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 consecutive 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 consecutive 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 5-1 overall, 4-0 in the conference.
Hoping to be factor in the Big Sky race, the Eagles suddenly are the factor, especially if they take care of Sacramento State (3-1 Big Sky) 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 4-0 start in the Sky.
“We’ve been practicing safe-punt formation all week,” Zylstra said. “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 more than 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 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. “The tight end ran a 3-yard out, and that’s every safety’s dream.”
The bigger dream realized 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.
“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 13-10 lead midway through the third quarter.
Six minutes later, Montana State regained the lead.
That the Bobcats never got it back was mostly because of 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: 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,” Eastern defensive end Jerry Ceja said. “We just worked all week to get him shook up in the pocket.”
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 6-1, 3-1. “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.”
EWU 27, Montana St. 24
MSU—Perkins 2 pass from McGhee (Perez kick)
MSU—FG Perez 30
EWU—FG Pavel 40
EWU—FG Pavel 39
EWU—Forte 33 pass from Adams (Pavel kick)
MSU—Robinson 1 run (Perez kick)
EWU—Day 0 blocked punt return (Pavel kick)
EWU—Tonani 21 interception return (Pavel kick)
MSU—Ellis 2 pass from McGhee (Perez kick)
|Time of Possession||:00||:00|
RUSHING—E. Washington, Bronson 10-41, Forte 9-27, Adams 7-3. Montana St., Robinson 21-58, McGhee 19-16, O.Davis 11-9, Team 1-(-13).
PASSING—E. Washington, Adams 12-29-2-140, Team 0-1-0-0. Montana St., McGhee 28-36-2-294, J.Bleskin 1-1-0-1.
RECEIVING—E. Washington, Herd 3-54, Clark 2-17, Forte 1-33, Kaufman 1-8, D.Johnson 1-7, Mitchell 1-7, Edwards 1-6, Seto 1-4, Withnell 1-4. Montana St., T.Bleskin 7-96, Ellis 6-45, Gilbert 5-53, Robinson 3-53, Kr.Siewing 2-21, O.Davis 2-7, Perkins 2-7, S.Johnson 1-7, Flotkoetter 1-6.