Punt block, interception return for touchdown 59 seconds apart turn tide in Eastern win
Two years ago on their trip to Bozeman it was a 35-7 thumping at the hands of Montana State that Eastern Washington head coach Beau Baldwin later admitted helped jump-start his team’s run to an 11-game winning streak and a national championship.
How last Saturday’s 27-24 upset win by the then No. 6 Eagles over the then No. 2 Bobcats shakes out in the 2012 Football Championship Subdivision championship picture remains to be seen.
But the most immediate result was Eastern vaulted into the No. 1 spot in the Sports Network NCAA Football Championship Subdivision Top 25 poll with Saturday's 4:05 p.m. Homecoming game at Roos Field looming versus Sacramento State.
The 5-1 Eagles find themselves 4-0 in Big Sky play for the first time in history and top-ranked after former No. 1 North Dakota State, No. 3 Old Dominion and No. 5 Wofford all lost and fourth-ranked James Madison had to survive in double overtime to beat William & Mary by a point.
It was small single-digit numbers that ultimately beat the Bobcats in front of a standing-room-only crowd of 20,477 at Bobcat Stadium.
• It took less than a minute for Eastern to go from trailing 17-13 to leading 27-17 after two huge Bobcat turnovers.
• The Eagles sacked All-American quarterback DeNarius McGhee seven times.
• Each of McGhee’s two interceptions led to crucial Eastern points, the last for the winning points.
The Eastern offense came into the game passing for an average of nearly 260 yards per game, running the ball for close to 155 and averaging 410 total yards per contest.
But the Eagles were held to half their usual yardage and had to scratch for every point.
And they certainly made the best of Montana State (3-1 Big Sky, 6-1) miscues to battle back from a 10-0 deficit with 13 straight points.
While the first Eastern points - a Jimmy Pavel 40-yard field goal as time ran out in the half - didn’t come because of a turnover, their next score did.
Linebacker Ronnie Hamlin’s diving interception 47 seconds into the second half set up a second Pavel field goal, this one from 39 yards at 13:26 of the third that cut the MSU lead to 10-6. Eastern scored their only offensive touchdown on their next possession on a 33-yard pass from Vernon Adams to Quincy Forte with 7:12 to go in the third.
The turning point came with 12 minutes, 14 seconds to play when sophomore Dylan Zylstra broke through to block a Rory Perez punt that was recovered for the touchdown by Evan Day to give the Eagles a 20-17 lead. Three plays later redshirt freshman safety Jordan Tonani stepped cleanly in front of a short McGhee pass and returned it 21 yards for another score with 11:15 to go and Eastern led 27-17.
“On that play, pretty much the stars aligned,” Tonani said. “I was man-to-man on the tight end and he ran a 3-yard out, which is every safety’s dream to jump that.”
As for Zystra, “They didn’t come together tight enough and I just slipped through and got the block,” he said.
Eastern held on from there, giving up a 2-yard touchdown pass from McGhee to Jon Ellis with 2:38 to play. After the sputtering Eagles’ offense went three and out, the defense ultimately came up huge in the final 59 seconds.
With no timeouts, McGhee drove the Cats to their own 37, within a few of plays of a potential tying field goal. But then the remaining wheels wobbled loose.
Jerry Ceja sacked McGhee on successive plays for a loss of 12 yards the first time and 2 yards the next. Then, as McGhee appeared to be trying to spike the ball, T.J. Lee III and Evan Cook broke into the backfield unchallenged and combined for another 2-yard sack setting up a fourth and 25 with 23 seconds to play.
On the play, McGhee lost his helmet so not only did he have to leave the game for a play, but rules call for an automatic 10-second clock runoff when a player’s helmet comes off in the final minute.
So with 13 seconds remaining, the Bobcats had to rush back-up quarterback Jake Bleskin into the game and following an MSU false start penalty and another 10-second runoff Bleskin was faced with a fourth and 30 at his own 17. The game ended a play later on a short completed pass and a fumble.
“Finding out of the ordinary ways to win, especially if you’re struggling on offense like we were in the first half,” was one of the early observations,” Baldwin said in a post-game radio interview.
Eastern, while dominated in so many statistical areas on offense, and allowing McGhee some pretty substantial numbers overall, did control the junior’s ability to scramble. McGhee was 28-of-36 for 294 yards, a pair of touchdowns and the two interceptions.
But McGhee, who netted 77 yards, a 5.5 yards per carry average in the Cats’ 36-21 win last year in Cheney, was limited to 21 net yards after being sacked for a minus 58 yards in losses Saturday, a paltry 1.1 per carry.
After a scoreless first quarter the Bobcats jumped to its lead on a McGhee touchdown pass to Lee Perkins and a 30-yard Perez field goal. Perez, however, would miss a crucial 33-yard try with 6:12 remaining.
Adams struggled somewhat on the afternoon going 13-30 passing for just 145 yards and a touchdown but the key difference for Adams was his two interceptions never led to MSU points.
Hamlin had a team-leading 15 tackles and Paul Ena a record-tying sixth career fumble recovery.
Paul Delaney can be reached at email@example.com.