Game Recap

Eastern Washington comes back to beat Montana in nationally-televised thriller


CHENEY, Washington — The sun set an hour before the kickoff of Montana’s game at Eastern Washington on Saturday, the high-noon light on the bottom of the clouds casting everything into silhouette.

Later, in the full dark, the extra floodlights provided by ESPN for the first of its kind occasion illuminated Roos Field, an island of crimson picked out of the hills of the Palouse. There was nothing outside of the lights that mattered.

Why would there be?

This was The Game, No. 4 vs. No. 6 in the country, the first regular-season Big Sky game ever broadcast on a mainstream ESPN network, subject of a week of breathless hype that had 8,000 people in the stands and thousands more around the country focusing as one on 100 yards of red turf here at Roos Field on the Eastern Washington campus.

The game was a showcase for both programs, the conference and the entire FCS, and in the end it surpassed even the hype. A national audience on ESPN2 saw No. 6 Eastern Washington score 24 points in the fourth quarter to come back and beat No. 4 Montana, 34-28, in an instant classic that featured back-and-forth adjustments, great plays, accentuation of strengths plus comebacks and near-comebacks from both sides.

In the end, the Eagles moved to 5-0 thanks to a surprisingly snappy defense and the wizardry of the best FCS player in the United States.

“Our team is resilient, they’ve got a ton of leaders, they’re not scared of anything,” Eastern Washington coach Aaron Best said after his team’s fifth straight win. “We’re not going to get bullied, especially on our home field.”

Eastern Washington senior quarterback Eric Barriere threw for 422 yards against Montana on Saturday night/by Jason Bacaj

Eastern Washington’s senior quarterback Eric Barriere threw for 422 yards and two scores as the Eagles survived and eventually counterpunched Montana’s blitzing, swarming defense. Barriere continued his assault on the Eastern Washington record books as he chases the two things that have eluded him in his sterling Eastern career: the Walter Payton Award and a national championship.

Saturday night, Barriere connected with Talolo Limu-Jones 11 times for 231 yards, consistently making astounding throws up the seem to his streaking senior to set up several of EWU’s touchdowns. Barriere passed former Payton winner Vernon Adams to move into second on Eastern’s career passing yards list.

“He’s motivated,” Best said. “He was the second place finisher in the spring for the Walter Payton. He’s motivated and I’m motivated for him. He’s the best player in America at this level and I say it every single week. It’s on display every single week.”

The Griz came into the game having allowed two offensive touchdowns in three games. They left humbled, having given up four more — three in a five-minute, nine-second span in the beginning of the fourth quarter that flipped 21-10 Montana advantage into a 10-point lead for the Eagles.

“I really think that the game came down to certain crucial times,” Montana coach Bobby Hauck said following his second career loss to Eastern Washington in nine tries. “Both sides had a chance to make plays, and they made more than we did.”

Eastern Washington’s offense and Montana’s defense each had a claim to be the best in the country coming into the game. Both units delivered, swinging back-and-forth haymakers at each other — no stalemate of excellence, but instead a wildly entertaining exchange of big plays back and forth.

The Eagles’ sixth play of the game was a 51-yard deep bomb to Limu-Jones, by far the longest play Montana’s defense had surrendered all year. Two plays later, they were in the end zone for a 7-0 lead.

Montana’s Jace Lewis sacked Barriere for a 17-yard loss on Eastern’s next drive, one of four times the Grizzlies brought down the mobile quarterback in the first half, and Montana led 14-10 at halftime thanks to two 77-yard touchdown drives, the first capped by a 3-yard Xavier Harris touchdown run and the second by a 4-yard Sammy Akem reception.

Talolo Limu-Jones catches a 58-yard bomb to set up Eastern Washington’s go-ahead touchdown/ by Blake Hempstead

The former was Harris’ third career touchdown and part of a career-best day for the freshman. He finished with a career-high 123 yards rushing, a bright spot for a Montana offense that otherwise left much to be desired.

