It's never easy in Bozeman, and it's never easy on the road.
Behind an offense that rolled up 490 yards of offense and a defense that pitched shutouts in the second and third quarters, fifth-ranked Eastern Washington University football team scored 20 unanswered points to win 34-17 at Montana State Saturday (Sept. 29) at Bobcat Stadium in Bozeman.
The offense got off to a fast start and the defense settled in after a shaky start in helping EWU improve to 4-1 on the season and 2-0 in the Big Sky Conference. Quarterback Gage Gubrud had 345 yards of total offense, and the defense held MSU scoreless for nearly 40 minutes after giving up 10 quick points.
The Eagles scored 20 unanswered points to take a 34-17 lead on a 57-yard touchdown run by Sam McPherson, his second of the day. Sixth-year senior Roldan Alcobendas kicked a pair of field goals and had four extra points to give him 244 points in his EWU career to establish a new school record for kick scoring points.
"Our players played their ever-living tails off today – on the road with a seven-hour bus ride," said Eastern head coach Aaron Best. "I can't say enough how proud I am of this bunch. I was excited for the fans who came to watch us and the fans who watched at home. This was a big victory for us."
The Eagles scored 17 points in the first 17 minutes of the game, but MSU scored 10 in its first two possessions and had 139 yards on 11 plays. After a two-play, 75-yard touchdown drive on its first possession, the Bobcats had a 10-play, 64 yard drive. But after that, Eastern held the Bobcats to 221 yards on 53 plays and just one more score– including a 38:49 scoreless stretch from the first quarter to the fourth period.
"I know we were sluggish early on defense, but they buckled down," added Best. "We held this team to 17 points, and that was impressive after what they did last week in Portland. I'm very proud of this team overall. It was very, very well-earned victory."
Eastern entered the game No. 5 in both the American Football Coaches Association Top 25 poll and the STATS poll of sportswriters, broadcasters and sports information directors. Montana State received enough votes to rank 27th and 26th, respectively.
Records & Rankings . . .
* Now 4-1 overall and 2-0 in the Big Sky in 2018, Eastern closed the 2017 season with a 7-4 record overall and was 6-2 in the Big Sky Conference in the first season under head coach Aaron Best. Last season was the 11th-straight season the Eagles have finished 5-3 or better in the Big Sky, with an 11th-straight winning season and 20th in the last 22 years. But winning a 10th Big Sky title and making a 13th appearance in the FCS Playoffs is the quest for the 2018 Eagles, who are hungry to make that happen.
* Montana State is now 3-2 overall and 1-1 in the Big Sky. Eastern is 32-10 all-time versus the Bobcats with a seven-game winning streak, but MSU has made steady progress under third-year head coach Jeff Choate. He had a 4-7 debut season, then was 5-6 last year that included a glossy 5-3 Big Sky Conference mark. This year, the Bobcats knocked off Western Illinois, Wagner and Portland State, and the lone loss was to South Dakota State -- the third-ranked team in the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision. The Bobcats finished fourth or better in the Big Sky Conference for 14-straight seasons from 2001-14.
What It Means . . .
* The victory was EWU's seventh-straight over MSU, its 14th in the last 16 meetings and improved EWU to 32-10 all-time versus MSU in a series that started in 1948. But Bobcat Stadium has always been a dangerous place to play. Best was a player in 1997 when EWU won the Big Sky Conference title and advanced to the semifinals of the NCAA Football Subdivision Playoffs, but lost 17-7 in Bozeman. He was an assistant coach in 2010 when EWU won the league and FCS championships, but fell 30-7 at Bobcat Stadium. Entering Saturday's game, Eastern had averaged 46.7 points and 577.4 yards per game in the last five meetings.
What's Next . . .
* The Eagles host Southern Utah this Saturday (Oct. 6) at 12:10 p.m. Pacific time on ROOT Sports in the first of two-straight Big Sky Conference games versus opponents EWU lost to last season. Eastern had a five-game winning streak going a year ago when it fell to the Thunderbirds 46-28 on the road, then the following week, Eastern fell at home to Weber State 28-20. Although EWU finished 7-4 overall and 6-2 in the Big Sky, the Eagles were passed over for the postseason while SUU, WSU and Northern Arizona all advanced to the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision Playoffs. Southern Utah had a bye last week, and is still looking for its first victory after losing three nonconference games and its league opener. The Thunderbirds fell to North Alabama (34-30), Oregon State (48-25) and Arizona (62-31) to open the year, then began Big Sky play with a loss at Northern Arizona (31-23). The EWU game will be SUU's fourth-straight road game after playing North Alabama at home. Looming ahead for EWU is the rematch with Weber State, which is 3-1 overall and 1-0 in the Big Sky following a bye week of its own. The Wildcats, who were ranked right behind EWU at sixth this week by STATS and seventh by the coaches, plays at Northern Arizona on Oct. 6 before hosting the Eagles.
Keys to Game . . .
* After a fast start, Montana State quarterback Troy Andersen was held in check for the final three quarters by the Eagle defense. He finished with 94 yards rushing and 156 through the air, but 83 of the passing yards and 35 of his yards on the ground came in MSU's first 11 plays. He came into the game averaging 105.8 yards rushing to rank 24th in FCS, but his 8.29 average per rush was eighth and his five rushing touchdowns are ninth. He entered averaging only 47.0 yards passing per game, but was coming off 318 yards of offense versus PSU with 211 rushing and 107 passing. Montana State finished that game with 323 yards and five TDs rushing in the 43-23 win, but with just 155 yards rushing versus the Eagles.
