Two straight miracles under the “M” were too much to ask for the Montana football team.
But for a while there, it looked like the Griz might pull another Houdini act.
Faced with a seemingly insurmountable 25-point deficit with 10 minutes remaining Saturday, 10th-ranked Montana fought back against third-ranked Eastern Washington. The Grizzlies scored three touchdowns in less than nine minutes but couldn’t quite get over the hump in a 42-37 setback in front of 26,082 fans at Washington-Grizzly Stadium.
The loss put a major dent in Montana’s Big Sky Conference championship plans. The Griz fell to 3-2 in league play and 6-2 overall, while the Eagles boosted their record to 4-0, 6-2 with their first win in Missoula in eight years.
“It’s huge,” Eastern senior linebacker Ronnie Hamlin said. “I mean it’s awesome. It’s almost like a numbness feeling. It hasn’t hit me yet.”
Things looked so bleak for Montana late in the third frame that some fans headed for the exits. Rallying to beat Cal Poly last weekend after trailing 14-7 with less than two minutes to go was one thing. Coming back from a 42-17 deficit in the fourth quarter against Eastern just didn’t seem realistic.
But Montana made it interesting before running out of time, forced to try an ill-fated onside kick that all but ended the game with 1:41 left.
“We’re going to fight until there’s no fight left in us,” UM coach Mick Delaney said. “That was evident today. I’m as proud of these guys and our coaches as I was last week in that come-from-behind win.
“They’re the same guys. They fought the same way and things just didn’t work out for us.”
Eastern sophomore quarterback Vernon Adams was a thorn in Montana’s side for the first three quarters. He tied his own school record by throwing six touchdown passes, completing 27 of 40 attempts for 457 yards.
But the Eagles were shaky early.
Late in the first period the Griz caught a break when Eastern was flagged for an illegal block in punt formation. The hosts were set up with excellent field position at Eastern’s 33-yard line and on the first play of the second period Jordan Canada rambled 28 yards for a touchdown. That coupled with Ben Worst’s point after gave UM a 10-7 lead.
Montana shot itself in the foot on its ensuing possession. A fumbled exchange from Jordan Johnson to Travon Van was recovered by Eastern’s Andru Pulu at the UM 17-yard line. The Griz defense held tough for two downs, then on third-and-12 Adams found Cooper Kupp with a pass across the middle for a 19-yard score. The Eagles’ lead moved to 14-10 and they never trailed again.
The Griz were without their best cover cornerback, injured senior Anthony Goodwin, and that along with Adams’ escapability left them vulnerable to the big play. The longest was an 86-yard touchdown pass from Adams to Shaquille Hill that gave EWU a 21-10 advantage with 7:55 left in the second quarter. Montana got caught in a mismatch where linebacker John Kanongata’a was forced to cover a speedy wideout.
“That’s an opening play to a series and they were still in their base defense so we ended up with Shaquille Hill as a No. 3 (receiver),” Eastern coach Beau Baldwin said. “When that play goes in, against a lot of coverages that’s not necessarily your primary read. But it was a great job by Vernon buying time, recognizing it, and then throwing it with a guy in his face.”
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The Griz answered with a 42-yard TD strike from Johnson to Ellis Henderson. But the Eagles replied with 18 ticks left in the first half, stretching their lead to 28-17. They drove 78 yards in just over three minutes, with Adams hitting Kupp for a 34-yard TD pass.
Montana appeared to cut its deficit to five early in the third period when Johnson hit wide-open Cam Warren with a 32-yard strike. But the touchdown was called back because UM center Kjelby Oiland was flagged for illegal use of hands to the face.
“You’re pass protecting and Kjelby just got his hands up in there and got his thumb caught in his facemask,” Delaney said. “Jordy made a great throw to Cam down the middle but that’s part of the football game. Certainly you don’t want to have a penalty and get a touchdown called back but you just keep fighting when that happens.”
Montana stalled and Eastern followed with two straight TD drives to finish out the third frame.
The first was the result of Adams’ most dazzling escape of the afternoon. Surrounded by Griz pass rushers, he stepped forward and drilled a pass to Ashton Clark for a 52-yard touchdown.
Eastern marched 80 yards for its final TD late in the third quarter. Running back Mario Brown did the honors on 9-yard pass from Adams.
Montana went more than 23 minutes without scoring before Johnson hit Henderson for a 7-yard TD pass with 9:27 remaining. Less than two minutes later the duo hooked up again, this time from 48 yards.
Montana’s defense came up with a turnover on Eastern’s next possession. Safety Bo Tully stepped in front of a receiver to pick off an Adams pass at the Eagles’ 31-yard line.
Montana failed to move the chains and was forced to settle for a Worst 39-yard field goal try with 5:20 left. He pushed it right and Eastern took over.
The Eagles failed to move the ball and were forced to punt. The Griz took over at their own 40-yard line and moved in for a touchdown, that coming on a 6-yard pass from Johnson to backup tight end Jordan Harper with 1:44 left.
