Sports

Nichols’ ache won’t go away

MISSOULA – Say, about that NCAA appeal …

Uh, never mind.

Whatever miscarriage of jockratic justice that threatens to keep Eastern Washington University out of the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs bureaucratically is mostly moot now anyway, and small potatoes next to the enduring emptiness the Eagles feel this morning.

Another crushing, head-banging-against-wall loss to Montana.

Another withdrawal by the Grizzlies from the Bank of Karma – which by now should leave them bankrupt in their dotage.

The gratuitous cruelty of seeing captain Aaron Boyce crumpled on the turf of Washington-Grizzly Stadium from nothing more than planting his foot to make a cut, the pain from a ruptured Achilles tendon no greater than the heartache of a college football career brought to a premature end.

Matt Nichols faced it all in much the same way he stood in against Saturday’s blitzes. But in the end, there was no making something out of nothing – not in the final 50 seconds, and not in the final analysis.

“I’d love to beat you guys,” he told Montana coach Bobby Hauck. “For once.”

“I’m doing my best to keep it from happening,” Hauck sighed.

Four times Nichols has quarterbacked the Eagles against Montana four times they’ve lost. He’s not the only quarterback in Big Sky Conference history with that distinction, but he is the only one from Eastern. And for all his accomplishments – he passed Erik Meyer as the school’s total offense leader during Saturday’s 41-34 gut-ectomy – the gravitas the Eagles attach to this game only deepens the void Nichols feels.

“It’s something we’ve always talked about – starting right after we lost to them here two years ago,” he admitted. “We didn’t want to go through a four-year career and never beat these guys.

“This was very important to me – and I had this exact same feeling here two years ago. I feel like it was the exact same game. And there’s not much you can really do other than be disappointed and think back on the things you could have done better.”

Even if it was just one more play, if only because the Grizzlies always seem to get that one done better – somehow.

This game easily surpassed the minimum number of plays, calls, flags and foibles required to be in the Book of Eagles-Grizzlies Lore –exceeded only by the number of times it was broadcast to the record WGS crowd of 25,751, by way of public service announcements, that “Montana has one of the highest suicide rates in the country.”

Hmm. Probably includes both in-and-out-of-staters watching Big Sky football officials work their special magic.

Nichols would love to have added a couple of game-changers – specifically on a pair of fourth downs just outside the red zone that went incomplete and turned the ball over to Montana.

But he was also the quarterback who brought the Eagles back from a 14-point deficit and into a tie with two splendid third-quarter drives, and did it again when the Grizzlies pulled out a daggerish 82-yard punt return for a touchdown early in the fourth quarter.

“I’ve been in that situation before and I had no doubt in my mind we were going to win that game, no matter what the score was,” Nichols said. “I had faith in my heart we were going to make some plays on both sides of the ball to get back into the game.”

But some of that faith may have drained on the last of their touchdown drives. On a play when Nichols dove toward the end zone – and likely into it, though that wasn’t the ruling – Boyce writhed on the ground in agony far away from the action.

It wasn’t just the loss of the No. 2 receiver, statistically, in Eastern history.

“Aaron is obviously my favorite receiver and one of my best friends,” Nichols said. “Any time you’re going back on the field trying to win a game at the end and you don’t have your guy out there, it’s difficult – and we had some other receivers make great plays and play great games. But there’s a security to having Aaron out there.”

Maybe it wouldn’t have made a difference. Maybe the Eagles still would have stalled out at midfield. Maybe Nichols still throws a near interception, or just misses a completion on the sideline, or has the last ball slither through Taiwan Jones’ arms.

“In that situation, 40 seconds left, no timeouts and you need a touchdown, they’re playing softer and it’s hard to find holes downfield,” Nichols said.

Maybe Boyce finds them. Maybe not.

And maybe the Grizzlies still come back with the one more play they always seem to have in them.

“I just knew it was going to be this kind of game – a little bit of a shootout,” Nichols said. “They made a lot of plays. So did we. But for some reason, Montana always seems to come out on top.”

The last four times, anyway. Matt Nichols doesn’t get to count any higher.



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