If the game was only three quarters, it would have gone in the record books as a rout.
But the third-ranked Eastern Washington University football team couldn’t shake 10th-ranked Montana and had to hold off the Grizzlies 42-37 in a Big Sky Conference game Saturday (Oct. 26) at Washington-Grizzly Stadium.
Behind career days for sophomore quarterback Vernon Adams and freshman Cooper Kupp, the Eagles won in Missoula for the first time since 2005. For the 12th time in the last 18 years – and the sixth-straight season – both teams entered the game ranked in the top 25 in the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision.
“What an emotional roller-coaster,” said Eastern head coach Beau Baldwin. “That was to Montana’s credit because I know how much they fight and how good they are at home. It doesn’t shock me that it came down to the wire. It was just crazy how it got to that point.”
The Eagles return to action at Idaho State on Nov. 2 before hosting fifth-ranked Montana State on Nov. 9. Eastern is currently tied atop the Big Sky standings at 4-0 with Montana State, and EWU is now 6-2 overall. The Grizzlies are 6-2 overall and 3-2 in the conference.
Eastern scored 21-straight points spanning halftime to take a 42-17 lead entering the final period. Eastern had a 214-46 advantage in offense in the decisive third quarter.
Adams completed 27-of-40 passes for a career-high 457 yards, ranking as the fifth-most in school history. His six TDs tied the school record set on five previous occasions, including once by Adams in the second half alone of last year’s loss in the semifinals of the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision Playoffs.
Kupp, who had 11 catches for 168 yards a week ago against Southern Utah, had his 10th and 11th touchdown catches of the season. He finished with 11 grabs for a career-high 182 yard to rank 12th and 18th, respectively, on EWU single game lists. Kupp also recovered an onside kick with 1:41 left to enable the Eagles to run out the clock for the win.
Senior Ashton Clark added six catches for 80 yards and two more TDs. Eagle speedster Shaquille Hill, who missed EWU’s last game with a knee sprain, had an 86-yard TD grab in the first half.
“Vernon got hot, the receivers went and made plays and the offensive line was protecting great,” said Baldwin. “When all was said and done, we made enough plays to win.
“I’d like to see us finish better, but you have to credit Montana for that too,” he continued. “I know what it is like to play from the lead and to play from behind. It can end up a little weird sometimes. They got some momentum late, and we just have to find a way to make another play or two.”
The Eagles finished with a 540-489 advantage in total offense. Quincy Forte rushed for 70 yards in the win, and senior linebacker Ronnie Hamlin led the defense with 10 tackles.
Eastern scored first on a 3-yard touchdown pass from Adams to Clark to cap a nine-play, 66-yard EWU drive.
Montana responded with 10 unanswered points, but then fumbled deep at their own 18-yard line. Two plays later, Adams found Kupp for a 19-yard score and the Eagles took the lead for good.
After a UM punt, a Montana linebacker tried to cover Hill, and his 86-yard catch and run gave EWU a 21-10 lead. It was the eighth-longest pass play in school history and career bests for both players.
The Grizzlies pulled to within 21-17 with a 42-yard touchdown pass, but the Eagles struck again with a 78-yard drive that took just six plays. The 34-yard TD pass from Adams to Kupp on a third-and-play gave EWU a 28-17 lead at halftime.
Eastern led in offense 289-237 at halftime, with Adams completing 16-of-19 passes for 269 yards and four touchdowns.
The Eagles appeared to be driving for another score to start the second quarter, but Adams was intercepted deep in Montana territory. While the Eagle defense held firm, the offense finally got into the end zone again. After Adams eluded a would-be sacker, he found a wide-open Clark, who eluded four would-be tacklers for a 52-yard TD pass. That gave the Eagles a 35-17 advantage.
On its next possession, EWU drove 80 yards on eight plays and scored on a 9-yard pass from Adams to running back Mario Brown to open the 42-17 lead.
Eastern’s next two possessions netted a minus 11 yards, and the Grizzlies turned them both into touchdowns to get back in the game quickly. That made the score 42-31 with 7:36 remaining. Montana scored again on an eight-play, 60-yard drive, but Kupp’s recovery on the onside kick ended the comeback effort.
Collectively, the Eagles and Grizzlies have won a trio of NCAA Division I football titles, and have made 30 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, 2010 and 2012. The Grizzlies have been to the playoffs a FCS record 21 times, with national titles in 1995 and 2001. Montana did not qualify for the playoffs a year ago and had a streak of 17-straight berths snapped in 2010.
Both teams have been nationally-ranked in the last six meetings, but only once – 2009 – have both teams advanced to the playoffs. And in none of those years did the EWU-UM loser win a share of the Big Sky title.
In last year’s 32-26 Eastern home win, the No. 7 Eagles scored two touchdowns in the final 2:19 to pull out the win over 21st-ranked Montana. The two scores, aided by a successful onside kick, came within 1:26 of each other.
Entering Saturday’s game, the Grizzlies had won 88 percent of their games at Washington-Grizzly Stadium, which was opened in 1986. Montana is now 175-25 there (not including four vacated wins in 2011). Eastern has now won five of the 13 meetings there, with victories in 2013, 2005, 1997, 1992 and 1990.
Tying school record, Eastern head coach Beau Baldwin is now 50-21 in five-plus seasons as a head coach (2008-13) and 34-10 in Big Sky Conference games. His .773 winning percentage in league games is the best-ever by an Eastern head coach and currently ranks seventh in the 50-year history of the Big Sky Conference. He tied the EWU record of 34 held by the EWU head coach he previously served under, Paul Wulff (2000-2007). Baldwin’s .704 percentage overall is 11th in league history, just ahead of Montana State’s Rob Ash, who is 56-24 overall (.700 to rank 12th in BSC history) and 39-13 in league games (.750 to rank 10th). Baldwin was 25-22 as an EWU assistant coach for four seasons (2003-06) under Wulff, for a collective total of 75-43 at EWU.