MISSOULA – So much for keeping a balanced offense.
In this one, keeping their composure meant even more to the Eastern Washington Eagles, who outlasted Montana 42-37 in a pivotal Big Sky Conference game Saturday afternoon.
That meant navigating a series of highs and lows in every quarter: the raucous Montana crowd in the first, the can’t-do-anything-wrong middle periods and a near-meltdown in the fourth.
That the Eagles avoided a full meltdown meant almost as much as winning.
“When all was said and done, we made enough plays to win,” Eastern coach Beau Baldwin said of his first win in Missoula as a head coach.
At the end, a 25-point lead had melted to five, and the Eagles needed to recover an onside kick with less than two minutes left to finish the job.
“People can quickly lose their composure, especially in a place like this and the crowd gets back into it,” said senior receiver Ashton Clark, who scored two touchdowns.
“That’s what happens when two great teams come together,” Eagles defensive lineman Dylan Zylstra said as the players and coaches celebrated Eastern’s first win since 2005 at Washington-Grizzly Stadium.
More important, the win sets up Eastern (6-2 overall and 4-0 in the Big Sky) for an even bigger game in two weeks against conference co-leader Montana State.
The third-ranked Eagles won this one by doing what they do best – throwing the ball, in this case for a school record-tying six touchdowns by quarterback Vernon Adams. The running game, which had flourished in three previous Big Sky wins, was taken away by the Grizzly defense, and Adams took what they gave him.
And then some.
Adams completed 27 of 40 passes for 457 yards – long, short and in-between – and scrambled for key yardage throughout the game. On the most memorable play of the game, he did both.
The Eagles led 28-17 late in a scoreless third quarter, but faced third-and-6 at their own 48. With the crowd still trying to set a stadium noise record, Adams felt pressure from both sides of the pocket. Then he dashed up the middle, paused, and threw to the flat, to Clark.
Clark did the rest, and the biggest sound on his way to the end zone was the quadruple thud of the four defenders he juked to the ground.
“There were a couple of times I thought somebody was going to be coming, but I just tried to keep my feet and get to the end zone,” said Clark, whose 52-yard score turned the game’s momentum fully toward the Eagles.
Less than four minutes later, Adams led the Eagles on their best drive of the night, an eight-play, 80-yarder capped by a 9-yard pass to running back Mario Brown that seemingly put the game away.
Seemingly, at least to some of the 26,082 fans, the ones who left early and missed a near comeback for the ages by the Grizzlies (6-2 overall, 3-2 in the Big Sky).
After an Eastern three-and-out early in the fourth quarter, Montana scored twice in less than two minutes midway through the quarter to make it 42-31.
The Grizzlies got the ball back moments later on Adams’ second interception, but Ben Worst missed a 39-yard field goal try with 5:20 to go. The Eagles punted again with 3:29 remaining and Montana scored again with 1:44 left, but Eastern freshman wide receiver Cooper Kupp grabbed the onside kick to seal the game.
Kupp made big plays all game, catching 11 balls for 182 yards and two scores, including a pair of leaping grabs in tight coverage. The first was a 25-yard gain to set up Eastern’s first score, a 4-yarder to Clark.
The Grizzlies crossed midfield again on their next possession, but were whistled for an illegal block. On third-and-15 from the Eastern 48, Montana quarterback Jordan Johnson scrambled to his right but was run down by Evan Day and Montana was forced to punt.
“He was hard to get to, but it’s fun to go against a guy like that, to see if you can keep up with him,” said Day of Johnson, who completed 24 of 44 passes for 349 yards and four scores but struggled in the middle quarters.
The Grizzlies regained the lead, 10-7, on Jordan Canada’s 28-yard run off tackle, but Eastern responded after Andru Pulu recovered a Montana fumble at the Grizzly 18. Three plays later, on third-and-12, Kupp scored his 10th touchdown of the season with another leaping grab in the end zone.
After the Griz stalled at midfield, Adams finally went deep, finding Hill over the top and covered only by linebacker John Kanongata’a. Ten seconds later, the Eagles were up 21-10.
“I saw it and I think Vernon did too – we were on the same page,” said Hill, whose 86-yard catch and run was the longest play of the game.
With 3:29 to work with on their last drive of the half, the Eagles moved 66 yards in six plays, with Adams hitting Cory Mitchell for 27 yards and finally Kupp yet again – 34 yards, as Kupp caught a short pass over the middle, left a defender sprawling on a deft face, and raced into the end zone with 18 seconds left before halftime.