Three in a row.
The Eastern Washington Eagles made it three in a row over the Montana Grizzlies with a 36-26 win on Saturday in a Big Sky Conference tilt in Cheney, WA. The victory came in front a crowd of 11,339 – the largest of 2014 and third largest in Roos Field history (11,702 was the largest on 9/18/10 vs Montana).
The game featured the return of Vernon Adams Jr as the Eagles starting quarterback. Adams had been sidelined for the past four games recovering from surgery for a broken foot. Back-up quarterback Jordan West went 3–1 in his absence to keep the Eagles’ Big Sky and playoff hopes alive.
It wasn’t an easy day by any means for Adams. He wasn’t the normal elusive, shifty quarterback Eagles fans are used to seeing. Some of that was rust from the layoff. And some of that was the tough Montana Grizzly defense he was facing. Coming into the game, Montana was ranked #1 in the Big Sky Conference in scoring and total defense, #2 in passing defense and #5 in rushing defense. The Grizzlies brought the pressure against Adams, forcing him to scramble and test that foot early. They would get to him for five sacks and one forced fumble, which the Montana offense turned into an early touchdown. Adams finished the day going 24-36 for 399 yards and 4 touchdowns.
The return of Adams was just one of many story lines to this Senior Day rivalry game. Senior linebacker, Ronnie Hamlin, the leader of this Eagles defense, set a new school record for career tackles with 440 (17th in FCS history). The record of 432 was previously held by EWU great, J.C. Sherritt. Hamlin also had a key opening drive interception of Montana quarterback, Jordan Johnson, pass. Attempting to describe Ronnie Hamlin in one word, Coach Beau Baldwin said, “Tenacious. That’s how he goes about playing the game. It’s tough to describe him in just one word. He is just so many things and all the while he does it with a humbleness. That’s what I love about him. He’s such a leader by example.” Added Adams, “It’s so great to see him get the record. Hope the NFL scouts see that and give him a shot.” Red-shirt sophomore Cooper Kupp, “He’s the heart and soul of this defense.” Fellow linebacker Miquiyah Zamora on Hamlin, “He’s a great leader. He cares about the team more than he cares about himself. He’s become my brother. I’m just so happy for him right now. He deserves it.”
Hamlin and his Eagle defensive brethren did what they’ve done nearly all year – bend don’t break. Montana rolled up 527 yards of total offense against this Eagle defense. Most of that was through the air, racking up 447 yards passing. The Grizzlies were unable to manage much of anything on the ground. After putting up 196 yards rushing against Sacramento State last week, Montana could only grind out 97 yards versus EWU. To the air the Grizzlies went, behind the arm of Jordan Johnson. Junior wide receiver Jamaal Jones led all receivers with 139 yards on 9 catches. Senior Travon Van added 6 catches for 87 yards while senior tight end Mitch Saylor had 5 catches for 66 yards.
Despite not much in the rushing-department, the Grizzlies would win the time of possession battle (31:17 to 28:43) with a nice mix of short and deep passes by Johnson to six different receivers. But, fifteen possessions total for Montana resulted in only three touchdowns and two field goals – when facing the #1 offense in the conference, that won’t cut it. . Part of that can be attributed to the Eagle defense. The pressure the Eagles brought at opportune times enabled them to get two sacks and 10 tackles for loss.
As opportunistic as the Eagles were on defense, so were they on offense with Adams back behind center. As is usually the case in any Eastern Washington game, the Montana defense focused on the top receiver early, Cooper Kupp. Doubling up on Kupp early forced Adams Jr to look elsewhere. Shaq Hill, Nic Sblendorio, both had key touchdown catches early in the game that opened things up for Kupp later on. Sblendorio (or Splenda as he is affectionately called by teammates) and Kendrick Bourne with #SCTop10 worthy one-handed grabs. Kupp finished with 8 catches for 134 yards to lead EWU receivers. He also had 90 yards in punt returns, including a touchdown that for all intents and purposes sealed the deal for the Eagles, putting them up 33-10 midway through the third quarter.
The win keeps the Eagles in a first place tie with Idaho State, Northern Arizona and Montana State in the Big Sky conference. With a bye next week, the Eagles can rest up and heal before their final game of the 2014 season at Portland State on November 21. Here’s how the standings look currently:
While Idaho State visits Montana State and Northern Arizona travels to the outdoors of North Dakota, the Eagles will be at home. Home has been a special place for Hamlin and his fellow senior class. Hamlin, “This is the best feeling ever. Playing Montana. On the red. Senior Day. Awesome.”
- TOTAL YARDS: EWU 461 UM 527
- FIRST DOWNS: EWU 20 UM 24
- NET YARDS RUSHING: EWU 62 UM 80
- NET YARDS PASSING: EWU 399 UM 447
- PENALTIES: EWU 4-31 UM 7-40
- TURNOVERS: EWU 0 UM 2
- TIME OF POSSESSION: EWU 28:43 UM 31:17
- THIRD DOWN CONVERSIONS: EWU 6 of 14 UM 8 of 17
- RED ZONE: EWU 1-1 (field goal) UM 2-3 (field goals)