Eagles hold off Griz 42-37 in 'Sky showdown
Cooper Kupp's catches, Vernon Adams' passes key Eastern's rare win at Washington-Grizzly
The Eastern Washington University football team continues to be in good hands with freshman Cooper Kupp.
The Davis High School of Yakima product not only delivered a game and career-high 11 catches, 182 yards and a pair of touchdowns, but also a recovery of an onside kick with 1 minute, 41 seconds remaining to put the wraps on a rare 42-37 Big Sky Conference football win for Eastern over the No. 10 University of Montana in Missoula last Saturday.
"Ronnie (Hamlin) stepped up and took a hit for me and I just kind of slipped in the pack and grabbed it without too much trouble," Kupp said in the postgame press conference.
In advancing their conference record to 4-0 – tied with Montana State – and 6-2 overall, the No. 3 ranked Eagles won for the first time at Washington-Grizzly Stadium since 2005. The victory also marked the first time Eastern has won back-to-back games against Montana (3-2, 6-2) since 1990-1992 when they won three straight.
"It's hard to win at Montana and put up points on that defense," Eastern head coach Beau Baldwin said. "But our players found a way to win in Missoula, and that's what counts."
While Kupp's two touchdowns – a 19-yarder that gave the Eagles a 14-10 lead and his 34-yard catch and run giving EWU a 28-17 lead as time ran out in the half – were crucial in the win, perhaps his most important touch came as the third quarter wound down.
Facing a third down and five on their own 20, Eastern quarterback Vernon Adams first avoided a sack and then threw a long ball down the right sideline to Kupp who leaped high to snare the catch for 41 yards. The play set up the Eagles' final touchdown, Mario Brown's spin into the end zone with 16 seconds to go in the third that put Eastern up 42-17.
The Eagles would need just about all of that lead to survive the Grizzlies 20-0 run in the fourth quarter, keyed by Ellis Henderson's final two of his three touchdowns on the day. "They have a great offense as well, and they got rolling in the end," Baldwin said.
Adams spent the sunny day on John Hoyt Field's Sprinturf driving the Grizzly defense crazy with his ability to constantly escape their pass rush – and deliver plenty of lethal pass completions.
Adams completed 27-of-40 passes for a career-high 457 yards and his six TDs tied the school record set on five previous occasions, including once himself – in one half – in the Eagles' playoff loss to Sam Houston last December.
Another one of his backbreakers came midway through the second half when he again avoided a possible sack and found Shaquille Hill one-on-one with a Grizzly linebacker.
"Against a lot of coverages that is not your primary read but it was a great job by Vernon buying time and recognizing it and then throwing it with a guy in his face," Baldwin said.
"And then Shaq, obviously to track the ball and use good handwork down the field, to be able to track the ball, find it, it was a huge play," which was good for 86 yards and gave the Eagles a 21-10 lead with 7:55 remaining in the half.
Ashton Clark opened scoring for Eastern with his 4-yard touchdown catch with 7:14 remaining in the first quarter, giving the Eagles a 7-3 lead. His weaving and tackle-breaking 52-yard catch and run put Eastern ahead 35-17 with 4:28 remaining in the third and was part of the 35-7 explosion that gave Eastern its big cushion. Clark finished the day with six catches for 80 yards.
Trailing 42-31 after the two Henderson touchdowns, Montana had a chance to further trim Eastern's lead after Adams was intercepted by Bo Tully with 6:11 to play. The Eagle defense bent but didn't break and left the Grizzlies with a fourth and one at the 21. UM head coach Mick Delaney opted for a 39-yard Ben Worst field goal that sailed wide right.
Montana got its final touchdown to make it 42-37 with 1:44 remaining on a 6-yard Jordan Johnson to Jordan Harper pass. Johnson's run fell a yard short on the attempted 2-point conversion and moments later Kupp came away with the onside kick.
Kupp's first score was set up by the strip and fumble recovery by Andru Pulu of Travon Van. Linebacker Ronnie Hamlin led the defense with 10 tackles.
The Eagles finished with a 540-489 advantage in total offense. Quincy Forte rushed for 70 yards in a ground game that netted just 83 yards.
The win was also Eastern's fifth in the 28-year history of Washington-Grizzly Stadium where Montana sits 175-25 all-time. The win was also a milestone for Baldwin who is 50-21 in five-plus seasons as the EWU head coach. It was his 34th Big Sky victory, tying him with Paul Wulff.
The Eagles are at Idaho State (1-4, 3-5) this Saturday at Holt Arena in Pocatello before hosting fifth-ranked Montana State Nov. 9.
Paul Delaney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.