MISSOULA – Eastern Washington University dramatically improved its rushing numbers against the University of Montana Saturday afternoon.
But it wasn’t enough to improve that all important victory number – which stills stands at zero after the defending NCAA Division I champions fell to the Grizzlies 17-14 in front of a record Washington-Grizzly Stadium crowd of 26,066 in the Big Sky Conference opener for both teams.
Montana (2-1), which came into the game ranked 12th among Football Championship Subdivision teams, used a couple of short scoring plays, including a 1-yard pass from Jordan Johnson to Gerald Kemp midway through the third quarter, to send the 10th-ranked and still winless Eagles (0-3) to another setback.
Eastern, despite rushing for 139 yards, outgaining the Grizzlies on the day and winning the time-of-possession battle by almost 11 minutes, suffered a couple of red zone meltdowns and missed connections of a couple of potentially big plays, leaving head coach Beau Baldwin and his players in an obvious funk.
In addition, the Eagles lost the service of two more offensive linemen when sophomore guard Steven Forgette fractured his left fibula midway through the second quarter and redshirt freshman guard Jase Butorac sprained his right knee shortly after intermission.
“It’s getting scary,” Baldwin said of the situation in his offensive front, where four starters have gone down with various injuries since the start of the season.
Still, the Eagles, who came in having rushed for a paltry 42 yards in their first two games, managed to make some progress on the ground against a veteran Grizzly defense, thanks mainly to the play of freshman running back Jordan Talley.
Talley, who carried 19 times in the absence of suspended starter Mario Brown, finished with 114 rushing yards and also caught a game-high seven passes for 24 yards. Senior quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell, after missing on his first three throws, ended up completing 26 of 49 passes for 237 yards and the Eagles’ only touchdown – a 1-yard toss to Nick Edwards early in the fourth quarter that, coupled with a two-point conversion pass from Mitchell to Edwards, cut Montana’s lead to three points.
Eastern’s defense, which gave up a couple of first-quarter plays that led to Dan Moore’s 1-yard touchdown run and a 35-yard field goal by Brody McKnight, settled down in the second half and managed to give the offense one last possession on its 41-yard line with just more than a minute left in the game. But any chance of a late-game comeback was washed away when a fourth-down Mitchell pass flew high and just off the fingertips of Edwards, allowing Montana to run down the clock.
“It was just the same mindset we have every time we come out in that position,” Mitchell said, when asked about another late-game challenge. “We know we’re going to go down and score. We know we have the talent to do it, and we know we’ve got the coaching to do it.
“We just didn’t execute.”
The Eagles didn’t execute well in the red zone, either, settling for second-quarter field goals of 41 and 42 yards from Mike Jarrett for their only first-half points. They also blew another scoring chance when Mitchell – on fourth-and-1 from UM’s 1-yard line – faked a handoff and tried to dump a jump pass just over the line of scrimmage to tight end Zack Gehring, only to have it picked off and returned 78 yards by the Grizzlies’ Mike McCord.
“It was one of those plays we worked on in practice,” Mitchell said. “I was expecting that guy (McCord) to come down, but the guy’s a good athlete and he made a good play. It’s one of those things I wish I could take back and make a different throw.”
Mitchell also missed connections with a wide-open Ashton Clark from the Montana 36 shortly before intermission, and barely overthrew David Miles on what could have been another scoring play earlier in the game.
“Once we settled down, we were able to move the ball,” Baldwin said. “But we were still in those spots where we came away twice with field goals – which are big points, but you want touchdowns in those spots. We’ve just got to get to where we’re finishing.”