Before Eastern Washington’s FCS semifinal game against Maine became a record-setting, party-starting rout, the Eagles faced third-and-2 from the Black Bears’ 3-yard line midway through the first quarter, hoping to extend a slim 7-0 lead and turn a game that was still very much in the balance.
Quarterback Eric Barriere, alone in the backfield with five receivers split out, took the snap and, without hesitation, lofted the ball to his tight end Jayce Gilder in the very back of the end zone.
Gilder, who had put his hand up to ask for the ball barely three steps after leaving the line of scrimmage — as soon as he broke his fade route to the outside — leapt to make the catch over Maine linebacker Deshawn Stevens and, falling backwards, touched his feet down inbounds to give the Eagles a 13-0 lead
“Jayce Gilder, what a catch!” ESPN announcer Dave Neal enthused in the press box.
His partner D.J. Shockley followed up a second later.
“Look at that. High-points the football and gets and gets his feet down.”
Gilder would add a 29-yard fourth-quarter touchdown as the coup de grace in Eastern’s 50-19 win that day that earned them a chance to take on North Dakota State Saturday in the FCS National Championship.
Those touchdowns weren’t the first big plays that the 6-foot-4 tight end has made for the Eagles.
He scored touchdowns on six of his 17 receptions for Eastern Washington this year, and, when adding his three scores on nine total catches over the previous two years, has recorded a touchdown on more than a third of his career receptions.
Even with all the other offensive talent on the team, the skills that Gilder showed on that leaping touchdown reception – size, strength, hands, body control – make him one of the top options for the Eagles once they get near the goal line — and that could make him an X-factor as they try to dethrone the Bison Saturday. Gilder will be the final Montanan playing football when No. 3 Eastern Washington takes on No. 1 North Dakota State.
“Going in to play North Dakota State, you obviously have to respect them, but we go in every week respecting our opponents,” Gilder said. “We’re never scared of anyone. I look at this as a great opportunity for us to put the Eagles on the map and be a national champion.”
Gilder’s first career touchdown for Eastern Washington, which came as a redshirt sophomore in 2016, might not have been quite as impactful as the ones he scored in the national semifinal, but it was special to him nonetheless.
The Corvallis, Montana product caught it in Bobcat Stadium against Montana State, his home-state school.
“I remember it was kind of funny, a couple of the guys were kind of laughing at it,” Gilder said. “We watched it on film, I was just kind of jumping up and down in place just because I was so excited. It was a really cool feeling to get my first touchdown in Montana. It was almost like it was meant to be, it was a pretty surreal feeling. It’s something I’ll never forget my entire life.”
The Bobcats lost in the second round of the FCS playoffs — to the same NDSU team that Gilder will face Saturday — and the Montana Grizzlies missed out altogether, but Gilder ensures that the Treasure State will still be represented in the biggest FCS game of the year.
The Corvallis native is the only Montanan on either of the teams playing in Saturday’s championship game.
A quarterback and defensive end for the Blue Devils in high school, where he played with current Montana defensive lineman Jesse Sims, he wasn’t recruited by either of the Division I schools in Montana despite his size. Or his speed. Or his general athleticism, which he showed on the basketball court by averaging over 20 points a game as a senior, throwing down massive dunks and being named Class A All-State.
Late in his senior year, he had just one solid offer, from NAIA school Montana Tech.
“It was definitely frustrating,” Gilder said. “I thought I would have had more calls, or maybe more offers, but I guess, being in a small town in Montana, that’s kind of tough. I feel like a lot of people get under-recruited in Montana, because there are some really good players in Montana. I was just very frustrated, just because you think that you were overlooked, maybe.”
Gilder was just a few days away from signing with Montana Tech when Eastern Washington swooped in with an offer.
“He didn’t get recruited by Montana, Montana State very hard, so Eastern Washington came down and watched him play in a basketball game, and he was up there dunking it in the pregame and stuff like that,” Corvallis football coach Clayton Curley said. “They took a chance on him.”
It wasn’t much, just a preferred walk-on spot, but Gilder knew instantly what he wanted to do.
“It wasn’t a tough decision,” Gilder said. “As soon as I got the call from Eastern, it took me about a day to decide to go play for Eastern instead of Montana Tech, just because it was at a higher level, and I just knew I could play at that level. I was just betting on myself basically, just to work as hard as I could to get on scholarship as soon as possible.”
He did exactly that. Eastern’s coaching staff wanted him to play Sims’ old position at Corvallis, tight end, so Gilder spent a year bulking up, learning routes and practicing his blocking.
The next year, he was on the field, catching that first touchdown at Montana State, and his role has grown ever since.
“He’s competitive, he’s one of the most competitive kids there is, especially in the weight room,” Curley said. “That’s where I noticed a difference compared to other kids, because he’s, honestly, the first one in and the last one to leave … he’s just super competitive, ultra competitive.”
Gilder and the Eagles went to the national semifinals in 2016 as well but lost to Youngstown State. They played North Dakota State in both 2016 and 2017, losing both times – last year by 27.
They’ll be underdogs again on Saturday, but Gilder has already beaten the odds once — and, if EWU can pull the upset Saturday, the overlooked recruit will have accomplished something that none of his in-state peers can boast.
“This was our goal, we wanted to play in the natty,” Gilder said. “We’re not going to look at this team any different, and we’re just going to go in there with our hair on fire and play as hard as we possibly can.”