MISSOULA — As Gresch Jensen’s Hail Mary landed in the arms of Justin Calhoun with the first half expiring, it seemed the magic of the Montana Grizzlies in Missoula may have returned.
Calhoun’s unlikely grab gave the hosts a 24-6 lead over No. 11 Eastern Washington here on Friday night in front of a packed house. At that moment, Montana had all the momentum in this matchup between the current kings of the Big Sky Conference and a Griz team desperately trying to reclaim its thrown.
The hosts held that momentum here deep into the third quarter. As Roldan Alcobendas’ 48-yard field goal attempt fell well short, it looked like Montana would ride into the Garden City night with a signature win.
But Eastern Washington has won five of the last seven Big Sky titles for a reason and on Saturday, the Eagles showed the resolve of a champion. Trailing 27-13 with two minutes to go in the third quarter, Eastern scored twice in 90 seconds to send the game into the fourth quarter tied at 27 before owning the final frame to emerge with a victory.
Eastern Washington All-American junior quarterback Gage Gubrud threw for a school-record 549 yards and four touchdowns and Eagles scored 35 points in the final 17 minutes to win 48-41 going away.
“What I do know and everyone here knows is that Eastern Washington University, regardless of who’s coaching, it’s a matter of who is playing and we will always play for 60 minutes,” EWU first-year head coach Aaron Best said. “It wasn’t a magical speech at halftime. (Former head) Coach (Beau) Baldwin never gave magical speeches. That’s just the culture we have provided for our kids. They buy into it, do a good job of anything that comes their way.”
While Eastern Washington showed the fight and resilience that has trademarked the Eagles’ spot atop the league for the duration of this decade, Montana continued to struggle to make defensive adjustments or finish games.
“Of course I feel like we let one slip away,” UM senior defensive end Tucker Schye said after notching three sacks and four tackles for loss, plus a forced fumble in the first quarter. “We just didn’t make plays in the second half. That’s what it came down to. There’s not much more I can say about that.”
Even without highly successful head coach Beau Baldwin calling the plays — he left EWU in the off-season for the offensive coordinator position at Cal — Gubrud diced Montana’s defense for most of the second half. After enduring four sacks and throwing for 218 yards before halftime, Gubrud was sacked just once and threw for 331 yards and four touchdowns after halftime.
“They did everything we thought they’d do,” Gubrud said of Montana’s defense. “They were exactly who we thought they were on film so we were ready for it and had a good game plan for it.
“It helps when you go out there and you can confirm on the first possession that they are exactly who we thought they were.”
The Grizzlies seemed to be in complete control leading by two touchdowns with 17 minutes remaining in the game. But Gubrud found Dre Dorton for a 32-yard score. On Montana’s next play, Jensen felt pressure from behind, threw an ill-advised ball into coverage and Josh Lewis made a leaping interception. On EWU’s very next play, Gubrud found Sam McPherson on a short pass that turned into a 50-yard touchown.
In the matter of 60 seconds, a two-score game was all of a sudden tied and the momentum belonged exclusively to the Eagles.
“This is a big win for us,”Gubrud said. “It’s not easy to come here and win. I think the last time we did was 2012 and before that, it was 2005 so it’s not a reoccurring occurrence. I think this is big for us not just to get a win here but to start off 1-0 in the Big Sky.”
For the duration of the first half, Montana put Gubrud under heavy pressure, sending blitzers from multiple angles. When EWU moved into the red-zone, Montana’s defense stiffened on multiple occasions, forcing a pair of short Alconbendas field goals.
Meanwhile, Jensen operated the offense with confidence, taking shots down the field frequently. Jensen’s 66-yard bomb to Keenan Curran down the EWU sideline set up his two-yard touchdown run to give UM a 7-3 lead midway through the first quarter.
On EWU’s second possession, Schye made the first of many big plays, sacking and stripping Gubrud to give UM possession on the EWU 32. Jensen’s 17-yard scramble on third and long extended a drive that was capped by Jeremy Calhoun’s two-yard touchdown plunge. Eastern went 3-and-out to help Montana end the first quarter with a 14-3 lead.
The teams traded field goals to help the UM advantage stand at 17-6 late in the first half. On fourth down inside the red-zone, Gubrud had Nsimba Webster open but overthrew him, giving the ball to Montana with 49 seconds left in the first half.
The Griz handed the ball up the middle twice before a penalty put the ball 44 yards away from the end-zone. Jensen spiked the ball to stop the clock with six seconds left. On the next play, he heaved a pass into the right corner of the North end-zone that landed in Justin Calhoun’s hands to push the halftime lead to 24-6.
“I saw Justin and threw it up there for him, give him an opportunity at the end of the half, make a play,” said Jensen, who threw for 358 yards and two touchdowns in his debut. “We were ready to run it out but then we had the personal foul so we gave it a shot.”
On the possession following Alcobendas’ missed field goal, Montana’s wave of inertia began to level out. In his first start, Jensen did not hold back taking shots down the field from the opening minutes. Following the missed field goal, Jensen took two shots to the end-zone, including one that would’ve been a sure touchdown but Lamarriel Taylor dropped the ball. Montana had to settle for a 39-yard field goal from Brandon Purdy.
EWU’s avalanche ensued thereafter, leaving Montana to wonder how to rebound.
“It feels like we let it slip in certain areas but we kept plugging away,” Montana head coach Bob Stitt said. “That’s what we needed out of this football team. It’s what we talked about since November as far as how do we deal with these things. This game hurts right now but it’s going to make us stronger. It’s going to make us better down the line.”
Photos by Jason Bacaj. All Rights Reserved.