Eastern had its opportunities – and the Eagles took advantage of them in an extraordinary fashion.
Despite being held to 211 yards of offense, sixth-ranked Eastern Washington used two huge plays within 59 seconds of each other in the fourth quarter to turn a four-point deficit into a 10-point advantage en route to a 27-24 college football victory over second-ranked Montana State Saturday (Oct. 13) at Bobcat Stadium in Bozeman, Mont.
The Eagles improved to 4-0 in the Big Sky Conference for the first time in school history, as the Eagles took advantage of MSU mistakes. The Bobcats out-gained EWU 375-211, but EWU used a blocked punt by sophomore Dylan Zylstra that was recovered for TD by Evan Day. Just 59 seconds later, an interception by freshman redshirt safety Jordan Tonani was returned 21 yards for a touchdown to take a 10-point lead they didn’t surrender.
“It’s huge any time you can beat a great team like Montana State,” said Eastern head coach Beau Baldwin. “To beat the No. 2 team in the country on their home field, sometimes you have to find ways to win – extraordinary ways to win. We were struggling offensively in the first half, and the second half was a weird half. You couldn’t say we were struggling in the second half because we didn’t touch the football.”
“It was awesome for Dylan Zylstra to make that play and Evan Day to fall on it,” added Baldwin. “And then there was Tonani’s huge interception return. What that does is that the defense never comes off the field and the offense never goes on.”
Now 19-1 in the last three years after Oct. 1, the victory was the 10th time since 2010 the Eagles have won when trailing or tied in the fourth quarter. But most of the other comebacks were generated by the school’s offensive attack.
“It was incredible the way our players found a way to win,” said Baldwin. “It wasn’t like some of the comebacks we’ve had in other games, but this time we just found another way.”
Ranked sixth in this week’s Sports Network NCAA Football Championship Subdivision Top 25 poll, EWU is now 5-1 overall and 4-0 in the Big Sky Conference. The Bobcats, ranked second entering the week behind defending NCAA Division I champion North Dakota State, are now 6-1 overall and 3-1 in the league.
Eastern has a chance to move up in the national rankings this week after the No. 1 (North Dakota State), No. 2 (Montana State and No. 3 (Old Dominion) teams all lost. The last time EWU defeated both Montana and Montana State in the same year was in 2005 – the only other times in school history that has occurred was in 1985, 1991 and 1992.
The Eagles now lead the all-time series 26-10, but had lost the last two meetings by a collective score of 66-28. Eastern was out-scored in the second half of those two games 26-7, but on Saturday the Eagles had a 24-14 advantage.
“It’s as good as it gets,” said Baldwin. “We’re on the road against the No. 2 team in the country – that’s a hard situation to be in. Montana State is the second-ranked team in the country and deservedly so. They are a great team, and we found a way to get it done. Sometimes wild things happen here and there, and it affects a lot in these types of games. Fortunately we were able to make one more play.”
Montana State converted 11-of-19 third downs – and were 9-of-13 at one point -- behind the arm and legs of MSU quarterback DeNarius McGhee. He finished the game 28-of-36 for 294 yards and a pair of touchdowns through the air, and had another 59 yards of gains on the ground. However, he was sack six times – including twice by EWU sack leader Jerry Ceja – for a minus 58 yards.
“I have so much respect for McGhee – and I told him that,” Baldwin said. “You can tell who he is as a person and as a leader. It’s tough playing against him, but I enjoy playing against him. I enjoy his body of work and love seeing him on video. I’m impressed with him.”
Eastern freshman redshirt quarterback Vernon Adams led the Eagles on a third-quarter scoring drive, and finished 12-of-29 for 140 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions. He added 16 yards in gains on the ground, but was sacked four times for a loss of 13 yards.
Junior Demitrius Bronson rushed for 41 yards on 10 carries, and senior Greg Herd was
Eastern’s leading receiver with three grabs for 54 yards. Eastern leading receiver and 2010 All-American Brandon Kaufman was limited to one reception for eight yards. The Eagles did welcome back 2011 All-America receiver Nicholas Edwards, who caught one pass for six yards. He had missed Eastern’s last two games because of a knee injury suffered on the first offensive play against Weber State on Sept. 22.
Defensively, Ronnie Hamlin had a team-leading 15 tackles for the Eagles and a key interception which led to a field goal. Besides Ceja, Paul Ena, Evan Day, Chase King and T.J. Lee III had sacks. Ena tied the career record of six fumble recoveries also held by Nicholas Ramos (2006-09) and Steve Mattson (1994-97).
Early in the game, Eastern couldn’t capitalize on a record-tying fumble recovery by Ena, a senior defensive end who returned the fumble 40 yards to the MSU 15-yard line. But Eastern failed on a fourth-down conversion attempt – the first time this season in 19 trips into the opponent end zone the Eagles came up empty.
Montana State followed with a 90-yard drive on 10 plays to take a 7-0 lead in the second quarter. Late in the half, after an EWU defensive stand in the red zone, MSU kicked a field goal to take a 10-0 lead with 57 seconds left. Eastern, thanks to a 39-yard pass play from Adams to Herd, ended the half with a 40-yard field goal by Jimmy Pavel.
Pavel kicked a 39-yard field goal early in the third quarter to cut the lead to 10-6, with that coming after the first career interception by Hamlin at the MSU 40.
After a MSU punt, Eastern took the lead on an 11-play, 84-yard drive that was kept alive by a rouging the punter penalty on the Bobcats. Adams was 4-of-6 for 53 yards on that drive, including a 33-yard TD pass to running back Quincy Forte on an unsuccessful blitz by Montana State.
The Bobcats responded with a 75-yard scoring drive to regain a 17-13 lead, and then got the ball back after an EWU punt. But Eastern regained the lead at 20-13 when Zylstra blocked a MSU punt that was recovered by teammate Day for a TD.
Just 59 ticks of the clock later, Tonani intercepted McGhee on an out route to his wide receiver and returned it 21 yards for a touchdown. That gave the Eagles a 27-17 advantage with 11:15 to play.
Montana State missed a 33-yard field goal on its next possession, but got the ball back with 4:35 remaining. A quick, 63-yard TD drive took off just 1:57 off the clock, and MSU pulled within 27-24 with 2:38 left.
The Bobcats tried an onside kick, but the ball didn’t go 10 yards and the Eagles took over the ball at the MSU 43-yard line. Eastern had to punt, but the Bobcats turned the ball over on downs on the final play of the game deep in their own territory.
Following this week’s game, Eastern returns home to face Sacramento State (Oct. 20) for Homecoming at EWU on Sept. 20, starting at 4:05 p.m. at Roos Field. That game will be televised live by SWX (SWX Digital 6.2 in Spokane, 25.3 in the Tri-Cities & 23.3 in the Yakima area; Comcast 115; Time Warner 306; Charter 287, Cable One 466; Davis Cable 514; Northland Cable 115) and via webcast at www.bigskytv.org. Eastern then plays at Southern Utah (Oct. 27), home versus Cal Poly (Nov. 3), home against UC Davis (Nov. 10) and away at Portland State (Nov. 17).