Eastern Washington standout quarterback Eric Barriere did what he does.
And so did Montana’s stingy defense – for the first 30 minutes.
The chess match between Barriere and the Grizzlies’ frequent blitzes made for must-see television on ESPN2 and in person for 7,944 fans at Roos Field.
It took awhile, but Barriere and the Eagles got the better of the matchup by directing an impressive second-half comeback in EWU’s 34-28 thrilling victory late Saturday night.
Montana’s defense had allowed just two touchdowns in three games prior to Saturday’s showdown. The Grizzlies posted 35 straight possessions without allowing a point after Washington drove for a touchdown on the first series of the season opener. The Grizzlies had allowed just two plays over 20 yards, the longest covering 31 yards.
Barriere, one of the top candidates for the Walter Payton Award presented annually to the top player in the Football Championship Division, promptly guided EWU to a touchdown on its first possession, sparked by a 51-yard connection with Talolo Limu-Jones. Andrew Boston coasted in from 9 yards out behind a pair of great blocks by EWU receivers.
The Grizzlies counterpunched by dialing up the pressure, augmenting their three-man defensive front with one, two or three additional pass-rushers on probable passing downs.
The result: four first-half sacks of Barriere for minus-50 yards.
The blitz usually came from standout linebackers Jace Lewis, Patrick O’Connell and Marcus Welnel. Montana disguised its pressure as linebackers slid into gaps just before the ball was snapped and several times were untouched pursuing the senior quarterback.
The Grizzlies even mixed in a zone blitz with a lineman dropping into a passing lane on EWU’s final possession of the first half.
EWU’s offense, No. 1 in the nation at 635.8 yards in its first four games, produced its share of big plays against a defense that usually gives up few.
Barriere zipped a 40-yard completion to Limu-Jones, but the drive stalled when Welnel sacked the senior quarterback.
Barriere also found Efton Chism III for 28 yards and Robert Mason III for 23 while passing for 271 yards in the first half. The problem was all the yardage – 282 in the opening half – didn’t add up to a lot of points. EWU trailed 14-10 at the break.
Limu-Jones had a big half with seven grabs for 149 yards, but it could have been much bigger. One of Barriere’s best throws was a deep ball that bounced off Limu-Jones fingertips inside Montana’s 10-yard line on EWU’s third possession.
Montana stymied EWU’s second series at the Grizzlies’ 37-yard line with three straight blitzes that forced Barriere incompletions.
The back-and-forth continued in the second half but not Montana’s defensive effectiveness. The Grizzlies only sacked Barriere once in the second half.
The Eagles trailed 21-10, but the momentum flipped late in the third quarter when they blocked Montana’s 49-yard field-goal attempt.
Barriere, given time against a seven-man pass rush, fired a 9-yard scoring pass to Boston to trim Montana’s lead to 21-16 early in the fourth quarter.
Then, after another EWU key defensive stand, Barriere hit Limo-Jones in stride for 58 yards just before Lewis drilled Barriere in the pocket. Micah Smith barreled in from the 2 on the next play and Barriere’s run on the 2-point conversion gave EWU a 24-21 lead with 13:26 left.
Barriere scrambled for a pair of first downs against Montana’s blitz as EWU added a field goal for a 34-28 lead with 1:21 remaining.
Barriere finished 26 of 46 for 422 yards and a pair of touchdowns to move his record to 15-0 at home as the starter.
EWU has won 19 straight on the red turf.
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