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Eastern Washington University Football
Sports >  EWU football

John Blanchette: Eastern Washington’s less-than-special special teams surrender playoff win to Montana

UPDATED: Fri., Dec. 3, 2021

By John Blanchette The Spokesman-Review

MISSOULA – Everyone’s favorite thing to do at baseball games is boo the opposing pitcher for pickoff throws for first. Can’t be sure why it’s such an affront, but it’s never not booed.

Here at Washington-Grizzly Stadium on Friday night, a football facsimile emerged.

Whenever the home team kicked off – and it kicked off a LOT – the visitors from Eastern Washington elected to fair catch and start their possessions on the 25-yard line. Didn’t matter if the ball was caught at the 1, the 11 or the 21. Never a return. Always a fair catch – well, at least until the game was hopelessly out of reach.

And always booed – more lustily as the game went on.

Again, other than denying the ticket buyers a few more open-field hits and the inevitable block in the back penalty every other return, it’s unclear why such umbrage was taken.

Indeed, it was a compliment.

It was borderline surrender.

It isn’t necessarily why Eastern’s season is over, but it was certainly symbolic that way – the Eagles seeming to play with their special teams tied behind their backs in falling to Montana, 57-41 in the second round of the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision playoffs.

“A dominating win,” Montana coach Bobby Hauck said.

It included a 30-7 Montana blitz over the course of a quarter and a half after intermission, during which time the Eagles missed on two wide-open pass plays that were certain touchdowns and turned over the ball with a Hail Mary lateral cribbed from the Pop Warner League JV – this on top of the ongoing special teams’ lack of, uh, specialness.

Turns out that not only did the Grizzlies deserve the bye they were given by the playoff committee, they got virtually two.

You may recall back before the start of the playoffs that EWU receiver Talolo Limu-Jones had much to say about the Eagles not being seeded (“We got snubbed”) and the Grizzlies getting that first-round bye, despite losing to Eastern in the regular season back in October.

“I feel like they didn’t deserve it,” Limu-Jones said then, adding, “They have to see us again, and I’m pretty sure they don’t want to.

It was about 4 minutes into the second quarter that Montana safety Gavin Robertson put Limu-Jones to the turf with a crackling hit that suggested he was mistaken.

Limu-Jones was nevertheless spectacular – 14 catches of the 80 passes thrown by quarterback Eric Barriere, 215 yards, two touchdowns. But he also had one of those touchdown drops, and his editorializing had to have touched a nerve.

“They kind of got called out,” Hauck said of his players, “and it wasn’t close.”

For his part, Limu-Jones turned up postgame to own his role.

“I said some things I stand on,” he said. “I don’t take back anything I said. I let my game do the talking today. After I scored, I never seen so many middle fingers pointed at me in my life.”

But for all the ill will – whether for-real or WWE-contrived – the fact is the Eagles didn’t respond when Montana turned up the temperature. That was both on the field and in the stands, where 24,065 impacted the proceeds more with their larynxes than their digits.

That Robertson hit started it – indeed, EWU coach Aaron Best went absolutely volcanic, to the extent that the officiating crew agreed to check it out for targeting, even though there was no flag (and no targeting).

On the next play, Hauck’s son Robby lit up running back Dennis Merritt – and did draw a flag. But review overturned it.

Three plays later, UM’s Ryan Tirrell – the coach’s nephew – blocked an Eastern punt (“they put in a new protection this week and we went after it,” Hauck said). That allowed the Grizzlies to pull within 21-20 at halftime, and changed the tone of the game, if not the momentum.

“Hard to spark momentum,” Hauck grumped, “when you stop the game for 5 minutes every time you look at a good hit.”

Well, it hardly helped Eastern’s rhythm on offense, either. That would become a more significant problem in that deciding third quarter.

And yet it still might have been overcome if not for Eastern’s ineptitude in all facets of the kick and return games.

“They have good kick return and cover units and coach Hauck is a special teams guy,” Best said. “The muffed punt (of Montana’s) that we touched and didn’t get early on – that might have made it a different story. Even with all those issues, we did a great job and had a good enough plan, but anytime you’re playing defense on the 50-yard line every series, it’s tough to hold any team.”

Obviously, it wasn’t the plan to have Barriere throw it 80 times. But this particular 530-yard day had to feel like an empty way to cap a spectacular career.

“Legacy is an understatement,” Best said. “He’s got a vibe about him. It’s pretty special for the three hours you see it, so imagine being around it seven days a week and 365 days a year.”

But on this day, there just wasn’t enough special to go around.

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