When a sea of black jerseys and red-clad fans jubilantly huddled around an NCAA Football Championship Subdivision title trophy at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas, it was one of two historic 2010 bookends for Eastern Washington University.
Many consider Week 3 the first.
After a season-opening 49-24 loss against a dynamic Nevada team that finished No. 11 in a higher tier of Division I football, and a narrow 35-32 win against Division II power Central Washington in Seattle, the Eagles were primed to do what nobody in college football had done: play a game on red turf.
The unveiling of EWU’s revamped stadium was promulgated by the installation of its field now famously known as “The Inferno,” bringing a record crowd of more than 11,000 fans to Cheney for the home opener.
Facing then-Big Sky Conference juggernaut and rival Montana had a way of heightening the excitement at Roos Field, formerly known as Woodward Stadium before ex-EWU offensive tackle turned Tennessee Titans starter Michael Roos donated $500,00 to the red turf project earlier that year.
The Eagles went on to beat Montana in a 36-27 thriller on Sept. 18, 2010, in a showcase FCS game, a win that springboarded EWU’s Big Sky and national title runs.
The buildupMontana, which reached the two previous FCS national title games and had won 12 straight Big Sky titles, was the preseason conference favorite ahead of EWU, ranked No. 2 in both media and coaches Big Sky polls. The Eagles were knocked out of the first round of the 2009 playoffs, but returned a load of talent and defense and perhaps the most dynamic player in FCS football that year: future NFL draft pick and lighting-quick running back Taiwan Jones. Montana, also ranked No. 1 nationally in the preseason polls, suffered a 35-33 upset loss at Cal Poly a week before facing EWU. The No. 18 Eagles were determined to hand the Grizzlies a rare consecutive loss, despite losing 10 of their past 12 meetings against the Missoula school. EWU believed the red-turf frenzy would help its cause.
Tyler Hobbs (former Montana defensive lineman and West Valley graduate): The red turf was a shock, really, but credit EWU for putting an investment into their facility and developing all that buzz around “The Inferno.” Looking back, I remember we’d use that red turf-hype that EWU had as a source of motivation, and I had family that went to EWU and played at EWU (cousin Craig McIntyre), so there was a lot of banter going back and forth before that game about that turf. Wow, it was bright, but once you got going, it was football.
Bo Levi Mitchell (former EWU quarterback and current Canadian Football League star of the Calgary Stampeders): When I showed up to EWU (after transferring from Southern Methodist), I wanted to make a great impression on the guys, and learning the history – and the hatred they had for Montana – was big. It ended up being one of the biggest rivalries I’ve ever been a part of. I knew that if I wanted to be mentioned among the great EWU quarterbacks like Erik Meyer and Matt Nichols, I would have to play well against Montana. It was a battle.
Renard Williams (former EWU defensive tackle): It was a special time. The red turf was so big-time for us, and playing Montana made it even bigger. They brought in extra stands. It was such a beautiful day, we had an abundance of talent at every position. There were so many people there that I think the school still uses panoramic pictures during kickoff of the packed stadium.
Brandon Kaufman: (former EWU wide receiver): In my (2009) freshman year at Eastern, there wasn’t that type of excitement. That red turf helped change that and we were about to play a pretty good Montana team. I remember (then-EWU head coach Beau) Baldwin addressing before the game that Montana was the team of the 2000s and that this was our opportunity to start a decade where we’d be the best Big Sky team of 2010s. It was our turn. We prepared all summer for that.
Rough startLike its two previous games, EWU’s offense came out sluggishly and trailed the Grizzlies 14-0 midway through the first quarter. Mitchell, in his third game after transferring from Southern Methodist, was intercepted by future NFL cornerback Trumaine Johnson, who returned the pick for 47 yards for a Montana score. EWU fumbled on the subsequent kick return, leading to 27-yard Jabin Sambrano touchdown run to put the Eagles in a two-score hole.
Hobbs: EWU had some good players, so we knew they weren’t going away. One of the reasons we enjoyed the success we did was because we believed we could beat every team but also respected every team, and we’d been down by a lot of points before and come back.
Mitchell: You put so much pressure on yourself. I think my bad interception got us going, though. Once we trailed 14-0, there was no excuse to play nervous at that point. It wasn’t the prettiest brand of football always, but we were a scrappy team. Guys like linebacker J.C. Sherritt were still positive on the sidelines when we got down.
Williams: We had to make adjustments. We had so much talent, it wasn’t a matter of “we can’t hang.” We didn’t have the talent most years to compete with Montana and that year we did. We just had to push ahead after they took that early lead.
