Eagles practically perfect in 54-29 win over Bobcats
Eastern scores on all eight possessions to take over Big Sky's top spot
Eastern Washington's Quincy Forte avoids a tackle attempt by Montana State's Deonte Flowers (37) and sprints towards the end zone for the first of his two touchdowns in Saturday's 54-29 win over Montana State at Roos Field.
You know it's a good day on the football field when:
• Your team scores on all but the final possession – that being a couple of kneel-downs.
• Your quarterback connects on all but two passes.
• And maybe best, your punter never takes the field.
Those are just a few things that jumped out of Saturday's Big Sky Conference football showdown between No. 3 Eastern Washington and fourth-ranked Montana State, won by the Eagles in most convincing fashion, 54-29 at Roos Field.
It was Eastern's 500th football victory.
As he has since assuming the role of starting quarterback all to his own this season, sophomore Vernon Adams provided much of the catalyst for Eastern, which improved to a perfect 6-0 in the Big Sky and 8-2 in all games. His 16-for-18 passing for 300 yards and four touchdowns, plus a TD run of his own were in stark contrast to the struggling freshman of a year ago in Bozeman.
"I was definitely scared last year," Adams said. "I'm more mature now, I know how to read defenses, I'm actually having fun and the game is slowing down for me."
This game, played before a sold-out crowd of 10,223, turned in the final moments of the first half and the opening minutes of the third quarter. First, Quincy Forte capped a lightning-quick 28-second three-play drive with his 25-yard touchdown run with 1 minute, 28 seconds to play to push Eastern into the lead 26-21.
The Eagles would take a little more time – 3:27 – when they got the ball to open the second half, but it was Forte again whose 16-yard run propelled the Eagles to a 33-21 lead with 11:33 to play in the third quarter.
Shaquille Hill then snagged an Adams pass for a 68-yard catch and run that ended the 21-0 run and put Eastern ahead 41-21 with 3:25 remaining in the third.
But a Montana State drive for a touchdown from quarterback DeNarius McGhee, with a two-point passing conversion to follow, made it a two-possession game at 41-29 with 12:52 to play. That brought back memories of Eastern's near meltdown at Missoula Oct. 26, a game they held on to win 42-37 after leading the Griz 42-17 after three quarters.
Three plays and just 55 seconds into their drive on the ensuing possession - which included an incomplete pass and a short gain on the ground - Eastern deflated thoughts of a Bobcat comeback when Adams and Hill connected on a 76-yard TD strike.
As the pocket collapsed under an MSU blitz, Adams stepped up and flicked a perfectly placed pass over the coverage to Hill who angled towards the north end zone for a touchdown that made it 47-29 with 11:57 showing on the scoreboard.
"I saw the blitz coming and I knew I just couldn't get scared and just start running around," Adams said. "I just stepped up a little bit and the corner was pressing Shaq and I know Shaq was faster so I just threw it out there and he went to go get it."
As for Hill, "I just used my speed," he said.
That touchdown gave Adams 39 this season and breaks the school-record of 37 held by Bo Levi Mitchell in 2010. Adams ranks second in Big Sky history behind the 42 Montana's Brian Ah Yat had in 1996.
Eastern finished with 591 yards of total offense as several players had career days. Hill had a career-best 172 receiving yards on just four catches. Junior Quincy Forte had a career-high 123 yards and two touchdowns.
The finish for Eastern showed they would not let up on the gas pedal.
"I was mad at myself in the fourth quarter against Montana, and I wasn't going to let that happen again," Eastern head coach Beau Baldwin said.
That was maybe best illustrated when backup quarterback Anthony Vitto, facing a fourth-and-four at the MSU 29 with 6:03 to play, was given the green light to throw and found a leaping Cooper Kupp for a 36-yard touchdown and the game's final score.
If there was a stat that the Bobcats did win it was time of possession where they had a 37:23 to 22:37 edge. But when you're rolling up record yards-per-touch numbers it hardly matters. The Eagles broke a Big Sky record by averaging 12.3 yards per play (591 yards, 48 plays), eclipsing the old record of 11.1 by more than a yard.
Eastern's defense allowed 505 yards, but seven different Eagles combined for six tackles for loss. Senior cornerback T.J. Lee III, making his first start at safety because of injuries at that position, had the fourth interception of his career and a career-high 14 tackles. Junior linebacker Cody McCarthy equaled his career high with 12 stops.
Eastern answered MSU's opening drive touchdown from Cody Kirk with Hill's first score with 6:26 remaining in the first quarter but Jake Miller's kick was blocked. Jake Withnell caught a 2-yard, fourth-and-goal pass for a 13-7 lead with 2:18 to play in the first.
Montana State reclaimed the lead 14-13 on a Tanner Bleskin TD 1:54 into the second quarter but Adams called his number for a 5-yard score at the 7:52 mark.
Kirk, who was limited in the second half by a stinger, gave the Bodcats their final lead, 21-20, burrowing under the pile at the goal line for a 1-yard score with 1:56 to play in the first half. But 28 seconds later Forte's first score started the Eagles on their 20-0 run.
Eastern is on the road at Cal Poly this Saturday for a 12:40 p.m. kickoff in a game televised live on Root Sports.
Paul Delaney can be reached at email@example.com.