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Eastern’s defense was up to task

Eastern Washington “wild man” Dylan Zylstra celebrates a five-point road victory over Montana. (Jim Allen photo)
Eastern Washington “wild man” Dylan Zylstra celebrates a five-point road victory over Montana. (Jim Allen photo)

MISSOULA – The Eastern Washington defense was living on the edge late in Saturday’s win over Montana, but positively thrived on it for much of the game.

With the Eagles leading 28-17 at halftime and going three-and-out on their first offensive possession, it fell to the defense to buy a little time while giving Montana quarterback Jordan Johnson as little time as possible.

The Eagles’ defense set the tone immediately, holding the Grizzlies to four yards in three plays, then forced another punt after Montana had first-and-10 at the Eagles’ 32-yard line. The key play was a 15-yard penalty on the Grizzlies for illegal use of hands – partly the product of aggressive defensive line play.

A year ago, the Eagles defense was pushed around by Montana to the tune of 407 rushing yards, most of them off tackle. Not this time.

“The motors were really running,” said Eastern defensive tackle Dylan Zylstra, who shrugged off a couple of early personal fouls. One of them helped Montana close to within 21-17 in the second quarter, but may have paid dividends later.

“The coaches may get mad at me, but they also want me to be a bit of the wild man out there,” Zylstra said. “That’s better than coming out flat and getting pushed around.”

While Eastern’s offense eventually came around with two third-quarter touchdowns, the Eagles held Montana to 56 total yards in what turned out to be the decisive quarter. The Grizzlies running game stalled and they reverted to a short passing game that Zylstra said made the Eagles defenders “feel pretty good about how we were playing the run.”

Even in the middle of the Montana comeback, the defense made some big stops. After quarterback Vernon Adams was intercepted for the second time, defenders held the Grizzlies to a 9-yard passing play on third-and-10.

That forced a tough decision on Montana coach Mick Delaney, whose team trailed 42-31 with 5:20 left and facing a fourth-and-1 at the Eagles’ 22. Delaney elected to send in kicker Ben Worst, who was wide right from 39 yards.