Kaufman: It was a hiccup, not the worst thing in the world. We felt confident we’d get back in the game.
EWU offense, Jones get on track After trailing by two touchdowns, EWU answered by manufacturing its best drive of the half, capped by 32-yard touchdown pass to Kaufman. EWU also scored first in the second quarter, when Jones took an inside handoff, bounced to the outside and bolted for a 72-yard touchdown run. Jones finished the game with a career-high 221 rushing yards.
Hobbs: (Jones) was legit. So fast. You see him on film and he’s fast, but in person he was even faster. Once EWU got going, they were tough to stop. They began beating us on all fronts. Tough to slow down. Everything we threw down, they would counter. It would take the wind out of our sails.
Mitchell: I’d throw a tiny checkdown, and (Jones) would make nine of 11 guys miss. The moment he’d get through a hole, he’d take off. A special player and one of the best running backs I’ve ever played with.
Williams: (Jones) made it look effortless. I’d just be on the sidelines, seeing that speed. Running and being fast was just natural for him because he was a track guy. He jumped out of a pool, so that tells you what kind of athlete he was for us.
Kaufman: I just remember always needing to keep blocking downfield, because you never knew what was going to happen with (Jones). He was all over and, before you knew, we was right up behind you.
Special teams were special Montana took a 21-14 lead into halftime, but EWU special teams came up big in the third quarter when kicker Mike Jarrett hit the first of his three second-half field goals and Darriel Beaumonte blocked a Montana punt and returned for a 6-yard score to give the Eagles a 24-21 cushion, their first lead of the day. Montana kicker Brody McKnight knotted the score at 24 heading to the fourth quarter with a 53-yard boot.
Hobbs: When the offense is marching down the field, and it ends up in three points. That’s wearing on a defense.
Mitchell: It seemed like every game, a group screwed up at one point. (Special teams) was big. Without them, I don’t think we make the comeback that day.
Williams: A lot of big-momentum plays, really. A back-and-forth game. When Mitchell (17-for -37 passing for 234 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions) got back on track and showed (up) when we needed him to, that opened a lot of people’s eyes.
Kaufman: With all the energy in the stadium that day, you couldn’t hold us back heading into that fourth quarter.
Crunch timeIn a game rife with turnovers – Montana had six with Williams recording two fumble recoveries and teammate Matt Johnson with two key interceptions – the defensive theme continued in a pivotal fourth quarter. Jarrett and McKnight exchanged field goals to make it a 27-all game with 1:33 to play, but holding the Griz to a field goal near the goal line proved to be a major defensive sequence for EWU. The Eagles marched down the field in the final minutes – a 17-yard completion to Greg Herd boosted the drive – and answered with Jarrett’s biggest kick of the night, a 31-yard field goal with 4 seconds left to put the Eagles ahead for good.
Williams: That was “Sweet Feet” right there. That’s what we called Jarrett. He had a big game.
Mitchell: There was a point late in the game when we were driving and I had a 20-yard run, but slid. I was happy about the run, but coach Baldwin lit me up for that, saying, “This is too important of a game for you to be sliding.”
Wild endingJarrett’s kick gave EWU a slim lead with 4 seconds left, so the Grizzlies made a desperate attempt of reaching the end zone by performing a series of laterals on the following kickoff return. When a Montana ball carrier appeared to be down, a horde of EWU fans rushed the field, but the ball was still live. It resulted in an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty and gave Montana’s offense one more shot at the end zone. A play later, EWU defensive lineman Jerry Ceja came up with a strip sack and Williams picked up the fumble and rumbled for a 38-yard touchdown, an ending EWU play-by-play man Larry Weir called a “cherry on the sundae” in the live broadcast.
Williams: I remember not wanting to get beat deep on a Hail Mary. We went with a three-man front, I came off the ball, Jerry busted through, forced the fumble and the ball just came right to me. It was really the icing on the cake. That was my first touchdown since junior high, and I can thank Jerry for helping give me a memory I tell my grandchildren one day.
Mitchell: Jarrett was clutch for us all season and we thought we had it after he made the last field goal. But in football, you always expect the craziest things to happen. I remember (those laterals by Montana) took forever, the penalty and Renard’s touchdown. I was definitely a late-game player, and I think that was how our team was, too.
Kaufman: When Renard scored that touchdown, it was the biggest sigh of relief. That was the start of EWU’s 10-year run right there.
Hobbs: We had our chances in that game and didn’t get it done, and I definitely heard about it from my (Spokane) family. While I didn’t like losing to EWU, it was good to see a Big Sky team go on represent our conference and win a national championship – even if it was the Eastern Eagles.
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