The Griz defense stayed in control until the fourth quarter. Montana senior quarterback Cam Humphrey threw his second touchdown pass of the game, a 15-yarder to sophomore Joey Elwell, on the first drive of the second half to give Montana a 21-10 lead. The scoring catch was Elwell’s second in as many weeks.

As Eastern Washington started to pile up the plays, the Eagles began to figure out how to protect against Montana’s constant blitzes. The Eagles converted two fourth downs on a 13-play, 58-yard drive that ended with a 9-yard touchdown toss to Andrew Boston on the second play of the fourth quarter.

Montana immediately went three-and-out, and Barriere hung in the pocket to rope a 58-yard strike to Limu-Jones down to the Griz 2-yard line. Micah Smith punched it in on the next play for a 24-21 Eagles lead, their first since the opening drive.

Eastern Washington senior quarterback Eric Barriere threw for 422 yards and a pair of scores to Boston. He was sacked five times, tackled for loss seven times and was picked off twice. He also found the end-zone on this two-point conversion/ b Jason Bacaj, Skyline Sports

As Eastern Washington’s offense started to thrive, Montana’s struggled. The Grizzlies didn’t score an offensive touchdown after Elwell’s to start the half, and Humphrey threw two interceptions in the fourth quarter, including one in the end zone. He consistently overthrew his receivers, particularly Akem, who moved into a tie with Joe Douglass for fifth in school history with 25 career touchdown catches.

EWU took just five plays after the interception in end-zone by Demetrius Crosby Jr. to cover the 80 yards to score, with Dennis Merritt, who ran for 103 yards for the Eagles, ripping off back-to-back runs of 17 and 18 yards and then scoring on a 1-yard touchdown plunge for a 31-21 lead with under 10 minutes to go, his eighth rushing touchdown this year already.

Eastern Washington senior running back Dennis Merritt/ by Jason Bacaj

The game wasn’t even close to over. On the ensuing kickoff, Montana junior Malik Flowers ripped through a seam and accelerated up the left sideline for a 99-yard touchdown, the second kick-return score for the Griz special teams ace in as many weeks and the fifth of his career, breaking Greg Anderson’s (1973-1976) school record and tying him with former EWU star Lamont Brightful (1997-2000) for second in league history behind only Weber State senior Rashid Shaheed.

Montana finally forced a three-and-out, but Humphrey threw another interception on Montana’s next drive and Eastern Washington turned that into a 30-yard field goal, giving the Griz just 1:20 to answer a 34-28 deficit.

They very nearly did, driving to the 34 on a Humphrey scramble that saw the Griz QB take a big hit that forced him out of the game. With backup Kris Brown in, Montana got to Eastern Washington’s 13 with four seconds left.

Montana senior quarterback Cam Humphrey was under constant duress all game, including on this hit that knocked him out of the contest/ by Blake Hempstead

On the final play, Brown was forced to scramble, and his lofted throw was knocked out of Cole Grossman’s hands in the end zone by Eastern Washington’s Ely Doyle.

The loss dropped Montana to 3-1. The Grizzlies host Dixie State next week.

Montana running back Xavier Harris gets to the edge during a career-best performance/ by Jason Bacaj

Montana’s Marcus Welnel following his third interception this season celebrating with (from left) Justin Belknap, Robby Hauck/ by Jason Bacaj

Montana tight end Cole Grossman tries to snare the game-winning catch in the final seconds against Eastern Washington/ by Blake Hempstead

Cam Humphrey tackled in the open field against Eastern Washington/ Blake Hempstead

About Andrew Houghton

Andrew Houghton grew up in Washington, DC. He graduated from the University of Montana journalism school in December 2015 and spent time working on the sports desk at the Daily Tribune News in Cartersville, Georgia, before moving back to Missoula and becoming a part of Skyline Sports in early 2018.

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