It was a turnover turnaround for the Eastern Washington University football team.
After nearly giving away the lead with fumbles on back-to-back possessions, the defense for No. 10/9 Eagles did the same moments later to help preserve a 31-19 EWU victory over Montana State Saturday (Oct. 14) at Roos Field in Cheney, Wash.
It was the fourth Big Sky Conference win in four tries this season for the Eagles, who have now won 12-straight league games and have had 23 consecutive regular season sellouts at "The Inferno." A crowd of 11,301 – the fifth-most in school history – were on hand for the game.
Sophomore running back Antoine Custer Jr. rushed for a career-high 147 yards and two touchdowns and junior quarterback Gage Gubrud had 227 passing yards and a TD. But the difference was turnovers, as EWU ended up with four takeaways – including two in the red zone -- and three giveaways, and are now 40-0 since 2010 when they've won the turnover battle.
White the Eagles finished with 451 yards of total offense, Eastern's defense held MSU to 353 yards. Although there were no lead changes, the game featured runs of 10 and 14 consecutive points by Eastern, and a run of 12 points by MSU.
Although the Eagles had three turnovers themselves that turned into seven MSU points, Eastern's Keenan Williams recovered a fumble with 8:52 to play and Victor Gamboa had an interception with 2:01 remaining to turn the tide in EWU's favor. Montana State's first three fumbles in the game were turned into 17 Eagle points, including a nearly six minute touchdown drive that clinched the win in the fourth quarter for EWU.
"I'm really excited how our team battled," said Eastern head coach Aaron Best. "There have been games in our seven-game season we've been up, we've been down and we've been tied. That's going to make us better as we forge ahead for our final push of the season."
Records . . .
* Eastern is now 5-2 overall and 4-0 in the Big Sky Conference, winning its 12th-straight conference game.
* The Bobcats are one of many much-improved teams in the Big Sky, and now own a 2-4 record overall and 2-2 Big Sky mark. In playing the No. 10/9 Eagles, the Bobcats faced their fifth ranked opponent in six games this season.
What It Means . . .
* The Eagles remain on top at 4-0 in the Big Sky Conference standings, just ahead of Northern Arizona at 3-0 and Weber State (2-0 entering action on Saturday). The Eagles have won 44 of their last 50 Big Sky games since a 0-2 start in 2011. Eastern has won 34 of its last 38 league games, with the lone losses coming against Montana and Portland State in 2015 and Northern Arizona in both 2015 and 2014. An Oct. 25, 2014, loss at Northern Arizona snapped EWU's school-record 14-game conference winning streak and a home loss against the Lumberjacks on Nov. 7, 2015, ended a streak of eight Big Sky wins in a row. Including non-conference victories (two versus MSU and one against Cal Poly) and a playoff win (Montana), the Eagles have won 38 of their last 42 versus conference foes, and are 48-6 since the 0-2 start in 2011.
What's Next . . .
* Eastern continues Big Sky Conference play on the road, traveling to Cedar City, Utah, for a 4 p.m. match-up with the Thunderbirds on Oct. 21. The game will be Eastern's first-ever game televised by Eleven Sports (www.elevensports.com), with national and international coverage provided by the London-based network. Southern Utah is 3-2 overall and 1-1 in the league heading into its game at Weber State on Oct. 14. The Thunderbirds beat teams from the Southland (Stephen F. Austin, 51-14) and No. 18 Northern Iowa (24-21) in the preseason, and opened Big Sky play with a loss to Sacramento State (54-27) and win over Cal Poly (20-14).
Keys to Game . . .
* Eastern held the Bobcats to 353 yards of total offense, including 218 rushing and 135 passing. Bobcat quarterback Chris Murray had a 54-yard touchdown run, but finished with only 88 rushing yards and 135 through the air. Thus, outside his long run, he averaged only 4.7 yards per play. Murray, the Big Sky Conference Freshman of the Year last season, entered the game with a team-leading 543 yards (108.6 per game to lead the league) and three touchdowns, and had passed for another 646 and eight scores. The Bobcats entered 10th in FCS in rushing, averaging 250.6 yards per game.
Top Performers . . .
* Sophomore running back Antoine Custer Jr. had a career-best 147 rushing yards and two touchdowns. It was the second 100-yard game of his career, eclipsing the 141 he had as a true freshman in 2016 against Idaho State.
* Junior quarterback Gage Gubrud improved his record as Eastern's starter to 16-4. He completed his first 16 passes as he finished 25-of-31 for 224 yards and a touchdown. He also rushed for 21 net yards despite getting sacked four times, two ending on lost fumbles. Entering Saturday's game, Gubrud ranked first in FCS in total passing yards (2,188), touchdowns (19), points responsible for (146) and points responsible for per game (24.3), and is second in passing yards per game (364.7). He had only one TD pass in his first two games, but has had 19 in the five games since. He is also third in total offense per game (378.3). A year ago he led FCS in both passing and total offense a year ago 368.6 and 411.0, respectively).
* Junior wide receiver Nsimba Webster caught a team-high six passes for 46 yards and a touchdown. He entered the game ranked 15th in FCS in receptions (6.7) and 34th in yards (81.3)
* Senior Nic Sblendorio added four receptions for 38 yards, and had entered the game fourth in FCS in receptions with an average of 8.0 catches per game (48 total) and 35th in yards (77.8 per game).
