Eastern downed by Montana 34-17 in showdown of Big Sky powers

Eastern downed by Montana 34-17 in showdown of Big Sky powers

Eastern Washington University took leads of 14-3 in the second quarter and 17-10 in the second half, but couldn’t hold off No. 10/11 Montana and fell 34-17 Saturday (Oct. 26) at Washington-Grizzly Stadium in the 36th meeting between the two fierce rivals.

In a game pitting two of the top teams in the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision in recent decades, Eastern went the last 36:29 without a touchdown after taking a 14-3 lead with 6:29 left in the second quarter. Montana used a game-ending 24-0 scoring run to win for just the second time in the last eight meetings between the Eagles and Grizzlies.

Eastern finished with 365 yards of offense to Montana’s 430, and Marcus Knight rushed for 131 yards and three touchdowns for the Grizzlies. Despite temperatures in the 30’s with snow flurries, neither team had a turnover until Eastern fumbled a kickoff return early in the fourth quarter. The resulting Montana TD gave the Grizzlies a 34-17 lead with 12:02 to play.

The game was for survival in the Big Sky Conference race, as the Eagles and Grizzlies had entered with identical 2-1 Big Sky Conference marks. Junior quarterback Eric Barriere led Eastern by completing 22-of-41 passes for 264 yards and a touchdown. However, after halftime he was just 12-of-25 for 70 yards as EWU had just 134 yards of total offense after intermission.

“We played really good football for a half, and didn’t play very good football for the other half,” said Eastern head coach Aaron Best . “That seems to be a common theme. We’ll tweak some things and we’ll make some adjustments. Because right now we are hitting on all cylinders for 30 minutes and hitting on very few for the next 30.”

Boston was EWU’s leading receiver with five catches for 86 yards, and Limu-Jones had a team-high 97 yards on four catches. Three Eagles were in double figures in tackles – Calin Criner with 16, Dehonta Hayes with 12 and Jack Sendelbach with 12.

After Montana led 3-0 after one quarter, it took the Eagles just 10 plays to take a 14-3 lead in the second quarter. Eastern had just a pair of first downs and 47 yards on its first two possessions of the game, but a huge 15-yard third down conversion on a pass from Barriere to Talolo Limu-Jones led to a seven-play, 81-yard drive. Barriere was 5-of-5 on the drive, including a 36-yard touchdown pass to Andrew Boston .

Eastern got the ball back and needed just three plays to score again on a 5-yard run by Tamarick Pierce , who was making his season debut for EWU. The key play in that drive was a 62-yard pass from Barriere to Limu-Jones.

After Montana cut the lead to four at halftime, Eastern went up 17-10 in the third quarter on a 35-yard field goal by Seth Harrison . But Montana regained the lead with a touchdown and field goal, then scored twice within a 2:02 span to put some distance on the Eagles.

Records & Rankings . . .

* Eastern is 3-5 overall and 2-2 Big Sky Conference play, with a 35-20 victory over North Dakota on Sept. 28 counting in the league standings for EWU. Prior to that, the Eagles had lost their previous two games to FCS competition by a total of 12 points, then fell at Sacramento State 48-27 on Oct. 5 and beat Northern Colorado 54-21 on Oct. 12.

* The Grizzlies are 6-2 overall and 3-1 in the Big Sky, having lost at Sacramento State 49-22 in their last game.

* Sacramento State put a monkey wrench in the championship hopes for both teams. Back on Oct. 5, Eastern was ranked as high as 21st in the FCS when Sac State beat the Eagles 48-27 in Sacramento. A week later, the Hornets knocked off No. 6 Montana State 34-21 on the road, then last Saturday (Oct. 19) beat then fifth-ranked Montana 49-22 in Sacramento.

* While Montana entered the game ranked 10th in the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision poll and 11th by the American Football Coaches Association, Eastern was unranked and coming off a much-needed bye. A year ago, after losing on the road at Weber State 14-6, Eastern went on a six-game winning streak after its bye to advance to the NCAA Division I Championship Game.

What’s Next . . .

