From the opening kickoff, this game was all about handling adversity – even if it happened a year ago.
However, that 41-point whipping last year in Missoula was only one piece of the emotional baggage Eastern Washington carried through Saturday’s Big Sky Conference football game against Montana.
The Eagles also dealt with a slow start, a pressing Montana defense and a steady rain that soaked a crowd of 10,931 at Roos Field.
In the end, they prevailed 35-16 while bolstering the adage that the winning team is the one that better deals with adversity.
“The conditions weren’t perfect for football a lot of the time, but in the end we found a way to grind and get a win,” Eastern coach Beau Baldwin said after his fifth win over the Grizzlies in the last six meetings.
Now the Eagles will get a chance to handle prosperity. Third-ranked in the FCS and sure to stay that way, the Eagles are still tied for first place in the Big Sky with three games left in the regular season.
That other season – the playoffs – also beckons. At 7-1 overall against the toughest schedule in school history, the Eagles are a lock for the postseason. And a target for everyone else.
The bull’s-eye was already on their backs Saturday against a Montana team that was facing some adversity of its own: an 0-2 road record in the Big Sky. The Griz needed a signature win to boost their postseason résumé, and played with the requisite emotion for most of the first half.
Montana led 7-0 and dominated all phases of the game in the first quarter; quarterback Brady Gustafson looked calm in the pocket, dumping off short passes and moving the chains.
Meanwhile, the Eastern offense mustered just 21 yards on its first three possessions.
It would have been 10-0 but for a missed 48-yard field goal.
That was Eastern’s opening. Taking the deep ball that Montana was inviting him to throw, quarterback Gage Gubrud found receiver Cooper Kupp in stride for a 69-yard score.
Eastern would never trail again. After getting the ball back on downs, Baldwin went to his bag of tricks. Running a reverse, Kupp took the ball and fired downfield to Gubrud, who went 54 yards to the Montana 2.
“It’s not going to look good on film,” Kupp said after the game.
“It’s too bad our quarterback runs a 5.2 40 and wasn’t able to get in there for me,” he joked.
Countered Gubrud, “I thought I had turned on the jets; I thought I was going to score.”
Two plays later, Tamarick Pierce finished the job and Eastern led 14-7.
To that point, Montana had run 40 plays to just 17 for Eastern, outgaining the Eagles 185-158 while converting 7 of 10 third down chances.
But the tide was turning. EWU safety Mitch Fettig intercepted Gustafson deep in Eagles territory, and Eastern responded with an eight-play, 73-yard drive capped by Gubrud’s 5-yard touchdown pass to Kupp that made it 21-7.
“We’re playing with a lot of passion,” Fettig said.
Case in point: when Montana running back Jeremy Calhoun broke free for 65 yards down the left sideline, EWU defensive end Samson Ebukam chased him down at the 17.
“Honestly, I didn’t think I was going to catch up to him, but that’s the mentality we have,” Ebukam said. “So I just kept going, and when I gained ground on him, I said ‘sweet.’”
Six plays later, the Griz had to settle for Tim Semenza’s 20-yard field goal that trimmed the EWU lead to 21-10 at halftime.
Eastern stretched the lead to 28-10 midway through the third quarter on Kupp’s third touchdown catch of the game, a diving effort on a 40-yard pass from Gubrud.
Kupp finished with eight catches for 140 yards and three scores, but the Eagles weren’t done. Gubrud’s fourth TD pass, a 13-yarder to Shaq Hill, made it 35-10 late in the third.
Montana got one back on Gustafson’s 47-yard pass to Keenan Curran, but finished with its lowest point total against Eastern since the teams played to a 14-14 tie in 1984.
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