BOZEMAN – If a moment needed to be seized and savored, Dylan Zylstra was man for the job Saturday afternoon.
With a quarter to go in a crucial Big Sky Conference football game, Montana State had the ball, the crowd, the lead and seemingly all the momentum it needed to beat Eastern Washington a third straight time.
Three minutes later, the sophomore defensive tackle seized it right back with a game-turning punt block that gave sixth-ranked Eastern the lead for good in a dramatic 27-24 win over the second-ranked Bobcats.
The savoring was easy, especially after two straight losses to the Bobcats.
“It almost feels better to beat them at their own house than to beat them at home,” Zylstra said as the Eagles celebrated at midfield after a win that puts them at 4-0 in the conference, 5-1 overall.
Hoping to be factor in the Big Sky race, the Eagles suddenly are the factor, especially if they take care of Sacramento State (3-1in the conference) next week at Roos Field. And they’re sure to move up in the national FCS rankings after four of the top five teams fell Saturday.
As usual, a little practice went into a perfect conference record – Eastern’s first-ever 4-0 start in the Sky.
“We’ve been practicing safe-punt formation all week,” Zylstra explained. “It’s my job to blow up the play. They gave me a crease and I got the block.”
At the same instant, defensive end Evan Day was closing in on the punt blockers.
“I just saw Dylan block it and I saw the ball go straight into the end zone with no one in front of me,” Day said. “I’m thinking I’m going to get that thing.”
Sure enough, Day was almost alone as he fell in the end zone to give the Eagles a 20-17 lead with just over 12 minutes left.
Fifty-nine seconds later, safety Jordan Tonani was thinking the same thing when MSU quarterback DeNarius McGhee looked left. Tonani, filling in for injured Jeff Minnerly, broke for the ball on a short out pattern, made the interception and took it back for a 21-yard touchdown that turned out to be the game-winner. Suddenly Eastern led 27-17 and Bobcat Stadium was stone-silent.
“On that play the stars were just aligned,” said Tonani, a redshirt freshman from Ferris High School. “The tight end ran a 3-yard out, and that’s every safety’s dream.”
The bigger dream realized here was a win over a team that had outscored the Eagles 66-28 the last two seasons and led 10-3 at halftime with some shutdown defense of its own.
“The older guys, they’ve been talking about it,” said sophomore running back Quincy Forte, whose 33-yard catch-and-run gave the Eagles a short-lived 13-10 lead midway through the third quarter.
Six minutes later, Montana State regained the lead and its short-lived momentum.
That they never got it back was due mostly to Eastern’s escalating pressure on McGhee, said offensive coordinator John Graham, whose unit faced 89 plays on the afternoon.
“It seemed like we were on the field the whole second half,” Graham said. “We talked about trusting the guy behind you. We did a much better job containing him all game, just having a level rush, and keeping him in the pocket.”
McGhee’s stats were fine – on the surface: 28 for 36 for 294 yards and two touchdowns. But he also threw two interceptions and was sacked six times – a credit to the entire Eastern defense, not just the front line.
”I think our secondary really stepped it up,” said Eastern defensive end Jerry Ceja. “We just worked all week to get him shook up in the pocket.”
In other words, the defense fulfilled head coach Beau Baldwin’s goal to make McGhee work for every yard.
“I have so much respect for McGhee – and I told him that,” Baldwin said. “You can tell who he is as a person and as a leader. It’s tough playing against him, but I enjoy playing against him.”
Montana State made a late run after being seemingly out of it after Rory Perez missed a 33-yard field goal with 6:12 left.
But Eastern’s offense went three-and-out, and McGhee cut the margin to 27-24 with a 2-yard touchdown pass to Jon Ellis with 2:38 left. Eastern took over at MSU’s 44 after a failed onside kick, but had to punt again to give the Bobcats a last-gasp chance, trailing by three with 59 seconds left.
They never had a chance, as the Eagles sacked McGhee three times and never came close to giving up a tying or winning score.
“We scouted (Eastern Washington) as the best defensive line we’ve seen all year,” said Montana State head coach Rob Ash, whose Bobcats fell to 3-1 in the conference and 6-1 overall. “I just think the matchup was really challenging for us today. They’re physical, they’re very good up front.”
And not just up front. The defensive line made it easier for the linebackers; Ronnie Hamlin had a game-high 15 tackles – two for losses – and his first career interception on MSU’s opening possession of the second half.”
“That was just my guy, and our line flushed him out and I made the play,” said Hamlin. “All the time they were making it easier, opening up gaps.”
Eastern’s offense struggled for most of the day; the Eagles were able to run only 56 plays for a season-low 211 yards total offense, and quarterback Vernon Adams was 12 for 30 for 140 yards and two interceptions.
Demitrius Bronson rushed for 41 yards on 10 carries, and Greg Herd was Eastern’s leading receiver with three grabs for 54 yards. Eastern leading receiver and 2010 All-American Brandon Kaufman was limited to one reception for 8 yards. The Eagles did welcome back 2011 All-America receiver Nicholas Edwards, who caught one pass for 6 yards. Edwards had been out the last two games with a knee injury.
Montana State made the first big play of the game when defensive end Brad Daley tipped Adams’ pass at the line of scrimmage and linebacker Na’a Moeakiola dived for the interception to give the Bobcats a first down at the Eastern 41.
But the Eagle defense set the trend early holding MSU to 5 yards on three plays, hurrying McGhee on third down and getting the ball back at its own 7 after a Bobcat punt.
After an exchange of punts, Montana State picked up three first downs to the Eastern 32, but squandered the momentum when Bobcat center Shaun Sampson snapped the ball while McGhee was looking toward his bench. Eastern defensive end Paul Ena pounced on the ball and ran it back to the MSU 15.
Then it was Eastern’s chance to squander a golden opportunity. On third-and-1 from the MSU 6, Bronson was thrown for a 1-yard loss. After a timeout, the Eagles came out with a split formation on fourth-and-2, but MSU wasn’t fooled and sacked Adams behind the line of scrimmage.
McGhee never lost his rhythm from the previous drive, taking the Bobcats 90 yards in 14 plays. No play went for more than 16 yards, but McGhee was 5 for 5, including a 2-yard TD pass to Lee Perkins. Along the way, McGhee picked up another first down on a short scramble.
“He’s not going to give you one look,” Tonani said. “You think he’s looking away, then he comes right back to you and he keeps you on edge.”
That is until the Eastern defense regained that edge in the fourth quarter.
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