* Eastern hopes a season-long trend continues when the Eagles host Northern Arizona next Saturday (Nov. 2) at Roos Field in Cheney, Wash., at 1:06 p.m. Pacific time. Eastern puts its school-record 12-game home streak on the line versus a Lumberjacks team looking for its first road victory of the season. In addition, Eastern will be looking for its first home victory over NAU since 2010. Both the Eagles and Lumberjacks have had a shortage of close games as well heading into action on Oct. 26. A 49-45 loss at Jacksonville State and 35-27 loss at Idaho are the only EWU games decided by less than 15 points. For Northern Arizona, none of their first seven games were decided by less than 13. Eastern leads the all-time series against NAU 21-12, and are 8-4 all-time against NAU in Cheney, 2-1 in Spokane and 11-7 in Flagstaff. The Eagles have now won nine of the last 12 meetings overall, but haven’t hosted the Lumberjacks since losing 52-30 on Nov. 7, 2015, at Roos Field. Thus, Eastern’s last home win over NAU was nine years ago on Oct. 9, 2010, by a 21-14 score en route to EWU’s NCAA Division I national title. The two schools did not play each other in 2012, 2013 and 2017 because of league expansion. Last year’s 31-26 Eagle victory was a non-conference game in Flagstaff, and the two teams will play a second non-conference game in Cheney on Sept. 19, 2020.

Key Stats . . .

* The Eagles rushed for 101 yards and passed for 264 for their total of 365. The Grizzlies had 254 rushing and 176 through the air in finishing with 430. Eastern was 4-of-15 on third down and 1-of-3 on fourth down, compared to 12-of-20 on third down for the Grizzlies.

* Eastern had entered the Montana game ranked fifth in the FCS in total offense (497.6), eighth in passing (326.3), 41st in rushing (171.3) and 13th in scoring (37.3). Defensively, Eastern was 52nd in rushing defense (149.1), 107th in passing defense (274.4), 90th in total defense (423.6) and 102nd in scoring defense (35.9) among 116 FCS schools. Montana, meanwhile, joined EWU in the top 10 in both total offense (sixth, 481.1) and passing (ninth, 317.9).

* Montana’s Dalton Snead entered the game ranked ninth in total offense (319.4) and 14th in passing (288.4), as well as sixth in completion percentage (.672). Snead, however, was injured versus Sacramento State and replaced by Cam Humphrey against the Eagles. Humphrey finished 20-of-29 for 176 yards and one touchdown against EWU.

EWU Highlights . . .

* Junior Tamarick Pierce made his first appearance in the 2019 season after being injured in last year’s NCAA Division I Championship game. He finished the game with 57 yards on seven carries, with a long of 30. He scored on a 5-yard run in the second quarter to give EWU as 14-3 lead.

* Sophomore safety Dean Sise also made his season debut against the Griz and had a tackle on the opening kickoff. He also had a tackle on the opening kickoff of his Eagle career debut – his only other EWU appearance – in the NCAA Division I Championship game last season.

Notables . . .

* Despite the loss, the Eagles have still won 55 of their last 66 Big Sky games since a 0-2 start in 2011. Included are current stretches of 45 victories in the last 54 games (including two at the end of the 2012 season) and 23 of the last 28 (since 2016). Including three wins at the end of the 2009 season, Eastern has a 65-14 record in league games since then. Including four non-conference victories (two versus MSU, and one each against Cal Poly and Northern Arizona), two playoff wins (Montana and UC Davis) and one loss (Idaho), the Eagles are 61-12 since the 0-2 start in 2011 and 51-9 since the end of the 2012 campaign. At one point the Eagles had won 44 of 50 league games, and the only Big Sky school which has come close to that in the 56-year history of the league was Montana, which won 50 of 55 games from 1995-2002 and 46 of 51 from 2003-2009.

* This week’s EWU-UM game continued a 21-game streak in which at least one of the schools has been nationally ranked, with 1998 being the last time neither team was. Last year was the first time since 1982 that Montana and Eastern didn’t play on the football gridiron, which was the end result of the shuffling of teams and “rivals” in the Big Sky Conference. The Eagles will get a chance to host the Grizzlies in 2020, but that will be the lone Cheney meeting between the two schools in a seven-year span from 2017 to 2023.

