Eyes on the prize, Vernon Adams told himself all week.
For Eastern Washington’s redshirt freshman quarterback, that meant keeping his eyes downfield, even when he was half a step from being torn in half.
Practice paid off with less than a minute left in Saturday night’s Big Sky Conference football game against Montana, when Adams found Ashton Clark for a 20-yard touchdown pass that gave the Eagles a dramatic 32-26 win Saturday night at Roos Field.
“I was getting flushed out of the pocket,” said Adams, who scrambled to his left, then watched Montana cornerback Josh Dennard move up to contain. “My main goal was keeping my eyes downfield.”
And there was Clark, alone into the end zone, for an easy catch.
“I just ran my route, and once I looked back I saw Vernon scrambling, I took off downfield and the guy (cornerback Josh Dennard) wasn’t ready for it,” Clark said.
“He (Adams) is good at keeping the play alive.”
And keeping his team alive. With less than 7 minutes left, the Eagles hung by a thread so thin it was one play from breaking. Montana had the ball and a nine-point lead, but the Eagles’ defense – though battered for 533 yards on the night – got the ball back into the hands of Adams and the big-play Eagles.
The Eagles marched – leaped, rather – 82 yards in 10 plays, culminating in Adams’ perfect 30-yard TD pass to Brandon Kaufman with 2:19 to play.
“It was a great ball,” said Kaufman, who caught eight passes for 138 yards and two touchdowns in the game. “He threw a bullet.”
Short of time, the Eagles opted for an onside kick, and were rewarded when freshman Shaquille Hill recovered the ball to set up the Eagles at midfield. On second-and-10 from the 50, Adams found Clark for 15 yards, then threw a short pass that running back Quincey Forte took to the 19.
Two plays later, Adams found Clark for the winning score. Montana’s last drive ended at the Eastern 29 as time expired and students rushed the field.
The win improves the Eagles’ record to 3-1 overall and 2-0 in the Big Sky, while Montana fell to 2-3 overall. For the first time since 1992, Montana is 0-2 in the conference.
Eastern hosts conference newcomer North Dakota on Saturday.
Saturday’s comeback was more unlikely in the face of a dominant performance by the Grizzlies in the third quarter: Eastern was outgained 126 yards to minus-4, and Adams was alternately overthrowing receivers and being sandwiched by Montana pass rushers.
Eastern went three-and-out on its first three possessions of the second half, while Montana ran almost at will. Leading 17-10 at halftime, Eastern was down 23-17 entering the fourth quarter after the Grizzlies capitalized on a bobble by Eastern punter Jake Miller.
“You’re going to go through highs and lows,” Eastern head coach Beau Baldwin said of Adams. “I’ve seen sophomore, junior and even senior quarterbacks sometimes go through low moments and high moments.
“The best thing he (Adams) did, though, when he came to the sideline he didn’t pout, he didn’t slam his helmet, he just kept saying, ‘We’re going to get another shot, we’re going to get another shot.’ ”
Meanwhile, the Eastern defense kept taking Montana’s best shots, mostly off-tackle. The Grizzlies’ 407 rushing yards are the most by an Eastern opponent since Southern Utah rang up 535 in the last game of the 1998 season.
“Their schemes are hard to stop and there were some things we weren’t doing well,” Eastern defensive line coach Ryan Sawyer said. “But the one thing our defense does is it doesn’t quit, and at some point our kids are going to make a play.”
Early in the fourth quarter, the Eagles did just that. Linebacker Ronnie Hamlin forced a fumble by Montana running back Peter Nguyen at the Eastern 5-yard-line, and defensive end Evan Day scooped it up.
“I was kind of following the play and I saw it I come out,” Day said.
Adams started the game strongly. In the Eagles’ first possession of the game, he completed all three of his pass attempts, including a 32-yarder to Clark that set the Eagles up at the 14. Two plays later, Demitrius Bronson scored on a 5-yard off-tackle play.
After an exchange of possessions, the Grizzlies needed just three plays to tie the game. Nguyen’s first carry went through three tackles en route to a 37-yard TD with 4:04 left in the first quarter.
Adams hit Kaufman in stride in the back of the end zone for a 36-yard touchdown that put the Eagles ahead 14-7 early in the second quarter.
A field goal cut the Eastern lead to 14-10 with 7:11 left until halftime.
Kevin Miller’s 19-yard field goal gave Eastern a 17-10 advantage at halftime.