we could do that if we executed and played the way we are capable of."
Montana State had entered the game ranked fourth in the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision in pass efficiency defense, allowing opponents just 195.4 yards per game and ranking 11th nationally with 10 interceptions. The Bobcats were ninth in scoring defense (14.6 per game) and 44th in total defense (340.4), having allowed opponents just two touchdowns in the last four games and just two touchdowns passing the entire year.
Eastern's offense entered the game third in FCS in total offense (489.0) and fifth in passing offense (322.2). However, Eastern scored just 23 points against UM and 21 points a week earlier against Portland State to fall to rank just 21st in scoring (34.2).