Another classic Eastern-Montana football game
This time Eagles dish out the disappointment in rivalry game
The disappointment pendulum really does swing both ways in the highly-hyped football series between Eastern Washington and Montana.
And that may never have been better illustrated than last Saturday night as the Eagles pulled a patented Grizzly-like rally in the final 2:19 to earn a 32-26 Big Sky Conference victory beneath the glow of a full moon – and the brightly lit brand new Roos Field scoreboard and video display.
Unlike most Eagle-Griz tussles, this one played out without the usual wrangling over a referee’s call, or non-call.
No added time at the end of the game to give the Griz another chance, as was the case when they opened Roos and the red turf in 2010. And no blatantly obvious non-calls as are commonplace in games at Washington-Grizzly Stadium in Missoula.
Except, that is, for Missoulian newspaper columnist Bill Speltz’s assertion that a fumble by Jordan Canada on the Eastern 13 in the first quarter was actually “a non-fumble.”
Funny thing about that one is no one seemed to complain when the ball came loose. And asking a variety of observers, no one thought Canada’s cough-up was remotely controversial.
It was, after all, one three times Montana had the ball slip out of their hands in critical situations.
The others came when Peter Nguyen had the ball stripped from his grip at the Eastern 5-yard-line by linebacker Ronnie Hamlin and recovered by Evan Day.
And of course the big faux pas was having the onside kick with 2:19 to play get batted around by Brandon Kaufman and recovered by Shaquille Hill to set up the Eagles’ winning drive.
The Griz get so used to having things go their way, it was nice not having it go their way for a change.
And it was especially nice to see Eagles’ head coach Beau Baldwin smiling and happy, albeit probably still a bit stunned by how quickly this game turned from a lump of coal to a big fat shiney diamond.
As the Black Eyed Peas “I got a feeling that tonight’s gonna ‘be a good night,” blasted through the new Roos Field sound system, with hugs, handshakes and high-fives everywhere, Baldwin was surrounded by well wishers and the media.
When reminded of some of the somber press conferences in the media room above Montana’s Dalhberg Arena, discussing a pair of gut-wrenching losses – 41-34 in 2009 and 17-14 last year – Baldwin was quick to agree Saturday was indeed a good night.
“It was a wild finish and our guys just kept believing,” Baldwin said.
After freshman quarterback Vernon Adams had a pair of turnovers on back-to-back possessions midway through the final period, it was easy for some fans to give up believing and head off to do what was sure to be some crying in their tailgating beers – properly disguised in red Solo cups of course.
So not only did they miss one of the most improbable comebacks in at least recent Eastern football history – yes, even more so than the one in Frisco all things considered – they didn’t get to experience the rush onto the field of thousands of Eastern students who thought they won a national championship or something.
Beating the Griz can certainly feel like it’s a bigger deal than it is sometimes. That’s because even though Montana’s been going through a rough patch recently with issues both on and off the field, the Ursus arctos horribilis are still toward the top of the football food chain.
The calm and collectedness Adams exhibited in the throes of having his day unravel in that fourth quarter implosion thoroughly impressed Baldwin.
“The best thing he did when he came to the sidelines, he didn’t pout, he didn’t slam his helmet, he just kept saying we’re going to get another shot, we’re going to get another shot,” Baldwin said.
And he did the next time he got his hands on the ball, shaking off the interception that was the byproduct of a throw into the end zone to Brandon Kaufman. He found his main man for two key catches in the drive that drew Eastern to within 26-24.
“I trust Kauf, that’s my guy,” Adams said in a post-game interview. “I trust Greg (Herd), I trust all these receivers but I knew Kauf was going to come back and get another; he was upset I knew he was going to go get it so I came back to him.”
Then with the unlikely opportunity to go for the win seconds later, Adams said his work in the past week’s practice paid off.
“My main goal this week was scramble and keep my eyes downfield,” Adams said. “I see Ashton (Clark) up the sidelines and I hit him; I’m so glad he caught it.”
Rallies and big defensive stands at or near the ends of games have become a nearly trademarked outcome for Eastern football in recent years.
“That was pretty high and pretty low but the sidelines just kept their cool, no different than the WSU game,” Baldwin said. “One of our mottos is panic will always equal defeat,” Baldwin said. “You don’t panic you always give yourselves a shot and our guys did that again.”
And for a change it was Montana players walking off the field wondering what happened to them.
Paul Delaney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.