What actually happened at the Montana State 40-yard line on Roos Field with 82 seconds remaining in regulation Saturday is something that may never quite be settled.
MSU coach Brent Vigen said he was glad the officials “got it right,” that Bobcats linebacker Danny Uluilakepa intercepted Gunner Talkington’s throw on a fourth-and-14 play.
But replays also appeared to show that Nolan Ulm, Eastern’s sophomore wide receiver, came to the ground with the ball in his hands, suggesting that perhaps the Eagles did in fact deserve possession, with a new set of downs, trailing by three points.
Ty Okada, Montana State’s all-league linebacker, said definitively from his first-person vantage point, the ball was moving and “it wasn’t a catch.”
Regardless of what anyone said, booth officials chose to let the play stand as called – as an interception – allowing Montana State to take possession of the football. From there the fourth-ranked Bobcats got a pair of first downs and outlasted 15th-ranked Eastern Washington 38-35 for their second victory in Cheney in as many seasons.
“It seemed like an eternity waiting out there, with their defense out there, with our offense out there,” EWU coach Aaron Best said. “So I don’t know if somebody told the 22 people on the field that it was Eastern’s ball because their offense was on the bench, our defense was on the bench. Somehow there was a lot of nodding by the head official and it looked like he was going to take the headphones off a few different times.
“It is what it is.”
It was a confusing and, for the Eagles, a disheartening finish to a game that had six lead changes and saw both teams squander opportunities in the fourth quarter.
The final quarter began with the Bobcats ahead 31-21, having forced five consecutive punts spanning halftime. But they also failed to build on that 10-point lead on back-to-back drives.
Finally, the Eagles took advantage. Less than a minute into the fourth, Talkington saw a gap in the middle of Montana State’s secondary and threw a strike to Freddie Roberson, who split a pair of defenders – including Coeur d’Alene graduate Tyson Pottenger – and outran them all for an 80-yard touchdown on the drive’s first play.
The ensuing extra point by Seth Harrison – another CdA graduate – drew the Eagles back within 31-28 with 13:59 left.
“We’ve been repping that all week,” Talkington said. “Their defensive backs were giving up those dig routes, so once a window came open I took it and Freddie made a play and took off. It’s pretty awesome to see him do that.”
Eastern’s defense forced a three-and-out, and then Bryce Leighton shanked a punt left, one that traveled just 14 yards past the line of scrimmage to the Montana State 45-yard line. Seven plays and less than 3 minutes later, Talkington rolled right and found Ulm open in the end zone for an 8-yard touchdown to give the Eagles their first lead (35-31) of the half.
Montana State’s offense found its rhythm again, though, on the next possession. The combination of running back Elijah Elliott and quarterback Sean Chambers – whose role became more prominent after a first-quarter injury to starter Tommy Mellott – proved dominant on an 11-play, 72-yard drive that got the Bobcats back into the red zone.
That’s where Eastern’s offense stiffened. On fourth-and-goal from the 8-yard line, Chambers threw a ball to the middle of the end zone right into the arms of Eastern linebacker Jaren Banks.
“I saw the quarterback look right his way. I saw the ball coming out right toward him,” said Eagles linebacker Derek Tommasini, who finished with nine tackles. “I knew (Banks) was going to catch it the minute it left his hand.”
But it took just one play for Eastern to give the ball back, Micah Smith, who earlier in the game scored the first two Eagles rushing touchdowns of the season and became the Eagles’ first 100-yard rusher, ran off-tackle and fumbled. Talkington dove for it, but Okada came out of the scrum with the football.
“I dove in on the pile, (and I) thought I had the ball when they blew it dead,” Talkington said. “The ref said, ‘Second down,’ and all of sudden it’s their ball, so, it was kind of back and forth. You never want to leave it in the refs’ hands, but at the end of the day we’ve got to take care of the football.”
Effectively, that recovery at the Eagles’ 20-yard line gave the Bobcats (3-1 overall, 1-0 Big Sky) a do-over.
“That was probably the best-case scenario, for us to get a turnover on the first play,” Vigen said.
Chambers barreled into the end zone two plays later to reclaim the lead, 38-35. He finished with two rushing touchdowns and 160 yards on 28 carries.
Elliott added 156 yards and a touchdown, and as a team the Bobcats finished with 355 yards on 60 carries.
They ran 80 plays, the Eagles ran 55, and that contributed to Montana State’s 16-minute advantage in time of possession.
Now Eastern finds itself 0-1 in Big Sky play and 1-2 overall, facing a game at Florida next weekend and then a conference matchup at Weber State – the lone Big Sky program Best doesn’t have a win against as a head coach – the game after that, on Oct. 8.
The Eagles’ next home game is Oct. 15 versus Sacramento State.
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