* Junior linebacker Ketner Kupp had the fifth double-figure tackle performance of his career, finishing with 12.
* Junior defensive end Keenan Williams finished with nine tackles, a key fumble recovery in the fourth quarter and a quarterback hurry. That performance came after back-to-back weeks in which he had a career highs for tackles with 12 (UC Davis) and 10 (Sacramento State).
* Junior safety Mitch Fettig had nine tackles, having entered the game with a team-leading total of 58. His average of 9.7 tackles per game ranked 26th nationally and seventh in the Big Sky.
* Junior linebacker Kurt Calhoun added seven tackles and a fumble recovery, and sophomore Tysen Prunty also had seven stops with a pass broken up. He was making the first start of his career as an injury replacement at safety.
* Cornerback Victor Gamboa made his 2017 debut for EWU, and finished with an interception, a tackle for loss and three total tackles.
Key Stats . . .
* The Bobcats were just 7-of-16 on third down, but kept drives alive by converting 5-of-6 fourth downs. The Eagles were 11-of-14 on third down and converted their only fourth-down attempt, en route to a 451-353 advantage in total offense. Eastern entered the game averaging better than 600 yards of offense in its last four outings, and entered ranked in the top seven in FCS in both passing and total offense. Eastern was second in passing (374.0 per game) and seventh in total offense (487.3), and is also 16th in scoring (36.7).
Turning Point . . .
* Trailing just 24-19 in the fourth quarter, Montana State recovered its second EWU fumble within a 2 1/2 minute span in the fourth quarter, taking over at the EWU 25 yard line. However, two plays later, the Bobcats fumbled and Keenan Williams recovered for EWU with 8:52 to play in the game. The Eagles turned that into a 13-play, 78-yard TD drive that took 5:43 off the clock, capped by a 3-yard touchdown run by Antoine Custer Jr. During the drive, the Eagles converted a third-and-26 with a 22-yard pass by Gage Gubrud to Talolo Limu-Jones and Gubrud's 7-yard scamper on fourth down.
Other Team Highlights . . .
* The Eagles took a 17-7 halftime lead, helped by early scoring drives of 64 and 75 yards. Montana State's Chris Murray had only 35 yards on his first six passes (1-of-6) and six rushes in the first 24 minutes of the game, but followed with a 54-yard rushing TD with 5:55 left in the third quarter to cut EWU's lead to 10-7. But Eastern responded with a 10-play, 82-yard touchdown drive, which featured 36 yards rushing and 31 yards passing. Capped by a 1-yard TD pass from Gage Gubrud to Nsimba Webster with just 2:41 left in the half, the drive included a 15-yard MSU personal foul penalty. Eastern led 24-7 in the third quarter on an 83-yard drive, capped by a 23-yard TD run by Sam McPherson.
Notables . . .
* In the last nine-plus seasons, the Eagles are now 49-1 when they've won the turnover battle, 21-6 when they've been tied and 20-27 when they've lost (total of 90-34). The last time EWU lost when it won the turnover battle came in the 2009 FCS Playoffs at Stephen F. Austin when EWU had two miscues and forced four in the 44-33 loss. Thus, EWU is 40-0 since 2010 when they've won the turnover battle, 18-5 when they've been tied and 18-20 when they've lost. That's a collective record of 76-25 (75 percent), with 20 of those 25 losses (80 percent) coming in games EWU has lost the turnover battle and 53 percent of EWU's wins coming when they've won the turnover battle (76 percent when including ties).
Head Coach Aaron Best Comments . . .
On Win: "They are always hard-fought, not matter if it's home or away. The second half offensively we didn't get the ball very often, and the defense was out there quite a bit. We didn't do a good job of keeping possession of the ball, and gave one up on special teams. That started giving them the momentum, and they were one score away. But we got a big one that Keenan Williams recovered to get us back on track. We took what they gave us on offense, and in those games where we don't have a ton of possessions, we want to make sure we are meticulous. We have to kind of grind it out, which we did."
On Four Takeaways, Including Two in the Red Zone: "They are huge, huge. Turnovers in the red one are really just one turnover, they are almost worth one-and-a-half. They are worth a lot, especially when you talk about flipping the field."
On Montana State: "We withstood a few storms and made things interesting. There was no quit in the 'Cats – that is a quality team coached by a quality coaching staff. They are good for a reason. It's only the second year of (Jeff) Choate's tenure, but he has them going the right direction. We just happened to make a few more plays today."
On Rushing: "The one thing we would like to take away in the running game were the negative yards that came on the sacks. That led to second and really, really long. A few times they got us, and the credit goes to Montana State for kind of winning that chess match. We overcame the sacks a few times, and that last series was probably the biggest of all. We faced a third-and-26 but got us into a manageable fourth-and-4, and then we moved the sticks to ice the game. Those are big things that are kind of gut punches. We're in attack mode no matter what quarter it is or how much time is left in the game."
On Big Plays: "Great players make great plays in big situations. The last time I checked, all these games are big. It doesn't have to be home, away, conference or non-conference, you only get 11 guaranteed games so they are all big. The standard is to make big plays in big situations and that's what Gage did. He took it on himself to pack the ball in a passing situation and move the sticks. He got us another set of downs."