It was as big a win as the Eagles have had, but they just keep getting bigger from here on out.
The third-ranked Eastern Washington University football team scored 21 unanswered first half points and then struck twice in the third quarter to run past 16th-ranked Montana 35-16 in a Big Sky Conference showdown Saturday (Oct. 29) at Roos Field in Cheney, Wash.
Eastern's sensational senior receiver Cooper Kupp had touchdown receptions of 69, 40 and 5 yards, plus a 54-yard pass to sophomore quarterback Gage Gubrud that set-up another score. Gubrud passed for 327 yards and four scores, with Kupp finishing with eight catches for 140 yards.
But it was Eastern's defense that reversed a 57-16 loss last year in Missoula to a 19-point victory in this year's rematch. Eastern held Montana nearly 30 points below its season average of 44.9 points per game. Although Montana out-gained Eastern 540-455, Eastern averaged 7.3 yards per play compared to 5.7 for the Grizzlies.
"It's a huge win against a great Montana team," said Eastern head coach Beau Baldwin, whose team plays at 14th-ranked Cal Poly next week. "Any Big Sky win is big, but a win against a team right in the hunt was big. There are a lot of teams who are still in contention right now for the Big Sky title. The conditions weren't perfect for football a lot of the time, but in the end we found a way to grind and get a win."
Won-Lost Records . . .
* Eastern is 7-1 overall and 5-0 in the Big Sky Conference, and haven't lost since falling to five-time defending FCS champion North Dakota State 50-44 in overtime on Sept. 10. The Grizzlies are now 5-3 overall and 2-3 in the Big Sky, after falling behind 45-20 in the third quarter against the Lumberjacks, which fell at home to EWU 50-35 on Sept. 24. Montana fell behind 35-10 in the third quarter versus the Eagles.
What It Means . . .
* Coupled with North Dakota's 27-19 home win over Weber State, there are now just two unbeaten teams in the Big Sky Conference standings. The Fighting Hawks are now 6-0 in the league, while the Wildcats fell to 4-1. However, EWU doesn't play either team. The league champion receives an automatic berth in the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision Playoffs, with pairings announced on Sunday, Nov. 20 at 8 a.m. Pacific time on ESPNU.
What's Next . . .
* Eastern plays another nationally-ranked opponent when the Eagles visit No. 14 Cal Poly on Nov. 5 at 6 p.m. Pacific time in a non-televised game. The Eagles then return to Roos Field for Senior Day on Nov. 12 against Idaho State. Eastern closes the regular season Nov. 18 (Friday) at Portland State, which joined Montana as runner-up in the league last season and advanced to the playoffs.
Keys to Game . . .
* Although Montana had 94 offensive plays, Eastern's defense held the Grizzlies to just two touchdowns and a field goal. Eastern had interceptions by Mitch Fettig and Alek Kacmarcik, and sacks by Samson Ebukam and Dylan Donohue. Four of Montana's seven possessions in the first half ended with an interception, a missed fourth-down conversion, a missed field goal and two punts. In the second half, Eastern had an interception and forced Montana to punt four times – including a pair of three-and-outs.
Turning Point . . .
* Trailing 7-0, Eastern scored late in the first quarter on a 69-yard scoring strike from Gage Gubrud to Cooper Kupp. On EWU's next possession, on what appeared to be a reverse, Kupp found Gubrud for a 54-yard pass play to the Montana 2-yard line. Eastern's Tamarick Pierce then scored to give Eastern a 14-7 lead it wouldn't relinquish. The Eagles added three more scores during a game-deciding 35-3 scoring run.
Top Performers . . .
* Senior Cooper Kupp had more than 100 yards receiving for the 28th time in his 46-game Eastern career, finishing with eight for 140. Besides his 69-yard touchdown, he also had TD receptions of 5 and 40 yards, giving him 33 plays of at least 40 yards in his career. He has scored in 38 of 46 games in his career, and has averaged a touchdown every 5.6 catches as an Eagle. He now has career totals of 45 catches for 660 yards and six touchdowns in five games against the Griz, as well as a punt return for a TD and a passing score.
* Sophomore Gage Gubrud completed just two of his first nine passes, but finished 21-of-37 for 327 yards and four touchdowns. He had his string of passes of passes without an interception snapped at 168 when the Grizzlies tipped and intercepted a pass in the third quarter. He had a second interception in the fourth period.
* Senior Kendrick Bourne had his ninth 100-yard performance receiving, finishing with five catches for 124 yards.
* Sophomore safety Mitch Fettig had a career-high 13 tackles, as well as an interception. He eclipsed his previous career high for tackles by four.
* Senior safety Zach Bruce came one tackle from his career high, finishing with 13 and a pass broken up.
* Senior linebacker Miquiyah Zamora had 11 tackles, giving him 322 in his career to move into the No. 9 position in school history.
* Sophomore linebacker Alek Kacmarcik was the fourth Eagle in double figures in tackles with 11, as well as an interception he returned 46 yards.
Key Stats . . .
* The Grizzlies converted five of their first six third down conversions, but were just five of their last 16 to finish 10-of-22. Eastern made only 4-of-12 in the game, but scored touchdowns once on third down and twice each on first down and second down.
