It was all about opportunity in the Big Sky Conference opener for the Eagles and Grizzlies, and the Eagles took advantage in the second half.
The 11th-ranked Eastern Washington University football team scored 42 second-half points to rally from a 24-6 halftime deficit and opened the 2017 Big Sky Conference season with a 48-41 victory over Montana Saturday (Sept. 23) at Washington-Grizzly Stadium in Missoula, Montana.
Eastern has now won 19 games since 2010 when trailing or tied in the fourth quarter. Aaron Best became the first head coach in school history to beat the Grizzlies in his first try.
"I'm just so happy for our players for overcoming so much," said Best. "We had guys going down with cramps, we had turnovers and penalties, and didn't have great results in the first 30 minutes. But in the next 30 minutes it was like we tore a mask off and we were a whole new team.
Junior quarterback Gage Gubrud broke his own school record with a 549-yard passing performance, finishing with four touchdowns through the air and one on the ground. His 560 yards of offense were also a record, as he eclipsed his own previous records of 520 passing and 551 total yards. The 549 team passing yards were also a school record, breaking the previous mark of 526 set in 2015 versus Northern Iowa.
Senior wide receiver Nic Sblendorio had the second-best receiving performance in Eagle history with 18 catches, good for a career-high 189 yards. He had tie-breaking 3-yard TD pass from Gubrud with 6:53 left to cap a 58-yard drive to give the Eagles a 41-34 lead. Eastern expanded it to 48-34 on a 10-yard TD run by Antoine Custer Jr. with 2:12 to play.
Defense did its part by recording three key stops in the fourth quarter. Montana punted on the first, then EWU's Nzuzi Webster had the tackle on a fourth-down play with 4:54 remaining. After Eastern took the lead for good, the defense followed with another fourth-down stop with inside of three minutes left.
Two touchdowns in a 27-second span in the third quarter knotted the game at 24 after Eastern's first 10 possessions yielded just 13 points. Those 10 possessions included seven trips inside the Montana 25-yard line for the Eagles. Drives of 69 by the Grizzlies and 73 by the Eagles knotted the game once again at 34 with 9:37 to play.
"We dominated the second half and that was fun to see," added Best. "When they completed that hail mary pass (at the end of the first half) there was a lot of wind that went out of our sails. We talked at halftime that one play doesn't define a game. We executed immensely well in the second half and I'm proud of our team. Very proud."
Records . . .
* The Eagles are 2-2 overall and 1-0 in the Big Sky, and Montana is also 2-2 overall and 0-1 in the league. Last week, while Montana was thumping Savannah State 56-3 to improve to 2-1 on the season, Eastern picked up its first victory on Sept. 16 by dominating Fordham 56-21 in the Bronx, New York. The Eagles rolled up its seventh-most yards in school history with 650, while registering a school-record 10 sacks on defense to hold the Rams to 217 total yards.
What It Means . . .
* Both the Eagles and Grizzlies will be championship contenders in the Big Sky in the 2017 season after combining for 1,155 yards of offense. North Dakota, which shared the league title with Eastern last year with perfect 8-0 records, was the preseason pick to win the league title but fell to Montana State Saturday.
What's Next . . .
* Eastern plays its conference home opener on Sept. 30 versus Sacramento State (2-9/2-6) on Hall of Fame Day at EWU. Eastern plays at UC Davis (3-8/2-6) on Oct. 7, then hosts rival Montana State (4-7/2-6) on Oct. 14.
Keys to Game . . .
* In the second half, Eastern scored on touchdowns on five of its six possessions. Eastern was also able to move the ball down the field in the first half, but had trouble poking the ball into the end zone. In the team's first 10 possessions, seven times the Eagles were inside the Grizzly 25-yard line, but came away with just 13 points. Two of those resulted in missed field goals of 40 and 48 yards, and makes of 39 and 23.
Top Performers . . .
* Junior quarterback Gage Gubrud completed 44-of-65 passes for 549 yards, four touchdowns and 11 rushing yards. It was the 13th 300-yard performance of Gubrud's 21-game Eastern career, his seventh of at least 400 yards and second with 500. His previous school record was 520 against Montana State last season, and the previous record for total offense was 551 set in an upset victory over Washington State in the first start of his career a year ago.
* Senior wide receiver Nic Sblendorio had a career-high 18 catches – second-best in school history -- good for a career-high 189 yards. It was the third performance of his career of at least 100 yards receiving, and was just two catches from the school record of 20 set by Cooper Kupp in 2015 versus Northern Colorado.
* Sophomore wide receiver/returner Dre' Sonte Dorton had his second-straight game of at least 150 all-purpose yards, finishing with 174. He caught two passes for 40 yards and a TD, and had five kickoff returns for 134 yards. He had a momentum-turning 51-yard return to open the second half. Entering the game, Dorton has averaged 29.5 yards on four returns to rank eighth in the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision, while the team was 20th at 25.2 per return.
* Junior wide receiver Nsimba Webster also had a career high for catches, finishing with 13 for 143 yards. It was his first 100-yard receiving performance of his career.
* Sophomore running back Antoine Custer Jr. had 43 net rushing yards and a touchdown.
* Sophomore defensive nose tackle Dylan Ledbetter had a sack, giving him three for the season.
* Senior defensive end Albert Havili had a half-sack, giving him 4.0 for the season. He entered the game ranked 17th nationally and first in the league with an average of 1.17 per game.
* Junior safety Mitch Fettig had 13 tackles to lead the Eagle defense. He entered the game with a team-leading total of 26 in EWU's first three games.
* Junior linebacker Ketner Kupp missed EWU's first three games with a sprained ankle, but finished with 10 in his 2017 debut.
Key Stats . . .
