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Late comeback lifts Eagles past MSU

Eastern Washington used a big fourth-quarter comeback to post a 35-24 homecoming win over visiting Big Sky Conference rival Montana State at Woodward Field on Saturday.

I've attached an unedited version of the game story that will appear in Sunday morning's S-R below, and I'll be back with another post -- containing additional thoughts and post-game comments, along with links to related stories -- sometime tomorrow.

Until then . . . 

With his close friend and favorite target, Aaron Boyce, propped up on crutches and watching from the sidelines, Matt Nichols admitted Saturday’s Big Sky Conference football game against Montana State had a strange feel to it.



But ultimately, Eastern Washington University’s senior quarterback restored order and made everything feel a lot more familiar by throwing for 327 yards and four touchdowns to lift the Eagles to an important 35-24 win over flu-riddled Montana State at Woodward Field.



A homecoming crowd of 6,632 was on hand to watch Nichols direct three fourth-quarter touchdown drives that erased a 24-10 MSU lead and kept the Eagles’ post-season playoff hopes alive – should the NCAA decide to eventually lift the post-season ban it slapped on the program last February.



Despite the uneven play of his offense, which generated only one first down in the first 28 minutes of the game, Eastern coach Beau Baldwin said he was proud of his team for “staying with it.”



“Any time you’re down 10 in the second half, that’s not an easy task,” he added. “But we found a way. Guys made plays, and it’s a great feeling for them right now.”



Although the Eagles will officially celebrate Senior Day next Saturday, when they take on Portland State at Quest Field in Seattle, Saturday’s game still had plenty of emotional overtones.  It was the last chance for Nichols and 14 of his fellow classmates to play at Woodward Field, while two others – Boyce, who ruptured an Achilles tendon in last weekend’s loss to Montana and linebacker Kyle Wilkins, who suffered a season-ending knee injury during practice this week – never got that opportunity.



“It was very weird,” Nichols said of not having Boyce on the field. “But it was still great to have him on the sidelines. He was joking with me the whole game and saying the same stuff he says when he’s out there playing. He kept it light-hearted and made sure I didn’t get too upset about the bad things that were happening.



“He’s still a great leader.”



Without Boyce to turn to, Nichols spread his passes around, connecting on 26 of 41 throws to seven different receivers – including freshman Brandon Kaufman, whose 13-yard reception on 4th-and-10 from near midfield kept alive the first of Eastern’s three fourth-quarters scoring drives. Nichols capped the drive, which cut MSU’s lead to 24-21, with a 19-yard touchdown pass to sophomore running back Taiwan Jones, who finished with six catches for 149 yards and another 38-yard catch-and-run touchdown on the Eagles’ next possession.



Jones’ second TD catch put Eastern up 28-24, and the Eagles tacked on an insurance score on a four-yard run by Tyler Hart that was the first rushing touchdown allowed by the Bobcats (4-3, 2-2) this season.



Still, it was Kaufman’s big catch that seemed to impress Baldwin the most.



“Just my gut,” Baldwin said when asked why he decided to gamble on fourth down from MSU’s 42-yard line. “I really wanted to play to win, but ultimately, the players make the plays, and that might have been the play of the game.



“You look back on a game sometimes and you find that one play somewhere, and that 4th-and-10 throw and catch between Nichols and Kaufman was big.  And that’s not taking anything away from what Mr. (Taiwan) Jones did there for awhile.”



Nichols praised the play of all his receivers, but singled out Jones, who also turned a short catch into 53-yard gain on Eastern’s final scoring drive.



“Before the game, I told him I was little disappointed he hadn’t take a screen for a touchdown for me yet,” Nichols explained, “and he ended up taking two of them in today. You can’t say enough about Taiwan. The guy is amazing – the fastest guy I’ve ever seen on the field – and he made some huge plays for us today to get us in position to win the game.”



MSU played without six starters and its top two placekickers, who were sidelined with flu-like symptoms. That left Coach Rob Ash limited with what he could do with his kicking game and it cost the Bobcats, who failed on two PAT kicks and a pair of two-point conversion tries. 



The Bobcats, who got 135 rushing yards and touchdown from C.J. Palmer and outgained the Eagles 592 yards to 394, were also shaken by a call that went against them late in the game when it appeared that Everett Gilbert might have caught a short 4th-down touchdown pass in the back left corner of the end zone.  But after a lengthy huddle, the officials ruled Gilbert did not get a foot down in bounds, and Eastern took over on it’s own 4-yard line, from where it marched 96 yards for the game’s final touchdown.


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