* The Eagles finished with 381 yards passing after entering the game leading the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision in passing offense (445.6 yards per game) and ranking second in scoring (46.6) and total offense (569.6. Montana entered third in scoring (44.9), fourth in passing (348.7) and fifth in total offense (495.3), and finished with 398 yards through the air.
* The Griz also entered with a defense which has held opponents to 25.5 percent on third down to rank second in FCS, while EWU is fourth in converting them at 52.9 percent. Montana's defense entered 21st overall in FCS (319.3 yards per game), and is No. 3 in red zone defense and No. 4 in red zone offense.
Team Highlights . . .
* The Eagles scored the first 14 points of the second half to take a 35-10 lead with 4:41 to play in the third quarter, and in the process continued their domination in that period. Despite trailing at halftime in five of its first six games season, a big part of EWU's 7-1 record is the team's third-quarter production, having outscored opponents 129-35 in that period. Eastern has had a third quarter advantage in every game.
* Eastern has a current streak of 19 consecutive regular season sellouts and a total of 29 (crowds of 8,600 or more). The crowd of 11,931 versus Montana ranks as the fifth-most in school history, with the top three coming versus the Griz (11,702 in 2010, 11,583 in 2006 and 11,339 in 2014).
Milestones & Records . . .
* Eastern senior Cooper Kupp has now caught a pass in 46-straight games, knocking three other players out of the record of 45. Jacksonville State's Josh Barge also has a current total of 46 in a row, and the previous record of 45 was originally set by Marcus Lee of Towson (2005-08), then tied by current EWU wide receivers coach Nicholas Edwards (2009-12) and Tyrone Walker from Illinois State from (2009-12). Kupp has now broken 12 FCS records, eight Big Sky Conference all-time marks and 21 school records. Kupp owns the FCS record with 67 career receiving TDs and 6,065 receiving yards, and is second on the all-time FCS receptions list (378, 17 behind the record of 395 set by Elon's Terrell Hudgins from 2006-09).
Notables . . .
* In a series full of drama, the 2016 meeting between Eastern and Montana was the 16th time in the last 22 meetings that both teams entered the game nationally ranked. Eastern has won eight and Montana eight times in those 16 meetings. Interestingly, in the first nine Montana was the higher-ranked team; in the last seven (including 2016) EWU has been rated higher. The higher-ranked team is 11-5 in the previous 16 nationally-ranked matchups. The 2013 game was the first time both teams entered ranked in the top 10, with the collective ranking of 13 the best ever.
* Six turnovers spelled doom for Eastern in last year's 57-16 trouncing in Missoula. That game marked the quarterbacking debut of Gage Gubrud, who completed 7-of-13 passes for 66 yards and an interception, and also had 18 net rushing yards and a touchdown.
* The Eagles have now played 116 games against ranked teams in the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision since becoming a member of that classification in 1983 (then known as I-AA). Eastern is 51-65 (.440) in those games, including a 17-41 mark (.293) versus top 10 foes. Since 2010, though, the Eagles are 22-11 overall (.667) and 8-6 (.571) versus top 10 teams. Thus far this year, EWU is 3-1, having lost to top-ranked North Dakota State by a 50-44 score in overtime. Eastern defeated Northern Iowa, ranked 10th at the time, by a 34-30 score on Sept. 17.
* The Eagles have won 37 of their last 43 Big Sky games since a 0-2 start in 2011. Eastern has won 27 of its last 31 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 31 of their last 35 versus conference foes, and are 41-6 since the 0-2 start in 2011. As a result, head coach Beau Baldwin has a 55-14 Big Sky record for a winning percentage of .797 to rank as the fifth-best in league history. His .721 winning percentage overall (80-31) is seventh all-time in the 53-year history of the Big Sky.
* Eastern is now 4-0 in its 50th season of football at EWU's current stadium location. This season Eastern had a come-from-behind 34-30 win against Northern Iowa, a 63-35 outburst against UC Davis and a 49-31 triumph over Northern Colorado. Eastern is 38-7 overall (84 percent) since the red turf was installed at "The Inferno" in 2010 – including a 4-0 record versus the Griz. Eastern has a 151-62 record (70.9 percent) in 213 games at Roos Field since 1967, with the Eagles utilizing Joe Albi Stadium in Spokane as the school's main home field from 1983-89.
Head Coach Beau Baldwin Comments . . .
On Gubrud and Offense: "He found some spots and took some shots. He wants some of them back too – it definitely wasn't his best game and he knows that. But when you face a great opponent who does some aggressive things, they are going to force you in some tough spots too. After he settled down, we were able to hit some big plays. We thought against that type of defense it would be that type of game where we might get some losses and have some three and outs. But we thought we would get some big chunk plays because of their style. I was proud of our offense for doing that. There are parts in the second half where we want to play better than we did – we got a little sloppy at the end. We have to correct that and come back working hard. But our defense continued to pick us up in the second half in those tough spots."
On Defense: "Sometimes there is a misconception that every game we play is something like 56-54. That's not true. When you just look at Big Sky play, our defense is right up there near the top of the conference in points allowed. We just play a really tough non-conference schedule which not everybody does. Our guys are making plays and that's part of being a great defense if you can win the turnover battle. We were definitely forcing some turnovers again."
On Importance of Victory: "It's just big to win. It's big to win on the red, big to win in front of a great home crowd and big to win in a Big Sky game late in the year. It just puts us in a good situation."