* The Montana games was the 63rd time Eastern has faced a team ranked in the top 10 in the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision (STATS), as well as the 131st against a ranked foe. Eastern is 59-72 in 131 games overall against ranked teams since becoming a member of that classification in 1983 (then known as I-AA). Eastern is 19-44 in 63 games all-time versus top 10 opponents. Since 2010, the Eagles are 10-9 versus top 10 foes (5-4 mark in the regular season and 5-5 in the playoffs) and 30-18 against teams ranked in the top 25. The Jacksonville State game was the first time and only time in the 2019 season prior to UM that the Eagles played a ranked team in FCS in the STATS weekly poll. Eastern, ranked fourth at the time by STATS, lost 49-45 to the 17th-ranked Gamecocks. However, Washington (ranked in FBS) and North Dakota (ranked 25th in the FCS coaches poll but not by STATS), means EWU actually faced three ranked foes in EWU’s first five games. Despite falling to the Gamecocks, Eastern was 5-2 versus ranked opponents in the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision in 2018. Since 1983, Eastern is 1-7 versus ranked FBS foes, and a loss to Washington (ranked 13th by the media and 12th by the coaches) in 2019 was the eighth such foe EWU has faced.

* Eastern is now 6-16-1 in Missoula, winning in Missoula in 1990, then again in 1992, 1997, 2005, 2013 and 2017 when EWU would go on to win Big Sky Conference titles. Head coach Aaron Best has been a part of EWU teams who have registered wins in Missoula in 1997, 2005, 2013 and 2017 (his first season as head coach), and losses in 1999, 2001, 2005, 2009, 2011, 2015 and 2019.

* Prior to Saturday, Eastern had come out on top in six of the last seven meetings with the Griz, and seven of the last nine. In fact, the Eagles entered the game 13-1 since 2012 against their rivals from the Treasure State – UM (6-1) and Montana State (7-0). The lone loss was EWU’s venture to Missoula in 2015 which yielded a 57-16 thumping at the hands of the Griz. Just one year after that humbling 41-point setback, the Eagle defense allowed just 16 points in the rematch in 2016 at Roos Field in EWU’s 35-16 victory. The 16 points for the Griz was their lowest total in the last 33 games in the series dating back 32 years to a 14-14 tie in 1984. The two teams combined for 995 yards of offense, with EWU winning despite a 540-455 yardage advantage for Montana. Eastern then won 48-41 in Montana in 2017, before the addition of Idaho to the league in 2018 resulted in EWU and Montana not playing each other that season for the first time since 1982. Idaho — and no longer Montana – is now considered to be EWU’s “rival” by the league and will play each other every season. Portland State is EWU’s other “rival,” while Idaho will face Montana every year starting in 2020. The result is that Montana is now in the schedule rotation for EWU with the other nine league schools, and Eastern will host Montana just once in a four-year span (on Oct. 3, 2020). Eastern goes to UM on Oct. 8, 2022, but doesn’t play the Griz in both 2021 and 2023. Thus, unless a non-conference game is scheduled, EWU will have played Montana at Roos Field just once in a seven-year span from 2017 to 2023.

Head Coach Aaron Best Comments . . .

On Passing Game: “I thought our protection was actually pretty good for the better part of the day. They gave Eric enough time, but our receivers weren’t open when we expected them to be open. They didn’t opportunistically catch the ball or tuck the ball when they were open and the ball was thrown to them.”

On Montana Offense: “They were able to get into a particular 13 personnel alignment and bleed us on defense a little bit. In the first half we had very few possessions, and their first drive was seven minutes to get to their field goal. We were proud of our defense for buckling down against a personnel grouping we didn’t expect to see a ton of. We got them out of rhythm and into a 14-10 situation at halftime. Then they started playing a little faster on offense and with different personnel. It’s a testament to Coach Eti Ena and his coaches and players for not allowing them to methodically bleed the clock (after halftime).”

On Halftime Lead: “We played well enough in the first half to give ourselves a lead. There wasn’t as much cohesion in the second half on offense, defense and special teams because of the choppiness. Three points in the second half has been too characteristic of us this year. Defensively your backs are against the wall when you are put in situations like that.”