BOZEMAN – An Eastern Washington University offense that had been uncomfortably one-dimensional throughout most of this still-young college football season, found out Saturday afternoon just how miserable life without that one key dimension can be.
With junior running back Taiwan Jones, hampered in the first half by an apparent midsection injury and then relegated to the sidelines for good after only one early second-half carry, the ninth-ranked Eagles were unable to establish any kind of offensive rhythm while suffering a humbling 30-7 Big Sky Conference loss to No. 17 Montana State.
With a Bobcat Stadium crowd of 14,207 doing its best to assist MSU (3-1 overall, 1-0 in the Big Sky) by staying loud and disrupting communication lines in Eastern’s no-huddle offense, the Eagles (2-2, 1-1) started leaking oil early and, by game’s end, probably should have been black-flagged.
With Jones, who came into the game as the nation’s leader in all-purpose yardage, watching all but one second-half play from the sidelines, Eastern managed to gain only 174 yards after intermission – with 67 of those coming on a fruitless possession that ended with Mike Jarrett missing a 27-yard field goal.
After Jones accounted for 63 of his team’s 69 first-half yards, the Eagles were limited to a mere 41 yards on the ground following intermission. And only a couple of nice goal-line stands by EWU’s defense kept this score as close as it was.
When asked about his team’s offensive struggles without Jones, Eagles coach Beau Baldwin remained pragmatic.
“He’s one of the best, if not the best, offensive players in the conference – at least up to this point,” Baldwin said of Jones, who amassed 862 all-purpose yards in EWUs first three games. “So when he’s not going, it’s going to hurt you.
“But that being said, we still need to do a good job as coaches, and a good job as an offense, and still find a way to operate and move the football – and then, ultimately, finish with points in the red zone, no matter who’s in the game for us.”
Eastern’s only touchdown came midway through the second period when quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell connected with Nicolas Edwards on a 9-yard scoring pass that capped a 6-play, 50-yard drive. And one other good opportunity was wasted when Jarrett misfired on a 38-yard field-goal try after the Eagles had driven to MSU’s 20.
“They were good,” Mitchell said, of the Bobcats defenders. “But if was mostly us not executing, and that’s huge. When we get in the red zone, we’ve got to score.”
Mitchell completed just 24 of 49 passes for 272 yards on the day, and threw an early interception that MSU’s defensive tackle Zach Minter gathered in at the line of scrimmage and returned 53 yards for a touchdown that put the Bobcats up 13-0
MSU’s defense played a major role in keeping Mitchell uncomfortable in the pocket and forcing him to throw the majority of his passes while on the run.
“But that something you’ve got to be able to handle as a quarterback,” Mitchell said. “You’ve got to be able to move around in the pocket and take the ball downfield.”
Mitchell’s counterpart, Denarius McGhee, had a much more efficient and productive afternoon, completing 15 of 24 passes for 283 yards and a touchdown. The Bobcats’ redshirt freshman also rushed for 24 yards and kept Eastern defense in a reactionary mode most of the game.
“He’s a great player,” Eastern’s senior outside linebacker J.C. Sherritt said of McGhee. “What he does best is he gets out in space and makes plays. It’s funny, because when he stays in the pocket, he’s not such huge threat.
“But as soon as he gets to run around, he can really tear you up. I was really impressed with the way he played.”
Sherritt led EWU with 11 tackles, and Eagles cornerback Dante Calcote picked off a McGhee pass in the end zone to quash another first-half MSU scoring threat.
After the game, Eastern’s head athletic trainer, Brian Norton, struggled to describe the exact nature of Jones’ injury, eventually settling on a “hip contusion.” But he didn’t rule out the possibility of it being linked to the hernia surgery Jones underwent during he off season.
“Hopefully, he’ll be okay for next week,” Norton said.