Johnson was stopped just short of the end zone on a two-point conversion run. His team trailed 42-37 and was forced to attempt an onside kick that was recovered on a candy hop by Kupp.
“We didn’t anticipate that kind of formation,” Kupp said of Montana’s kick coverage. “So when it came out, I just kind of slipped in back (of the front row) and was able to grab it without too much trouble.”
Statistically, there wasn’t a lot of disparity between Montana and Eastern. The Eagles had 540 total yards and the Grizzlies 489. Montana ran 82 plays to Eastern’s 68.
“This game had a lot of ebbs and flows,” Baldwin said. “I mean crazy flows in the second half.
“But it doesn’t surprise me. You come to this stadium against a well-coached Montana team that has so much fight, I give a lot of respect for how hard they fight and scrap. It doesn’t shock me we end up in a 60-minute battle. Our guys fought to the end and found a way to make enough plays to win and that’s not an easy thing to do here.”
|UM – FG Ben Worst 40, 10:36.|
|Drive: 12 plays, 61 yards, 4:24 time of possession.|
|Key plays: Jordan Johnson finds Jamaal Jones for 11 yards on third-and-5 early in the drive. A roughing-the-passer penalty gives the Griz new life after failing to convert on third-and-3.|
|EWU – Ashton Clark 4 pass from Vernon Adams (Kevin Miller kick), 7:14.|
|Drive: 9 plays, 66 yards, 3:15 time of possession.|
|Key plays: Adams completes passes of 10 and 25 yards on consecutive plays to move the Eagles to the Griz 10.|
|UM – Jordan Canada 28 run (Worst kick), 14:53.|
|Drive: 2 plays, 33 yards, :16 time of possession.|
|Key plays: Ellis Henderson returns a punt 23 yards to the EWU 48 and a penalty for an illegal block puts the Griz on Eastern’s 33.|
|EWU – Cooper Kupp 19 pass from Adams (Miller kick), 10:37.|
|Drive: 3 plays, 17 yards, :49 time of possession.|
|Key play: A fumbled exchange between Johnson and Travon Van gives Eastern the ball at the UM 17.|
|EWU – Shaquille Hill 86 pass from Adams (Miller kick), 7:55.|
|Drive: 1 play, 86 yards, :10 time of possession.|
|UM – Ellis Henderson 42 pass from Johnson (Worst kick), 3:29.|
|Drive: 9 plays, 85 yards, 4:21 time of possession.|
|Key plays: Johnson and Jones hook up for a 7-yard gain on third-and-5 early in the drive. Johnson hits Henderson for 12 yards one play before finding him again for the score.|
|EWU – Kupp 34 pass from Adams (Miller kick), :18.|
|Drive: 6 plays, 78 yards, 3:05 time of possession.|
|Key plays: Adams hits Cory Mitchell for 8 and 27 yards on back-to-back plays to start the drive.|
|EWU – Clark 52 pass from Adams (Miller kick), 4:48.|
|Drive: 5 plays, 80 yards, 1:46 time of possession.|
|Key plays: Adams finds Kupp for 13 yards and Mitchell for 11 more to start the drive. Adams and Clark do the rest.|
|EWU – Mario Brown 9 pass from Adams (Miller kick), :16.|
|Drive: 8 plays, 80 yards, 2:32 time of poossession.|
|Key play: Facing third-and-5, Adams hits Kupp for 41 yards to the Griz 34.|
|UM – Henderson 7 pass from Johnson (Worst kick), 9:27.|
|Drive: 11 plays, 66 yards, 2:35 time of possession.|
|Key plays: Johnson finds Cam Warren for 24 yards to the EWU 41. On third-and-6, Johnson and Jones hook up for 10 yards to keep the drive alive.|
|UM – Henderson 48 pass from Johnson (Worst kick), 7:36.|
|Drive: 3 plays, 61 yards, :45 time of possession.|
|Key plays: Johnson starts the drive by running for 8 and 5 yards before he and Henderson hook up for the score.|
|UM – Jordan Harper 6 pass from Johnson (run failed), 1:44.|
|Drive: 8 plays, 60 yards, 1:45 time of possession.|
|Key plays: Johnson completes an 18-yard pass to Chase Naccarato to the EWU 44. Henderson catches a 20-yard pass from Johnson to the Eagles’ 6.|
|Avg. per carry||3.0||3.7|
|Sacks by-yards lost||1-5||3-11|
|Time of possession||28:16||31:44|
|Sacks by-yards lost|
|Evan Day 1-5.|
|Andru Pulu 0-1.|
|Missed field goals|
|Sacks by-yards lost|
|Tripp 1-1, John Kanongata’a 1-4, Brocky Coyle 0.5-3, Tyrone Holmes 0.5-3.|
|Nate Harris 1-44, Bo Tully 1-11.|
|Missed field goals|
|Ben Worst 39 (WR)|