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Eastern Washington avoids 0-3 start in offensive shootout

Eastern running back Jabari Wilson dives for extra yards while being undercut by Montana State’s Devin Jeffries in second quarter. (Dan Pelle)
Eastern running back Jabari Wilson dives for extra yards while being undercut by Montana State’s Devin Jeffries in second quarter. (Dan Pelle)

So much for all the hand-wringing at the prospect of Eastern Washington opening the football season with three straight losses.

The prospects look a lot brighter now after the fireworks show Saturday afternoon at Roos Field, where the Eagles held off Montana State 55-50 in a nonconference game that seemed straight out of a video game.

Among the highlights:

• MSU coach Rob Ash going for it on fourth-and-3 from the Bobcats’ 35 on the first series of the game.

• Eastern receiver Cooper Kupp catching 12 balls for 201 yards from quarterback Jordan West, who set a school record for pass efficiency with a mark of 313.5.

• EWU’s Jabari Wilson rushing for a career-high 188 yards.

• The offenses combining for 105 points and 1,385 yards.

All those numbers, and they added up to one.

“It feels great,” Eastern coach Beau Baldwin said after the game. “The first win is usually the hardest, so it feels good.”

It certainly wasn’t easy. The 14th-ranked Eagles led by three touchdowns in the second quarter and by 17 points early in the fourth but couldn’t celebrate until Nzuzi Webster’s game-clinching interception with 8 seconds left.

Played on a gorgeous late-summer day, the sold-out game lived up to the hype – and the hope of Eastern fans reeling from losses to Oregon and Northern Iowa. The top two teams in the Big Sky Conference preseason polls played that way – certainly the offenses, which for the most part marched unhindered up and down the field.

Twice in the first quarter, the Eagles stopped 11th-ranked MSU on fourth down and took a quick 14-0 lead. Late in the game, leading 55-44, the Eagles lost a chance to put the game away when running back Malcolm Williams lost a fumble.

Finally, with 33 seconds left and a chance to give the Eagles an eight-point lead, kicker Tyler McNannay was wide left on a 27-yard field-goal try. It fell to Webster to stop the Bobcats’ last try as MSU quarterback Dakota Prukop looked upfield.

“I backpedaled, stayed in my zone, read the quarterback’s eyes and got into position to make the play,” Webster said.

But just as they did in a 52-51 Eagles win last year in Bozeman, the offenses made most of the plays. Prukop passed for 353 yards – to eight receivers – and ran for another 196, keeping the Eastern defense off balance all day.

With the Bobcats trailing 34-17 midway through the third quarter, Prukop led them on five straight touchdown drives to put the pressure on Eastern’s offense to respond.

“He (Prukop) is going to will himself back into the game,” Baldwin said. “That’s what he was doing at the end of the game and it was a battle down to the end.”

West was up to the task, completing 21 of 24 pass attempts for 410 yards and six touchdowns to four receivers. Twice in the second half, the Bobcats closed to within 10 points, but West responded on both occasions. His 34-yard touchdown pass to Kupp restored the Eagles’ three-score lead, 55-38, with 12:47 left.

West was at his best on third and fourth down: a 78-yard TD pass to Nic Sblendorio on third-and-6 from the EWU 22 that made it 21-7 late in the first quarter; and a fourth-down, 35-yard scoring strike to Kendrick Bourne that put Eastern up 48-31 late in the third.

“Jordan just stood in there just so calm today – he was so poised,” Baldwin said. “He stayed right in there in the pocket. I was proud of him and our players on offense. We made a lot of growth from game two to three and that was good to see.”

That included the running game, which had gained a total of 137 yards in losses at Oregon and Northern Iowa. Improving it “was a focal point all week in practice,” said Wilson, who finished with two scores.

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