Defense Steps Up As EWU Tops Montana 35-16
What happens when you put two high-octane offenses on the field on a cold, rainy, sometimes windy day in Cheney?
You get a lot of offense but not the high-scoring game that some were expecting. And so it was on this fall day as the Eastern Washington Eagles beat the Montana Grizzlies, 35-14, before 10,931 rain-soaked fans. The win moves the Eagles to 6-2 on the season, 5-0 in Big Sky conference play. For the Grizzlies it’s the second straight loss to a Big Sky opponent after their 45-34 loss last week to Northern Arizona in Flagstaff last week.
The game featured two of the top five passing offense in all of FCS, but it was the defenses that stood tall when it mattered most. Despite giving up 540 yards of offense to Montana, the Eagle defense kept Griz quarterback Brady Gustafson out of the end zone for most of the game.
After a punt on their initial series, Montana needed only three plays to go 23 yards on their second possession to jump out to a 7-0 lead. The drive came after a 16 yard punt return by Montana senior, John Nguyen on a 34-yard punt by Eastern’s Jordan Dascalo.
Another three-and-out by a sputtering Eastern offense gave Montana the ball back. Starting at their own 7, it looked as though the Grizzlies might jump all over the Eagles. But, the Eastern defense did what would become their signature for the day. They went on lock-down when it mattered most, forcing a 48-yard field goal attempt by redshirt freshman Tim Semenza that went wide left.
It was the wake-up call that the EWU offense needed. Taking over on their own 31, Gage Gubrud hit All-American Cooper Kupp on second and 10 for a 69-yard strike to tie it up.
The Eagle defense continued their solid play for the remainder of the first half. With the Grizzly offense gaining 299 total yards in the half, EWU only yielded three additional points.
Meanwhile, Gubrud, Kupp and company made the most of their 240 yards of offense tacking on two more touchdowns to take a 21-10 lead into halftime.
It was more of the same in the second half. Two Gage Gubrud touchdown passes – one for 40-yards to Cooper Kupp and one for 13 yards to Shaq Hill – put the Eagles up comfortably while the defense continued to stymie the Grizz offense. Only a 47-yard Gustafson to Keenan Curran touchdown (extra point missed) prevented the third-quarter shut out. The score came after Montana’s Yamen Sanders picked off Gubrud in the end zone.
Whether it was the defenses or the elements, neither team could produce any points in the final quarter. “Everyone thinks that every game we play is 56-54 and it’s not true,” said EWU Coach Beau Baldwin after the game. “We played an incredibly tough non-conference schedule that’s different than some. Coming into this game, when you look at the Big Sky Conference opponents, we were third or fourth in the conference in points allowed on defense. I’m proud of those guys on defense for stepping up (today), but they’ve done it before.”
Baldwin’s comments were evident in the results. Although Gustafson went 45-63 for 398 yards (2 TDs, 2 INTs), the Grizzlies could only generate 16 point. Prolific through the season thus far in the red zone (4th in the FCS), the Eastern defense only allowed three trips into the red zone today (Montana went 2 for 3).
While the defense proved worthy against a tough opponent, the offense has some cleaning up to do after what Coach Baldwin termed a “sloppy” effort in the fourth. “A good and aggressive defense like Montana’s is going to force you sometimes to be sloppy because they’re good at what they do,” he said. “They’re able to create havoc. They do a good job and I respect how they play the game.”
Gubrud finished 21-37 with 4 touchdowns and 2 interceptions. It was another record-setting day for “Gage was doing a good job choosing his spots (when we were moving the ball), said senior receiver Cooper Kupp. “(He was) using well-time aggression and being patient with what he was doing.”
Cooper Kupp as he broke another FCS record with a catch in his 46th straight game, making it his twelfth record broken at the FCS level.
The Eagles head to Cal-Poly (3-1 in Big Sky, 5-2 overall prior to Saturday) next weekend to take on the Mustangs. Eastern beat the Mustangs 42-41 in Cheney last season in overtime after a Cal-Poly two-point conversion failed in the first overtime. Game time will be at 6:05 pm PST.
Other notables (via EWU Athletics):
* Senior Kendrick Bourne had his ninth 100-yard performance receiving, finishing with five catches for 124 yards.
* Sophomore safety Mitch Fettig had a career-high 13 tackles, as well as an interception. He eclipsed his previous career high for tackles by four.
* Senior safety Zach Bruce came one tackle from his career high, finishing with 13 and a pass broken up.
* Senior linebacker Miquiyah Zamora had 11 tackles, giving him 322 in his career to move into the No. 9 position in school history.
* Sophomore linebacker Alek Kacmarcik was the fourth Eagle in double figures in tackles with 11, as well as an interception he returned 46 yards.