Eastern rally tops Montana 32-26
Quarterback Adams overcomes mistakes with two touchdown passes in final 2:19 to cap comeback at Roos
The one thing any team facing Eastern Washington University on the football field should always remember is that the game’s never over until the clock hits zero.
And the thing the Montana Grizzlies will never forget now is how a 9-point lead as the clock approached the 2-minute mark was still not enough of a cushion to win.
Quarterback Vernon Adams literally scrambled his way out of a nightmare time midway through the fourth quarter, throwing a pair of touchdown passes in the final 2 minutes, 19 seconds to rally No. 7 Eastern to a 32-26 Big Sky Conference win over the Griz before a packed house of 10,529 at Roos Field.
Adams turned the ball over twice on consecutive possessions – once on a fumble and another with an interception – but when it really counted the red-shirt freshman connected.
He hit Brandon Kaufman for a 30-yard strike with 2:19 to play to cut the Grizzlies’ lead to 26-24.
Then following an onside kick moments later, which was recovered by Eastern’s Shaquille Hill on the 50, Adams took just five plays to spy Ashton Clark all alone in the left side of the end zone with 53 seconds to play for the winning points on a 20-yard pass. Greg Herd’s 2-point pass provided the final margin for the Eagles who are now 2-0 in Big Sky play and 3-1 overall.
The Grizzlies, who have lost two straight, fell to 2-3 overall and are 0-2 in conference play for the first time since 1992.
“It was a wild finish and our guys just kept believing,” Eastern head coach Beau Baldwin said. “We have been in similar situations -- and a lot of guys out there on the field have been in similar situations. You have to keep believing.”
For some, believing may have been hard to do after Adams was trying valiantly to lead his guys back from the brink of another disappointing and devastating loss to Montana, something that seemed to have become more common than not in recent years.
Trailing 23-17 and at the Grizzlies’ 38, Adams threw to Kaufman in double coverage and the ball was intercepted by Matt Hermanson with 10:25 remaining. The Griz tacked on a 25-yard field goal to boost their lead to 26-17 at the 8:26 mark.
Eastern’s next possession lasted just four plays before a scrambling Adams had the ball slip out of his hand and Montana recovered at their own 49.
“The best thing he did was when he came to the sideline, he didn’t pout or slam his helmet,” Baldwin said. “He just kept saying we are going to get another shot.”
And they did once Eastern’s tired and battered defense toughened up one more time to stop Montana on a three-and-out.
Eastern began their drive at the 18, got critical plays from Kaufman – a 21-yard catch that took the ball into Montana territory – and Jordan Talley’s 7-yard gain on a fourth-and-one before Adams spotted Kaufman inside the goal line in the middle of the end zone for the first TD.
The onside kick followed with Kaufman playing a key roll tipping the ball so that Hill could recover.
Even when he wasn’t catching passes, the 6-foot-5-inch Kaufman was on Montana minds.
“Kaufman is an amazing player and he should be on Montana’s mind,” Baldwin said. “He is one of those guys that will open up opportunities for other players on the team at times, which he was able to do.”
Adams completed 25-of-41 passes for 353 yards and three touchdowns in his second career start for the Eagles. His first came Sept. 22 at Weber State where he helped engineer a win over the Wildcats by a similar 32-26 score before exiting the game in the second half due to cramping. Adams also scrambled for a team-leading 54 yards rushing.
Kaufman finished with eight catches for 138 yards and a pair of scores in his fifth-straight 100-yard receiving game.
His first came as he caught a 36-yard pass in stride from Adams with 11:42 to go in the first half. That broke a 7-7 tie following an Eastern running touchdown from Demitrius Bronson at 10:47 of the first and Peter Nguyen’s score for Montana six minutes later.
“Montana was taking it to us in the second half, absolutely taking it to us,” Baldwin said.
At one point in the second half the Griz had a 169 to a minus-4 advantage in total yards as they rallied from a 17-10 halftime deficit to outscore Eastern 13-0 and take a 23-17 lead into the final 15 minutes. Quarterback Trent McKinney and running back Jordan Canada scored less than three minutes apart. Canada’s TD came two plays after a muffed punt from Eastern’s Jake Miller when the snap was low.
The Eagles, who lost safety Jeff Minnerly to a broken collarbone on the first series, had given up bunches of yards on the ground – 407 total by game’s end – surrendered just two yards on the crucial stand. The 407 yards were the most against the Eagles since Southern Utah rushed for 535 yards in 1998.
Canada had 167 of those yards on 19 carries while Nguyen added another 23 touches and 119 yards. Quarterback McKinney scrambled for 95 while bulldozer back Dan Moore added 24 yards before getting injured.
Ronnie Hamlin had 14 total tackles, Grant Williams 13 and Tyler Washburn 12, plus a fumble recovery. Allen Brown added 11 tackles and Evan Day a fumble recovery.
Eastern next plays Big Sky newcomer North Dakota, a recent 35-17 loser to Cal Poly, Saturday at 5:05 p.m. on Hall of Fame Day at Roos Field. North Dakota is one of the rare schools without a nickname after the NCAA forced them to discontinue use of the Fighting Sioux .
Paul Delaney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.