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Sports >  EWU football

Montana dominates special teams, run game to knock Eastern Washington out of FCS playoffs

Dec. 3, 2021 Updated Fri., Dec. 3, 2021 at 11:52 p.m.

By Dan Thompson For The Spokesman-Review

As Eric Barriere heaved up pass after pass, the Montana Grizzlies simply went about their business.

They dominated special teams. They leaned on their run game.

And in the end, they prevented Barriere from beating them simply by taking what the Eagles gave them.

Sixth-seeded Montana defeated Eastern Washington 57-41 on Friday night in Missoula, advancing to the Football Championship Subdivision quarterfinals and eliminating its Big Sky rival from the postseason.

The Grizzlies scored more points than any other team had against the Eagles this season and also avenged a 34-28 loss earlier this season in Cheney.

“Obviously, it was a dominating win. It wasn’t close,” Montana coach Bobby Hauck said. “It was fun to go out and get it.”

Special teams, a season-long weakness , were disastrous for the Eagles . Under pressure most of the game, Nick Kokich had a punt blocked and failed to turn the field on most of his others.

While Eastern frequently settled for fair catches on kickoffs and short returns on punts, Montana repeatedly found ample space to bring back both, setting up its offense with short fields time and again. That netted Montana an 18-yard advantage over Eastern in starting field position.

“We didn’t put the defense in a lot of great situations throughout the game,” Eagles coach Aaron Best said. “Special teams was a little bit of the Achilles’ heel today. A lot of momentum back and forth. We just didn’t have enough to get it done today.”

Eastern held the ball 11 minutes longer than Montana and ran 50 more plays , but that was largely because the Eagles had so much more ground to cover.

Barriere completed 47 of a career-high 80 attempts and threw just one late interception after the game was out of hand (it was returned for a touchdown). He finished with five touchdowns and 530 passing yards, his third most in a game this season.

He finished his season with 5,070 passing yards, the third highest single-season total among FCS quarterbacks, and 46 touchdown passes (seventh best). Barriere will end his career with 13,809 passing yards, the third most among FCS quarterbacks.

“There will never be another Eric Barriere to come through the Big Sky,” Eagles senior receiver Talolo Limu-Jones said. “And as for Eastern, I feel like he left a great legacy for the next generation to hit.”

Limu-Jones finished with 14 catches for two touchdowns and 215 yards to push him past 1,000 for the season. Fellow senior Andrew Boston had 14 catches for 141 yards. Boston also caught one touchdown.

But with the high volume of passes came more missed opportunities. Such was the case for Barriere, who on key second-half plays tossed an ill-advised backward pass to no one (Montana recovered the fumble), missed Freddie Roberson on a sure touchdown and also saw balls go through his receivers’ hands.

Considering their second-half deficit, as well as their disadvantage in turnovers and field position, the Eagles simply couldn’t afford those miscues.

“A couple big returns and the blocked punt, that’ll do it to most teams,” Best said. “We hung in there till the better part of that middle fourth quarter, so even with all those issues we had in those departments we did a great job, had a good enough plan. But any time you’re playing at the 50-yard line on defense each and every series, it’s tough to hold any team to a low number of points.”

For the first 17 minutes, the tempo was much more in the Eagles’ favor. During that span, they took a 21-10 lead on touchdown receptions by Boston and Jakobie James along with a 57-yard rushing score by Dennis Merritt.

The Eagles (10-3) also held the Grizzlies without a conversion on their first six third-down plays.

From there, though, the Eagles unraveled.

Montana scored the final 10 points of the half to cut EWU’s lead to 21-20, then the Grizzlies (10-2) scored 10 more points within the first 3 minutes of the second half to take a 30-21 lead they didn’t relinquish.

By the end of the third quarter, the score was 44-28.

After that, Eastern had little choice but to keep throwing the football. In the fourth quarter, Barriere attempted 33 throws while the offense ran just four times.

Eastern finished with a 608-368 advantage in total yards of offense, but on a per-play basis, Montana was more efficient (6.2 to 5.6).

Ultimately, Montana’s ability to take care of business on offense – it never turned over the football, and it ran for 208 yards – was enough: Three of Montana’s six touchdown drives required the Grizzlies to gain fewer than 20 yards.

“Anytime, if you’re going to try to throw the ball 80 times, and we’re going to rush for 200, you’re never gonna beat us,” Hauck said. “You’re never, never, ever going to have a chance to beat us in that particular game.”

Montana advances to face either No. 3 seed James Madison or Southeastern Louisiana, who play Saturday.

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