Oct. 18, 2008
Fortunately for the Eastern Washington University football team, the Eagles didn’t start their upcoming bye at halftime.
Instead, the Eagles came alive in the second half to overcome 17-14 deficit and went on to defeat Montana State 34-17 in a Big Sky Conference game Saturday (Oct. 18) at Bobcat Stadium in Bozeman, Mont.
"Our defense played outstanding and kept us in the game," said first-year EWU head coach Beau Baldwin. "And offensively we never panicked -- our guys came together and made adjustments at halftime. We continued to stay the course against a good football team with a good defense. We knew that if we caught them in the right situations that eventually we were going to make some plays. I was proud with how we stayed with it."
Eastern out-gained the Bobcats 204-113 in the second half after MSU had a commanding 222-93 advantage in the first half.
"You are going to have halves like that, but it’s even more frustrating when you have an entire game like that the previous week," added Baldwin, whose team lost to Montana 19-3 on Oct. 11.
Reeling from a pair of losses that dropped the Eagles from a top 11 ranking in the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision to virtual elimination from the Big Sky title chase, Eastern snapped a two-game losing streak with the win. The Eagles, 3-4 overall and 2-2 in the league, have been hit hard in the last three month by injuries, particularly at middle linebacker, cornerback, receiver and on special teams.
With a much-needed week off upcoming for the injury-depleted Eagles, Eastern scored 21 points off four MSU turnovers in the game as record-breaking Greg Peach and former Bobcat Ryan Kelley provided some of the biggest plays. And Eastern’s offense did its part, scoring the first three times it had the ball in the second half after picking up just three first downs and 93 yards in the first 20 minutes.
"Coming into this game we were just looking for a victory to stay alive," said Peach. "Our whole team came together -- special teams included. We came in and fought -- the defense was doing alright but our special teams were keeping us in it. In the second half, the offense kicked it in gear like I know they can."
Peach had three of Eastern’s five sacks Saturday, giving him 14 this season and a school-record 31 1/2 in his career. He broke the previous career record of 30 set by Frank Staudenraus (1982-85), who also holds the single season record with 15 in 1985.
"Greg is just relentless," said Baldwin. "He practices hard and he keeps coming, keeps coming, keeps coming. He plays through pain every game and he doesn’t stop. He doesn’t take any plays off. He’s earned that record."
Kelley had a pair of interceptions, including one he returned 37 yards for a first-half score. He played at MSU in 2004 and 2005 before transferring to San Mateo Junior College in California. He had just two interceptions in the first 18 games of his EWU career, but duplicated that in the first 25 minutes of his return trip to Bozeman.
"It was awesome to see those two interceptions," said Baldwin. "He has gotten better the last few weeks, and he and our defense has made a lot of improvements."
Eastern finished with 297 yards of offense in the game, compared to 335 for the Bobcats, who had four turnovers to EWU’s one. Eastern was 6-of-8 on third downs in the second half after going 0-of-8 in the first half.
Quarterback Matt Nichols completed 20-of-31 passes for 189 yards and a pair of touchdowns to Aaron Boyce and Brynsen Brown. Boyce finished with six catches for 66 yards and Brown had six for 79. A.J Jimerson added 58 rushing yards.
Eastern now receives a much-needed bye week prior to playing its final four games of the regular season in November. Eastern has Homecoming on Nov. 1 against Sacramento State, followed by a road game at Northern Colorado on Nov. 8. The Eagles close the season against two of the Big Sky’s top teams -- Northern Arizona at home on Nov. 15 and at Weber State on Nov. 22. Both the Lumberjacks and Wildcats are nationally-ranked.
"They bye week comes at a really good time, in my opinion," said Baldwin. "We’ll get some players healthy and guys ready for those last four games. But ultimately, every one of those final four games are going to be difficult. It won’t be a lot different than today. All four of those teams that we are playing are going to be tough."
The Bobcats, who lost to the Eagles for the sixth-straight time, are 3-4 on the season and 1-2 in the conference. Eastern has pretty much had its way with the Bobcats in the 32-game history of the series with a 24-8 record overall. The Eagles are 13-5 in Bozeman, 10-3 at home and 1-0 at neutral sites, and EWU has won 15 of the last 18 meetings.
Eastern scored first, capitalizing on a forced fumble by Nicholas Ramos on a MSU punt return deep in its own territory. Eagle Bobby Gentry returned the fumble 10 yards to the Bobcat 1-yard line, and Nichols punched it in to give EWU an early lead with 1:44 left in the first quarter.
Montana State knotted it in the second quarter on a two-play, 52-yard drive after a Nichols interception. Three minutes later, Eastern re-gained the lead on Kelley’s second interception of the day, a pick he returned 37 yards for a score.
The Bobcats knotted it at 14 with a 61-yard drive prior to intermission and dominated the first-half statistics. Montana State had 222 yards of offense compared to 93 for the Eagles. Eastern had only three first downs and was 0-of-8 on third downs. Eastern’s longest offensive drive of the first half was 32 yards -- MSU had four of at least 44 yards.
Montana State started the second half with a 62-yard drive to take a 17-14 lead with a field goal, but Eastern countered with its best drive of the day to regain a 20-17 advantage. With Nichols completing 5-of-7 passes for 50 yards, EWU’s 60-yard drive was capped by an 18-yard touchdown catch by Aaron Boyce.
Eastern scored again on a 78-yard drive on its next possession, capped by a 3-yard run by Alexis Alexander. After a MSU fumble was recovered by Eastern, the Eagles took a 34-17 lead with 11:40 left on a 25-yard pass from Nichols to Brown.