By ERIC TABER | Photos by MARK MESENKO
The No. 22 Montana Grizzlies snapped a four game losing streak against the No. 10 Eastern Washington Eagles in empathic fashion to keep playoff hopes alive with a 57-16 home victory on Saturday.
Led by a defensive performance that held the Eagles to its second lowest points total since the last time UM beat EWU in 2011, and forced seven turnovers, Montana secured its 29th winning season in the last 30 years with the win.
Montana moves to 6-4 overall, and into a logjam for second place in the Big Sky Conference, with four teams all sitting at 5-2.
With Coach Stitt looking for a “signature win”, the Grizzlies proved there was plenty of gas left in the tank moving into the business end of the season, and the Griz-Cat game looming on the horizon.
“It was a statement win against a very good football team. I don’t know how exactly we did that against a team like them, but we needed it,” said Coach Stitt at the post-game press conference.
“We know we have a good football team and we’re finally getting healthy. Great effort defensively, special teams were very good, and offensively we went out and finally clicked.”
The Grizzlies scored 27 points off turnovers, including a game-changing 33-yard fumble return from Herbert Gamboa, and a game-solidifying 36-yard interception return by JR Nelson.
The league-best EWU passing attack had what amounted to a strong day on paper, led by All-American candidate wide receiver Cooper Kupp, who passed NFL legend Jerry Rice’s college career receiving mark with 118 yards on the day.
But the points weren’t coming for the Eagles, and the Grizzly defense was to blame.
Tyrone Holmes continued his dominant senior season adding three more sacks to his national best 11, for a total of 14 sacks this year. That puts him at 30.5 sacks on his career, moving him into fourth place on the all time Montana sack leader list ahead of Andy Petek.
Holmes also had a pair of quarterback hurries, and four tackles-for-loss, which puts him into sixth place on the all time TFL list with 42.5 in his illustrious career.
The defensive unit wasn’t the only story for the Griz though, as the Montana offense welcomed junior quarterback Brady Gustafson back from injury. Gustafson’s experience showed well for the Griz, throwing for 266 yards and a touchdown in his first game in nearly two months, before being subbed out halfway through the third quarter.
Senior captain Jamaal Jones had his second biggest game of the season, collecting six passes for 156 yards and a touchdown to move him into second place on Montana’s all-time receiving list with 2,764 career yards after only three years with the Grizzlies.
Jones surpassed Matt Wells to move to second on the list, and now needs 255 more yards this season to take Marc Mariani’s place as Montana’s all-time leading receiver.
“It feels good, especially because this is only my third year, and having gotten that much production, and not being here a total of four years feels good,” said Jones after his last regular season game at Washington-Grizzly Stadium. “It makes me feel like I, one, made the right choice, and two, that I made the most of my time being here.”
“I just know that we wanted to go out with a bang. I know I haven’t beaten these guys since I’ve been here. Nobody on this team has won, and that definitely added some fuel to the fire.”
True freshman Jeremy Calhoun did the dirty work for the Griz, capping off three scoring drives with touchdown runs from short range in the first half, helping Montana out to a 30-9 lead at the break.
The only other points of the first half came from Gamboa’s fumble return, and three points from the boot of Dan Sullivan, who finished the game with three field goals and six PATs.
The scoring blitz continued in the second half when the Griz defense set up two more scoring drives that resulted in two Sullivan field goals, and permanently shifted the momentum in Montana’s favor.
Just two plays into the second half, EWU running back Jabari Wilson fumbled the ball on his own 41-yard line and Ryan Johnson pounced giving the Griz great field position.
John Nguyen then rumbled for two first downs, picking up 24 of his 102 rushing yards on the day. The drive would stall though, as Calhoun couldn’t find his fourth rushing TD, and Sullivan would kick.
On the first play after the ensuing kickoff, Kendrick Van Ackeren came up big again for the Griz, intercepting a Jordan West pass and returning it 26 yards to the EWU two-yard line.
The drive would stall again however, and Sullivan was once again called into action, completing a 27 yard Field goal attempt to put Montana up 36-9, less than five minutes into the second half.
The Eagles proceeded to go three-and-out on the next drive, and Gustafson wouldn’t leave the scoring opportunity to chance, finding Jones wide open for a 45 yard touchdown strike. That completion gave Jones the yardage needed to move up to second in the all time ranking.
With less than six minutes gone off the clock in the third quarter, the Grizzlies were out to a 43-9 lead, but the nightmare quarter for the Eagles continued. Three plays into the next drive West was intercepted again, and JR Nelson returned it 36 yards to the house.
With half of the third quarter still remaining, the Griz had well and truly put the game out of reach, leading 50-9. Joey Counts capped of the scoring for Montana with a 27 yard scamper mid-way through the forth to put the final at 57-16.
John Nguyen became only the second Grizzly to rush for over 100 yards this season, totaling 102 of Montana’s 193 yards on the ground. That, paired with Gustafson’s 266 passing yards paints a picture of a balanced attack for the Griz in what was thought to be a pass-only offense, just in time for a late season run.
“I think it’s a testament to our offensive line. They’ve gotten better every week, and our running backs are good. They’re running hard. John had a 100-yard day which was great to see, and adding the dynamic of Brady being able to throw the ball with the run game now makes it a totally different thing,” said Coach Stitt.
“When we started the season, we were very young on the offensive line. We felt like in order to win we had to run 90 to 100 plays and get the defensive line gassed to be able to have success. Now, our offensive line is playing very well, can play with anybody. So you take that run game and now with the pass game, it makes us pretty tough to stop.”
The Grizzlies now shift focus toward making a record 23rd appearance in the FCS playoffs. Getting focused for the next game shouldn’t be difficult though, because to earn a trip to the post season, they face a likely must-win scenario against archrival Montana State, a game that needs no added hype.
“Like I’ve said since I’ve been here, if you’re healthy late, you can make a run. We’re finally healthy, and our off season strength program is now paying off, our kids are bought in, they’re taking care of their bodies, and we’re coming out on Saturdays with the same guys that we started the season with. There aren’t many teams that can say that,” added Stitt.
“We have to focus, and take care of business, and we’re going to be in good shape.”
The 115th “Brawl of the Wild” game will be held in Bozeman this year and is scheduled for a noon kickoff. Fans around the country will be able to tune in to see the rivalry game on ROOT sports.
NOTE: As of press time, a Split-The-Pot winner has not come forward. The drawn ticket number is #136332, grey in color, and the winning amount is approximately $10,887. Call 406-243-2233 if you have the winning ticket.