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Eagles beat Grizzlies, advance to quarterfinals

UPDATED: Sat., Dec. 6, 2014

Montana brought a fresh script to its encore performance with Eastern Washington on Saturday afternoon. The Eagles came in with something more important – fresh legs and an aggressive attitude on defense – and rode them all the way to a 37-20 win over their Big Sky Conference rivals in a second-round FCS playoff game at Roos Field. Ahead lies the home stretch, and the Eagles feel they’re hitting their stride entering next Saturday’s quarterfinal game against Illinois State. “In this game we were a little fresher,” coach Beau Baldwin said. Benefiting from bye in the first-round, fourth-ranked Eastern set the tone Saturday with relentless defensive pressure in the first half, then rediscovered its offensive timing just before halftime and led by double digits the rest of the way. If only it were that easy. Montana twice cut the deficit to 10 points in the fourth quarter, but Eastern (11-2) always had an answer, the most emphatic coming on safety Todd Raynes’ 40-yard pick-six that sealed the game with 1:40 to play. “It’s a great feeling,” Raynes said. “I’m still shaking right now.” Meanwhile, the Grizzlies are probably shaking their heads after a fourth straight loss to the Eagles – and the second this year – despite holding Eastern to a season-low 394 yards total offense. Fresh legs or not, Eastern’s defense did even better, holding the Griz to just 90 yards of total offense in the first half while the Eagles took a 13-3 lead into halftime. The key was an aggressive approach to defending Montana’s up-tempo zone-read offense, which the Griz rode to one-sided wins over Montana State and San Diego. The biggest concern? The mobility of Montana quarterback Jordan Johnson. “We knew how versatile Jordan Johnson is and we knew we had to keep him in the pocket,” defensive tackle Dylan Zylstra said. “They’re a great team, but the couple of weeks off was really nice.” The Eagles defense seemed a step quicker the entire first half, giving up a field goal while forcing four punts – one of which led to the first score of the game. With Montana punter Chris Lider at his own 12-yard-line midway through the second quarter, linebacker Ronnie Hamlin broke through, got a hand on the ball, and then fell on Lider at the 2. Two plays later, quarterback Vernon Adams Jr. hit tight end Terry Jackson II for a 2-yard score. The punt block was no accident. “They had changed some things they’d done, and we felt it was there,” special teams coach Jeff Schmedding said. Meanwhile, the Eastern offense moved fitfully in the first half against a Montana defense that was determined not to give the big plays it conceded during the Eagles’ 36-26 win on Nov. 8. “We knew they were probably going to play a little bit softer, and they did,” said quarterback Vernon Adams Jr., who finished 24 for 35 for 182 yards and one touchdown. “I thought we did a great job. We did a better job taking the easy ones quicker and not being greedy.” That was an understatement: By intermission, Eastern’s longest pass play was for 13 yards and its longest run for all of 9. EWU’s total offensive output: 146 yards. Finally, in the waning seconds of the first half, Adams took the Eagles on 15-play, 81-yard drive that ended with his 3-yard keeper into the end zone with 9 seconds left. Getting the ball to start the second half, the Eagles got untracked. Running back Quincy Forte opened with a 21-yard run and Adams completed six straight passes before hitting Cory Mitchell for a 22-yard score to make it 20-3. Montana responded with a touchdown, but Eastern countered with a 75-yard drive that showcased its ground game. Sacked five times in the first half, Adams would never be wrapped up again until he was in positive territory. On third-and-6 from the Montana 40, Adams dashed up the middle for 5, then dusted himself off and converted the ensuing fourth-and-1 with another 5-yarder. Two plays later, Forte was in the end zone after a 27-yard run aided by a nice block from receiver Kendrick Bourne. After halftime, Montana all-American end Zack Wagenmann said, the Eagles “made some adjustments in the run game, and were able to get some chunk plays, extend some drives.” “We were playing a lot and they had us on the field a lot,” Wagenmann said. Now trailing 27-10, the Grizzlies made it a two-score game with Daniel Sullivan’s 27-yard field goal on the first play of the fourth quarter, but Tyler McNannay pushed the lead back to 17 with a 23-yard kick following a Montana fumble The Grizzlies (9-5) closed to 30-20 on Johnson’s 30-yard TD pass to Travon Van with 6:29 left to set up the same scenario as the Nov. 8 game, and Eastern obliged when Adams was intercepted in the Montana end zone with 1:57 to play. The drama was short-lived, thanks to Raynes. “We were in Cover 3, and I saw a seam open,” said Raynes, who also had a pick in the third quarter. “Our coaches tell us that when the ball is in the air, it’s ours.” Forty yards later, so was the game.
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