Turning Point . . .
*.Ahead just 17-10 late in the first half, Eastern opened a two touchdown lead thanks to the first two carries of the game by junior running back Tamarick Pierce. He started a two-play, 54-yard drive with a 34-yard run – more than double his previous career high of 15 yards – then drew a 12-yard personal foul penalty on MSU as well. He then capped the drive with a 12-yard scoring run to help give the Eagles a 24-10 lead at intermission.
Top Performers . . .
* Senior quarterback Gage Gubrud completed 27-of-41 passes for 311 yards. He also rushed for 34 yards as he finished with his 19th 300-yard passing performance in his career. He was held without a touchdown pass for just the second time in his career – the first time in an Eagle win – and remains with 87 in his career to rank third in in school history.
* Junior Jayce Gilder doubled his previous career high of two receptions by finishing with four catches for 41 yards against MSU. He is from Corvallis, Mont., and is just the 11th player in school history from that state to letter in football.
* Redshirt freshman Andrew Boston was one of four Eagle receivers with four catches apiece, finishing with 44 yards. Senior Nsimba Webster had four for a team-high 56 yards, and running back Antoine Custer also had four for 39 yards.
* Senior running back Sam McPherson scored on runs of 57 and 2 yards to finish with a team-high 74 yards on nine carries.
* Senior Ketner Kupp finished with seven tackles, with one for loss, and also had a pass broken up.
* Senior linebacker Kurt Calhoun added five tackles with a sack.
* Junior safety Dehonta Hayes had a career-high six tackles, eclipsing his previous high of five.
* Sixth-year senior kicker Roldan Alcobendas converted field goals of 24 and 25 yards to remain perfect on the season at 5-for-5. He also converted four extra points, and punted four times for a 46.8 average with a long of 60. Three of his punts were downed inside the MSU 20-yard line.
Key Stats . . .
* Walter Payton Award candidate Gage Gubrud accounted for 345 of EWU's 490 yards in the game, with 311 passing and 34 rushing. He did not have a TD pass for just the second time of his career (North Dakota State last year), and first time in an EWU victory. He did run for a 3-yard touchdown to open EWU's scoring. He went over the 10,000-yard mark in his career for total offense on Sept. 8 at Northern Arizona to become the fourth Eagle in school history to achieve that feat. Now he is just 26 yards from joining those same three players in the 10,000-yard passing club, with a current total of 9,984 in his career. His current total of 11,026 yards of offense to move into third in EWU history and rank 12th all-time in the Big Sky Conference. For passing, he still needs 713 yards to rank in the top 11 in the 55-year history of the league. Gubrud also has 87 touchdown passes in his 31-game career to move into third in school history past Erik Meyer (2002-05) with 84. There are no official lists for TD passes in the 55-year history of the league, but it's believed he's tied for eighth.
Other Team Highlights . . .
* Former four-time All-America wide receiver Cooper Kupp, coming off the best game of his NFL career with the Los Angeles Rams, attended the MSU game to watch his brother Ketner Kupp play. Cooper returned to a venue he caught nine passes for 152 yards and two touchdowns as a sophomore in 2014, and 13 for 154 and a score in his senior year in 2016. In all, Kupp caught 42 passes for 617 yards and seven touchdowns in four victories versus the Bobcats. It was the first time in the last two years with the Rams that Kupp was able to see the Eagles play. He caught nine passes for a career-high 162 yards and had the first two-touchdown day of his career. He had a 70-yard TD reception in the 38-31 victory, and has 24 catches for 348 yards and four touchdowns thus far for 4-0 Los Angeles.
* The Eagles have now won their four games this season by an average of 30.0 points per game. Eastern won its first two games by a combined 50 points – 58-13 over Central Washington and 31-26 one week later at Northern Arizona. Eastern then blasted Cal Poly 70-17 on Sept. 22. While Eastern was picked by both the coaches and media to win the league title, Montana State was slated to finish eighth in both.
* Eastern scored 17 points in the first 17 minutes of the game with touchdown drives of 75 and 74 yards, and a drive of 69 yards that ended with a record-breaking field goal by Roldan Alcobendas. His 24-yard field goal not only gave EWU a 17-10 lead, but it also put Alcobendas past the previous school record of 236 set by Mike Jarrett from 2008-11. Eastern had 225 yards of offense in those three drives, with Gubrud completing 12 of his first 16 passes for 173 yards.
Notables . . .
* Sixth-year senior kicker Roldan Alcobendas broke the school record for career kick scoring after entering the year as one of 34 placekickers nationwide to be named to the watch list for the 2018 Fred Mitchell Award. The recipient of the Fred Mitchell Award will be chosen at the end of the year based on excellence on the football field and in the community. In his 34-game career, Alcobendas has scored 244 points break the record previously held by Mike Jarrett (236 from 2008-11). Alcobendas has also established EWU career records for extra points made (169) and attempted (175), breaking the previous records held by Jarrett (2009-11) with 143 makes and 150 attempts. Alcobendas has made 25-of-36 field goals in his career to rank seventh in school history for both field goal attempts and made. In his career, he has 107 kickoffs for a 57.4 average (6,143 total yards) with 17 touchbacks.
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