The way Montana had gouged Eastern Washington University for the better part of the second half, this one will go down as the mother of all rallies.
Scoring two touchdowns in the final 2:19, the No. 7 Eagles rallied for a 32-26 victory over 21st-ranked Montana Grizzlies Saturday (Sept. 29) at Roos Field in Cheney, Wash. The two scores, aided by a successful onside kick, came within two minutes of each other.
“It was a wild finish and our guys just kept believing,” said Eastern head coach Beau Baldwin. “We have been in similar situations -- and a lot of guys out there on the field have been in similar situations. You have to keep believing. Montana was taking it to us in the second half. Absolutely taking it to us.”
The Eagles allowed 407 rushing yards, and at one point in the second half had 169 total yards compared to a minus-4 for EWU. But Eastern put together an 82-yard scoring drive to pull within two points on a 30-yard touchdown pass from Vernon Adams to Brandon Kaufman. After Shaquille Hill successfully recovered an onside kick for the Eagles, Eastern scored again on a 20-yard TD pass from Adams to Ashton Clark with 53 seconds to play.
Adams completed 25-of-41 passes for 353 yards and three touchdowns in his second career start for EWU, and also added a team-leading 54 yards rushing. He overcame an interception and a fumble in the fourth quarter to become one of several heroes for the Eagles.
“He’s a freshmen playing football for the first time in college -- you are going to go through highs and lows,” Baldwin said. “I see sophomore, junior, even senior quarterbacks sometimes go through low and high moments. That’s the way football works.
“The best thing he did was when he came to the sideline, he didn’t pout or slam his helmet. He just kept saying we are going to get another shot. Even if we had come up short, the guys carried the same attitude the entire time. That always gives you a shot. One of our mottos is ‘panic will always end in defeat,’ but as long as you don’t panic, you give yourself a shot.”
Kaufman finished with eight catches for 138 yards and a pair of scores as he had his fifth-straight 100-yard receiving game. Clark, taking the place of injured All-American Nicholas Edwards, added six grabs for 89 yards.
The Eagles, ranked seventh in this week’s Sports Network NCAA Football Championship Subdivision Top 25 poll, are 3-1 overall and 2-0 in the Big Sky Conference. The Grizzlies fell to 2-3 overall and are 0-2 in the Big Sky Conference for the first time since 1992. A week ago after losing at home to Northern Arizona, the Grizzlies fell from 14th to 21st in the Sports Network poll.
Montana rushed 61 times and had three players with 95 yards or more. The 407 yards were the most against the Eagles since Southern Utah rushed for 535 yards in the final game of the 1998 season.
Four Eagles finished in double figures in tackles, including linebackers Ronnie Hamlin (14), Grant Williams (13) and Tyler Washburn (12). Safety Allen Brown had 11 stops, and redshirt freshman Jordan Tonani added eight tackles after starter Jeff Minnerly broke his collarbone on EWU’s first defensive series.
Eastern scored the first time it had the ball on an eight-play, 75-yard scoring drive, then led 14-7 on Kaufman’s 36-yard TD reception from Adams. The two teams traded field goals and EWU entered halftime with a 17-10 lead.
Montana took command in the second half with a pair of touchdowns, and out-gained EWU 126 to minus-4 in the third quarter alone.
“Montana got us out of a certain rhythm, but our team just stayed with it,” Baldwin added. “They felt like if we made a few more plays, we could give ourselves a chance. We were close a couple of those drives, but instead had turnovers. In the end, we were able to make a play or two more.”
Momentum appeared to turn early in the fourth quarter when Hamlin forced a fumble at the EWU 5-yard line that was recovered by teammate Evan Day. Adams drove EWU 45 yards to the Montana 38, but he threw an interception that led to a Montana field goal and 26-17 lead.
Adams fumbled with 7:32 to play, but that resulted in a UM punt to set the stage for a final flurry for the Eagles. In the final quarter alone, Adams was 13-of-21 for 171 yards and a pair of scores. Clark had four catches and Kaufman had three in the period, as Kaufman moved into ninth in school history with 152 catches and seventh in career yards with 2,435.
“Kaufman is an amazing player and he should be on Montana’s mind,” said Baldwin. “He is one of those guys that will open up opportunities for other players on the team at times, which he was able to do. When he was in those one-on-one situations, he made plays. It was exciting.
“Ashton has done a great job, and Greg Herd made great plays,” Baldwin added. “Obviously Brandon Kaufman was great, but a number of players made a lot of huge plays. For Ashton to go catch the game winner off Vernon’s scramble is fitting. That guy works really hard and he sometimes does not get a lot of attention. But he doesn’t care. He is not that way, but he deserves it tonight. He is a good one and he is a hard worker.”
The game was Eastern’s home opener -- EWU’s latest home start since 1981. The game also marked the debut of a new scoreboard and videoboard at The Inferno, two years after the Eagles unveiled their new red Sprinturf surface at Roos Field in a 36-27 victory over UM. The “men in black” also played in new black helmets Saturday, to go along with black pants and black jerseys.
Collectively, Eastern and Montana have won a trio of NCAA Division I football titles, and have made 31 total appearances in the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision Playoffs. Eastern won the national title in 2010, and have been to the playoffs in 1985, 1992, 1997, 2004, 2005, 2007, 2009 and 2010. The Grizzlies, however, have been to the playoffs a FCS record 23 times, with national titles in 1995 and 2001.