For seven games, Eastern Washington’s offense set a standard of excellence that was higher than all of its FCS peers.
Seven-touchdown games. Record-breaking yardage totals. A senior quarterback who could do it all.
But similar to what happened two weeks ago, on Saturday a defense – in this case, Montana State’s – demonstrated that the Eagles’ offense can be held in check and that it can even be done on Eastern’s home red turf.
Big Sky leading rusher Isaiah Ifanse ran 32 times for 217 yards, more than double Eastern’s rushing total, and in a contest between top-five teams, it was the fourth-ranked Bobcats (8-1, 6-0), and not the fifth-ranked Eagles (7-2, 4-2), who secured a signature Big Sky Conference victory, 23-20 at Roos Field.
The Bobcats did so despite a missed field-goal attempt, a failed fourth down in the Eagles’ red zone and giving away two turnovers and taking away none. That ended a streak of 63 consecutive victories for Eastern Washington when it won the turnover differential, a streak that dated to 2009.
But Eastern’s offense couldn’t turn enough of those extra chances into points.
Shortly after the failed fourth down, Montana State got two points on a safety when Eastern was called for holding in its end zone.
That proved crucial, as did a failed 2-point conversion attempt after the first of two Eagles touchdowns during what was their most productive quarter: the first.
But those were dwarfed by the stark difference in each team’s ability to run the ball and sustain drives. Montana State outgained Eastern 544-314 and held a 12-minute edge in time of possession.
After the game, Eagles coach Aaron Best recounted the rushing line for his team – 33 carries for 100 yards – and said simply, “That’s not good enough.”
Quarterback Eric Barriere was efficient from a percentage standpoint, completing 21 of 31 passes without committing a turnover. But those completions went for just 214 yards, a season low.
That followed a 245-yard effort in last week’s 35-34 loss to Weber State.
Best said his team is too good at quarterback, too good at receiver, to settle for that many yards.
But to be better through the air, Best said, the Eagles also need to run the ball more.
“And I don’t think we did that enough consistently to be able to bring those safeties to the line of scrimmage,” Best said.
The Eagles also were called for costly penalties: Andrew Boston was flagged for offensive pass interference when he pushed a Bobcats cornerback down in a one-on-one end-zone battle. That drive ended in a punt.
Fellow senior Talolo Limu-Jones caught a team-high six passes for 94 yards and a score, but he also committed a false-start penalty and dropped a pass, mistakes he owned after the game.
“I feel like there were a lot of mistakes on offense: a penalty by me, making us go down first-and-15 … then I drop a bubble for a first down,” Limu-Jones said. “We did some things wrong. I take the blame on some of it.”
All that happened during another midgame doldrum for the Eagles’ offense: a stretch of seven drives – plus a kneel-down before halftime – when it gained 83 yards on 36 plays.
“We’ve got to find ways, especially against really good defenses, to score more points,” Best said. “I don’t know if it’s creativity. I don’t know if it’s a lack of execution.
“You’ve got to give those defenses credit, because they take some things away, but if they take something away then something else is open.”
Yet just as it did in the fourth quarter against Weber State, Eastern’s offense found life in the fourth quarter, with a five-play, 45-yard touchdown drive that ended on a 1-yard Dennis Merritt touchdown run with 7:39 left.
That and the extra point cut Eastern’s deficit to 23-20.
Six plays later, the Eagles forced the Bobcats to punt – but the punt was a 56-yard beauty that bounced out at the EWU 3-yard line.
With 3:55 left, Barriere took a designed run 4 yards to the sideline on first down and connected with Boston for a 5-yard gain on second down.
But on third-and-1, Merritt couldn’t find room outside right tackle, taking a 2-yard loss. With under 3 minutes left and holding all three timeouts, Best opted to punt.
Ifanse gained 7 yards, then 5 more, then 7 and 5 more again – just about at his average of 6.8 yards per carry Saturday – before Montana State knelt down to kill the clock.
Before its loss to Weber State, Eastern Washington had won 20 consecutive home games. Now it has lost two in a row at Roos Field, where it hopes to play again in the playoffs.
The Eagles will close out the regular season with games at UC Davis (8-1, 5-1) and Portland State (5-4, 4-2) – which won at Weber State (4-5, 3-3) on Saturday – looking for that elusive eighth victory that would seemingly clinch a playoff spot.
“It ain’t over,” Eagles senior linebacker Ty Graham said. “Chin up. We can take some punches.
“We’ll probably see them (Montana State) down the road. So, I’m excited about it. Our season’s far from over. We’ve got the best player in the country. Anything can happen, and I fully believe that.”
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