* After getting out-gained 307-220 in the first half, the Eagles had a dominating 259-68 advantage in the third quarter. The Eagles finished with 617 yards – 16th-most in school history – while Montana finished with 538.
Turning Point . . .
* Eastern opened the third quarter with a 51-yard kickoff return by Dre' Sonte Dorton, and that led to EWU's first touchdown drive of the day. But the Eagles needed eight plays to go 36 yards, capped by a 2-yard touchdown pass from Gage Gubrud to Sam McPherson. Eastern converted a pair of third downs on the drive after going 4-of-10 in the first half.
Other Team Highlights . . .
* After a Montana field goal gave the Eagles a 27-13 advantage, Eastern scored two touchdowns within a 27-second span to knot the game at 24-all. A 32-yard touchdown pass from Gage Gubrud to Dre' Sonte Dorton started the barrage, then on Montana's next play, Eastern's Josh Lewis recorded Eastern's first interception in four games. Then, on the very next play, Sam McPherson turned a short pass from Gubrud into a 50-yard TD and a 24-all tie.
Milestones & Records . . .
* Kicker Roldan Alcobendas extended the school record for most extra points in a row, making all of six of his against Fordham to extend his streak to 78. He previously broke the career record of 66 set by Jason Cromer from 1988-90. Alcobendas made his last 63 in a row last season to shatter the previous season record of 47.
Notables . . .
* Turnovers continue to go against the Eagles. Eastern had two against Montana and forced none, giving them a 12-3 disadvantage for the year. The first led to a Montana touchdown, and the second came with the Eagles at the UM 20-yard line in the third quarter while trailing by 11. Eastern forced Montana to punt on its first two possessions and turned it into a 3-0 lead. But Montana scored 17 unanswered points on drives of 78, 32 and 74 yards, with the middle drive set-up by an Eastern fumble. Although the Eagles had only 71 yards in the first quarter, Eastern had 206 in the second quarter but just had a field goal to show for it. A 66-yard hail-mary pass on the final play of the first half gave the Grizzlies a 24-6 lead at intermission.
* This was the first time in the last 11 meetings that both teams were not nationally ranked. The last time that happened was in 2007 when top-ranked Montana needed a field goal with 26 seconds left to beat the unranked Eagles 24-21 in Missoula. Eastern is 5-15-1 in Missoula, a win total unmatched by any other league school. Eastern won in Missoula in 1990, then again in 1992, 1997, 2005 and 2013 when EWU would go on to win Big Sky Conference titles. Best has been a part of EWU teams who have registered wins in Missoula in 1997, 2005 and 2013, and losses in 1999, 2001, 2005, 2009, 2011 and 2015.
* The game was the renewal of a rivalry that has seen Eastern now come out on top in six of the last seven meetings and seven of the last nine. In fact, the Eagles are 11-1 since 2012 against its rivals from the Treasure State – UM and Montana State. However, EWU's last venture to Missoula yielded a 57-16 thumping at the hands of the Griz. Just one year after that humbling 41-point setback, the Eagle defense allowed just 16 points in the rematch on Oct. 29, 2016, at Roos Field in EWU's 35-16 victory. The 16 points for the Griz was their lowest total in the last 33 games in the series dating back 32 years to a 14-14 tie in 1984. In last year's meeting, the two teams combined for 995 yards of offense, with EWU winning despite a 540-455 yardage advantage for Montana.
* The Eagles have won 41 of their last 47 Big Sky games since a 0-2 start in 2011. Eastern has won 31 of its last 35 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 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 35 of their last 39 versus conference foes, and are 45-6 since the 0-2 start in 2011. As a result, head coach Beau Baldwin left Eastern with a 58-14 Big Sky record for a winning percentage of .806 to rank as the fifth-best in league history. His .726 winning percentage overall (85-32) is seventh all-time in the 53-year history of the Big Sky.
* As a result of its Sept. 16 victory over Fordham, EWU improved from 12th to 11th in the week's STATS FCS Top-25 rankings, and Montana received enough votes to rank 32nd. Eastern is also rated 11th this week by the coaches, and Montana received enough votes to rank 30th. North Dakota State is No. 2 in both polls, behind defending FCS champion James Madison. Eastern has now been ranked by STATS in 74 of its last 75 polls, but had its streak of being in the top 10 snapped at 15 after losing at home to the Bison on Sept. 9.
* Former Eagles Jackie Kellogg and Tony Brooks will be among the inductees when the 17th induction of the Eastern Athletics Hall of Fame takes place Sept. 30, 2017, in Cheney, Wash. Both highly-honored as Eagles on different sides of the ball, Kellogg and Brooks will be inducted along with one of the EWU teams they played for. The 1992 squad won the first of what is now nine Big Sky Conference football championships and advanced to the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision Playoffs. The Eagles were coached by Dick Zornes and finished 7-4. Other individual inductees will be soccer player Tiera Como-Irby and basketball players Ronn McMahon and Fay Zwarych-Shaw. In addition, the late Lt. William "Bink" Wall will be honored posthumously as this year's recipient of the Eastern Athletics Hall of Fame Service & Contribution Award. Wall was an All-Evergreen Conference linebacker while playing for Eastern from 1965-67. He lost his life in 1970 serving the United State Army in Vietnam.
Head Coach Aaron Best Comments . . .
On Opening League Season 1-0: "It's nice to start unblemished and to feel like you started off on the right foot. There are still a few things we have to clean up, but it just goes to show how resilient this team is. It's unconventional sometimes where we put ourselves behind the eight ball time after time. Then they find a way to get out of it. It's a testament to the program and the foundation coach (Beau) Baldwin laid here. It's a tough place to win and to start off 1-0 in conference is gratifying no matter who it is. But it is sweeter when it comes against the Griz."