Shortly after the game, Calin Criner hadn’t had the chance yet to figure out which of his teammates knocked down Kris Brown’s throw into the end zone, but he knew what he was going to do when he did.
“They’re going to get a big hug from me,” Criner said.
The redshirt freshman Brown, playing for the injured senior Cam Humphrey, took a snap from the Eastern Washington 13-yard line, scrambled backward under pressure from three Eagles’ linemen and, backpedaling at the 25-yard line, heaved a throw to the end zone. Two Grizzlies receivers leaped for it, but three Eagles defenders worked to deflect the pass, and it fell to the ground.
That secured a 34-28 victory for the sixth-ranked Eagles, who rallied to defeat fourth-ranked Montana on Saturday in front of an announced crowd of 7,944.
“Those are the little bit scary moments,” Criner, the senior safety, said of the final play, “but those are the moments that you live for.”
Eastern has now won each of the last six times Montana has visited Cheney, all of them on the red turf of Roos Field.
Facing heavier pressure than he had faced all season, quarterback Eric Barriere completed 26 of 46 attempts for 422 yards, a total that moved him into second on the Eagles’ all-time career passing list with 10,859 yards.
The Grizzlies blitzed him seemingly every passing play and sacked him five times. But he also connected on seven pass plays of longer than 20 yards, including five to Talolo Limu-Jones. The senior receiver finished with a career high 11 receptions for 231 yards.
“He’s a playmaker,” junior receiver Andrew Boston said. “When we need a play, he’s going to do what he needs to do to take the top off (the defense). He’s big and fast and he showed that tonight.”
Perhaps no catch was bigger than the 58-yard play he made early in the fourth quarter, with the Eagles down 21-16. One play later, Micah Smith scored the go-ahead touchdown to give the Eagles the lead for good.
But it was also the final play of the game for Limu-Jones, who appeared to injure his left leg on the play. He was later on the sidelines using crutches.
In the first half, the Eagles scored on their opening drive. Montana had allowed just seven points in each of its first three games.
The Eagles (5-0, 2-0 Big Sky) outgained the Grizzlies in the first half, 282-165, yet trailed 14-10 at halftime. During the first half, Limu-Jones failed to reel in what would have been a 50-yard touchdown, which loomed large well into the third quarter.
“We had some mistakes, some self-inflicted mistakes, in the first half,” Eagles coach Aaron Best said.
Montana (3-1, 1-1) extended its lead to 21-10 on the opening drive of the second half, and after Barriere threw an interception at his own 36-yard line, the Grizzlies were poised to score again.
But when the Grizzlies settled for a field-goal attempt, Caleb Davis blocked it.
What followed was a scoring binge by the Eagles, spearheaded by Barriere. He led the Eagles to three consecutive touchdown drives over a span of 20 offensive plays. Senior Dennis Merritt capped the rally with a 1-yard touchdown, his 10th of the season.
But then the Grizzlies special teams — which scored twice in a victory over Cal Poly last week — scored again: Malik Flowers got loose for a 99-yard kickoff return touchdown, the fifth of his career, to make it 31-28.
The Eagles defense continued to play well into the second half. The defense didn’t allow any points, forced two punts, blocked that kick and then held on the goal line. In all, Eastern’s defense allowed 358 yards of offense while its own offense put up 538.
Jackson Cleaver, who played in place of Seth Harrison, kicked a 30-yard field goal with 1:21 left to give the Eagles their final six-point cushion. He finished 2-for-2 in field-goal attempts and made both his point-after attempts.
“(Montana offensive coordinator Timm) Rosenbach wants to keep the ball on the ground. We wanted to keep them in 2nd and longs, and that’s what (Washington) didn’t do,” Best said, referring to the team Montana beat in its season opener.
The victory extended Eastern’s home winning streak to 19 games — 15 of those started by Barriere — and gave them a signature win early in the season with six more Big Sky games to go.
“Approaching Montana, obviously we all know that this is a different game for them and for us, just with the rivalry,” Criner said. “It’s not necessarily a rivalry through proximity. It’s a rivalry because of success. That’s definitely a big deal to us, and that makes it a lot more fun.”
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