MISSOULA — Beau Baldwin was hoping the flattering comments he made about the University of Montana football program earlier in the week would not prove prophetic on Saturday.
That wasn’t the case, however, as the unbeaten and third-ranked Grizzlies – showing the “never going to stop on any play” approach Baldwin had praised, made just a couple of more big plays than Eastern to dig out a wildly entertaining 41-34 Big Sky Conference win in front of a school-record crowd of 25,751 at Washington-Grizzly Stadium.
“They find a play, at any time or any unit, that can end up being the difference and winning the ball game,” Baldwin said after watching his Eagles (4-3 overall, 3-2 in the Big Sky) succumb to a pair of fourth-quarter Montana touchdowns – the first coming on an 82-yard punt return by Marc Mariani and the second on a 1-yard plunge by Chase Reynolds with just over 3 ½ minutes left in the game.
“When you get in these kinds of games with them, they find a way to make a play late, and I give them credit. It’s not the first time they’ve done it to someone, and it won’t be the last.”
The Eagles actually answered Mariani’s huge return with a 74-yard scoring drive of their own that was capped by Taiwan Jones’ 1-yard run with 5:07 remaining. That drive proved costly, however, when senior wide receiver Aaron Boyce, while trying to make a cut on a crossing route, crumpled to the ground with a ruptured Achilles tendon that will, in all likelihood, end his career.
What hurt even worse, though, was when Montana (6-0, 3-0) responded to Jones’ game-tying TD by taking the ensuing kickoff and marching 55 yards for Reynolds’ game-winner.
Eastern seemed poised to stop the Grizzlies’ final drive after forcing them into a 4th-and-2 situation from just inside midfield. But Justin Roper, the second of two quarterbacks Montana used throughout the game, connected with fullback Kevin Klaboe on a short pass play that not only gave the Grizzlies a new set of downs, but put them at Eastern’s 37-yard line, as well, after Eagles defensive back Jesse Hoffman was flagged for a late hit on Klaboe.
Montana had been flagged for an illegal formation on the play, but that was trumped by the dead-ball foul on Hoffman and the Grizzlies scored seven plays later.
Just prior to Mariani’s long punt return, Eastern had been stopped following a third-down incompletion on which UM free safety Shann Schillinger appeared to interfere with Boyce, the intended receiver. But Baldwin refused to buy into any kind of emotional letdown as a reason for letting Mariani escape down the right sideline.
“I don’t think there was a letdown,” he said. “On the punt return, we had a lot of guys down there in position to make a play. But instead, Mark made a great play and a great run, continuing to get some big blocks along the side.
“Again, they made a play, and we weren’t able to make a one in that particular situation.”
Still Baldwin was proud of the way his team battled back from a 27-10 deficit halfway through the second half to keep the majority of fans in their seats until the final play.
Eastern’s senior quarterback Matt Nichols completed 32 of 49 passes for 312 yards and three touchdowns and also ran for another 36 yards to surpass Erik Myer as the Eagles’ career leader in total offense with 11,261 yards. In addition, sophomore running back Taiwan Jones rushed for 145 yards and a score, while Mike Jarrett added a pair of field goals, including one from 48 yards out just prior to intermission.
Nichols pointed to a couple of early drives that fizzled in the red zone as key elements in the outcome, which also included a first-quarter safety for Montana when Eastern’s Tyler Jolley snapped the ball over the head of Cameron Zuber and out of the end zone on a punt attempt.
“It was hard (at the end) trying to make something happen out of nothing,” he said in reference the Eagles’ final possession, which started on their own 20 with just 78 seconds remaining and ended on a fourth-down incompletion near midfield. “It was a game where if we wouldn’t have stalled out and put some point on the board on our earlier possessions, we wouldn’t have put ourselves in that position to begin with.”
The loss dropped the Eagles out of a tie with Weber State for second place in the Big Sky standings and put a big hurt on the their post-season playoff hopes – should the NCAA decide to lift the postseason ban it slapped on the Eagles last March.
But Baldwin said he expects his team to regroup for next Saturday’s homecoming matchup against Montana State.
“I always love games like this,” he said. “I love competing, I love the idea of being in and atmosphere like you get here and just being in an absolute battle. Obviously, it stings when you lose, but if it didn’t, it wouldn’t be as much fun.
“Now after the game, like right now, it stings, and it should. But our goal now is to beat Montana State next week.”