Eastern Washington came into Saturday’s Big Sky Conference football game against Montana figuring it was just 6 short inches - the approximate diameter of a goal-post crossbar - away from being undefeated.
By late Saturday afternoon, the distance between the Eagles and perfection had stretched to 8 inches, the logic being that had Derek Strey’s reach been a couple of inches longer, he might have finished off his near-sack of Grizzlies quarterback Brian Ah Yat in the waning moments of the game.
Instead, Ah Yat shook free from the straining grasp of EWU’s blitzing junior linebacker and launched a wobbly 39-yard touchdown pass to Joe Douglass to give unbeaten Montana, the nation’s No. 2-ranked Division I-AA team, a wildly entertaining 34-30 win over the Eagles.
The decisive touchdown, one of four Montana scores that involved the record-setting duo of Ah Yat and Douglass, came with 56 seconds left and spoiled what was shaping up as a memorable homecoming for Eastern fans.
Instead, the majority in a crowd of 6,605 - second-largest in Woodward Stadium history - went home disappointed after watching the 20th-ranked Eagles throw away a splendid chance at an upset and fall to 5-2 overall and 2-2 in the Big Sky.
Eastern had won five in a row after losing its season opener to Weber State on a last-second, partially blocked field goal that hit the crossbar and bounced over.
Montana (6-0, 3-0) has won 13 in a row, dating back to last year’s national championship run, and four straight over the Eagles. But this shootout will probably be remembered as one of the most intriguing in the 23-game history of the series.
Along with the dramatic finish it included:
A school-record pass-receiving performance by Douglass, who hauled in 14 of Ah Yat’s throws for 279 yards and four touchdowns to shatter UM’s old single-game yardage mark of 248 set by Mike Trevathan against Idaho in 1990.
Some equally impressive numbers from Ah Yat, who completed 32 of 48 passes for 560 yards and four scores and broke Dave Dickerson’s single-game passing yardage record of 558 set last fall against Idaho.
A solid, but abbreviated, performance by Eastern tailback Joe Sewell, who ran for 121 yards on 23 carries and threw a 2-yard touchdown pass to Mike Cappelletti off the option before missing all but two plays of the second half with a sprained ankle.
Ten turnovers - several of which came at critical times - 40 first downs and 1,116 yards of total offense, 630 produced by Montana.
“It was a classic,” said coach Mike Kramer, whose Eagles jumped to a surprising 21-7 lead late in the second period on the second of rookie quarterback Griffin Garske’s two 1-yard touchdown sneaks. “It was two great football teams, who statistically went up and down the field a little bit, but suffered the woes of a young quarterback.”
Kramer’s quarterback comment might be hard to digest, considering Ah Yat’s numbers. But it was an ill-advised throw by the 6-foot-1 sophomore that resulted in what seemed to be a game-saving interception by EWU’s DePrice Kelly.
And it was Garske’s three interceptions - one returned 44 yards for a third-quarter TD by Montana’s Blaine McElmurry - that seriously throttled an otherwise consistent offensive effort by the Eagles.
“To be honest with you, (Garske’s) performance, from a critical point of view, was not very good,” Kramer said of his redshirt freshman quarterback, who completed 18 of 38 passes for 195 yards.
“But he was out there and he’s learning every down. And, obviously, there were a couple of times in the first half where we extended our lead because he made some improvisational plays.”
Eastern grabbed an early 7-0 lead on Garske’s 22-yard, first-quarter scoring strike to Steve Correa, and increased it’s advantage to 21-7 with just 1:02 left in the half. But Montana answered with a lighting, two-play, 65-yard scoring strike that took only 22 seconds and cut EWU’s lead to 21-14 at intermission.
Ah Yat helped account for the crucial touchdown by hitting Douglass from 57 yards out, but he almost gave back Montana’s last chance for a comeback with a poor decision late in the game.
Trailing 30-28 and facing a first-and-goal from Eastern’s 12-yard line with just over 2 minutes left, Ah Yat forced a pass over the middle and into the chest of Kelly, who made the pick 2 yards deep in his own end zone and returned it to the 6.
“Right when it left my hand, I knew it was wrong,” Ah Yat said of the throw. “We were trying to pick on (Kelly) the whole game. I just made the wrong decision.”
The interception left the Eagles’ offense in need of only one first down to cement the win, but UM held backup tailback Rex Prescott to just 1 yard on a third-and-2 run from his own 14 and forced a punt.
The Grizzlies, who had used up their timeouts on Eastern’s previous possession, took over at their own 43 with 1:26 left. They picked up a first down on a couple of quick outs that stopped the clock and moved to the Eagles 39 before Ah Yat made his off-balance winning throw to Douglass.
The ball was woefully underthrown, but Douglass came back between Kelly and another EWU defender to make the catch and then spun and ran the final 20 yards for the score.
“I was trying to dive for the ball,” Kelly said, “and when I looked up he was running into the end zone.”
Strey got a good grasp on Ah Yat before he unloaded the ball, but said he couldn’t hang on because of the bad angle he took on his blitz.
“When I turned around, I looked downfield and saw the ball quacking,” explained Strey, “but one of their receivers was running under it.
“Then I just started thinking about how we had lost another heart-breaker in the last minute.”
Montana’s first-year coach, Mick Dennehy, said the game drained him emotionally.
“I’m wrung out probably as bad as any game I’ve been in - in terms of us having to find ways to make our own breaks. It was one of those games where it seemed like everything we did was uphill.”
The Grizzlies, who had two apparent touchdowns called back by penalties, certainly didn’t make thing easy on themselves.
“It was a struggle,” Dennehy said, lamenting missed opportunities and five turnovers, “but what a courageous finish. I applaud our kids.”
Montana 0 14 14 6 - 34
E. Washington 0 21 3 6 - 30
EWUCorrea 22 pass from Garske (Atwood kick) EWUCappelletti 2 pass from Sewell (Atwood kick) MONDouglass 5 pass from Ah Yat (Larson kick) EWUGarske 1 run (Atwood kick) MONDouglass 57 pass from Ah Yat (Larson kick) EWUFG 20 Atwood MONDouglass 7 pass from Ah Yat (Larson kick) MONMcElmurry 44 interception return (Larson kick) EWUGarske 1 run (kick blocked) MONDouglass 39 pass from Ah Yat (pass failed) A-6,605
MON EWU First downs 22 18 Rushes-yards 24-70 42-191 Passing 560 195 Comp-Att-Int 32-48-2 19-39-3 Return Yards 108 157 Punts-Avg. 2-34.5 6-43.2 Fumbles-Lost 4-3 2-1 Penalties-Yards 6-57 11-89 Time of Possession 26:15 33:45
RUSHINGMON, Branen 17-64, Ah Yat 5-6, Gales 2-0. EWU, Sewell 23-116, Prescott 15-68, Garske 4-7.
PASSINGMON, Ah Yat 32-48-2-560. EWU, Garske 18-38-3-193, Sewell 1-1-0-2.
RECEIVINGMON, Douglass 14-279, Paffhausen 8-121, Pacheco 3-54, Erhardt 3-19, Branen 2-9, Neil 1-73, Gales 1-5. EWU, Knaevelsrud 5-40, Prescott 3-28, Jackson 3-23, Eller 2-41, Correa 2-36, Sewell 2-14, Kellar 1-11, Cappelletti 1-2.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Photos (1 color)
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