MISSOULA, Montana — The last time Bobby Hauck coached against Eastern Washington, Chase Reynolds pounded in a one-yard go-ahead touchdown with one minutes, 18 seconds to go to lift the Grizzlies to a 41-34 victory on October 17 of 2009, the sixth win during a 14-game winning streak during Hauck’s final season in his first tenure leading the Montana Grizzlies.
In Hauck’s first season back at Montana last fall, the unbalanced schedule of the Big Sky Conference steered the Griz away from an Eastern Washington team that, like the 2009 Grizzlies, raced all the way to the FCS national title game in 2018.
Saturday in Missoula, for stretches it looked like 2009 all over again. Leading up to the renewal of the rivalry, Hauck predicted that the team that ran the ball and stopped the run most effectively would win the day. In front of 24,072 who braved the wintery conditions, the Griz went to the ground early and often, giving supporters flashbacks that “Bobby Ball” might be back in Missoula.
No. 10 Montana rushed for 254 yards and gave up just 101, including 131 yards and three touchdowns from junior running back Marcus Knight in UM’s favor and 79 more bruising yards to seal the game from true freshman Nick Ostmo on the way to a 34-17 victory over suddenly struggling EWU on Saturday afternoon in Missoula.
“It’s nice to be right once in awhile,” Hauck said with a grin. “That’s good, hard-nosed football. It looked like late fall in the Northern Rockies out there early in the game. You’ve got to be able to run the ball here or you are not going to win late in the season. You have to be able to stop it because the other team is trying to do it.
“We did a good job on both sides of that equation. I really liked how our defense swarmed to both sides of the ball. And I really liked how our offense did the same.”
The win moves Montana to 3-1 in Big Sky Conference play, 6-2 overall entering the final month of the regular-season. The victory also helps the Griz wash the bad taste of last week’s 49-22 loss at No. 15 Sacramento State last week. And it keeps the in the mix for their first Big Sky title since, coincidentally, 2009.
“Certainly, to beat the team that played in the national championship game last year is a great win for us,” said Hauck after leading the Montana program to its 600th win, the 22nd FCS program to achive that feat. “I’m proud of our effort and played the game coming off a loss and how they finished it, frankly. Aaron Best had his team ready to go. They had a good first half. That was tough. We were down, had to fight our way back and I like our football team’s ability to do that.”
The Eastern Washington loss drops the Eagles to 3-5 this season, almost certainly out of the FCS playoff picture given EWU’s remaining schedule. A team that won 12 games last season despite losing senior quarterback Gage Gubrud in the final game of September of 2018. EWU is 2-2 in league play but on the outside of the postseason picture looking in.
“That’s a good outfit in a tough environment and those guys coming off a loss,” Best said. “Everyone wants to scrutinize the negative; scrutinize the positive. These guys played their asses off in the first half, played their ass off in the second half, didn’t score enough points against a good football team that didn’t score enough points against Coach Hauck and company who held serve at home.”
Montana’s run game helped make the absence of All-American quarterback Dalton Sneed a non-factor. UM junior Cam Humphrey operated too quickly in the first half, firing the ball after making one read for most of the first two and a half quarters. But once Knight, Ostmo and Montana’s diverse rushing attack spearheaded by a creative three-tight end set enforced its will, the Grizzlies overcame a 14-3 deficit by ending the game on a 31-3 run.
“I have a hell of a role model in front of me in Dalton so to fill in and see everyone step up, it made it easy for me to get in there and operate our run game,” Humprey said after chipping in 35 rushing yards.
Eastern Washington’s defense lost a slew of stellar talents from last season’s underrated unit, including Big Sky Defensive Player of the Year Jay-Tee Tiuli, All-Big Sky cornerbacks D’Londo Tucker and Josh Lewis and All-Big Sky safety Mitch Fettig. The Eagles welcomed back Chris Ojoh, a junior who was a breakout star for the Eagles last fall who has missed the last month with an injury. The EWU defense competed with great fervor throughout, particularly during the first two quarters as Eastern built a 14-3 lead and went into halftime up 14-10.
For the first time in the second rendition of the Hauck era, Montana was able to lean on a Big Sky opponent. Using a 3-tight end set that included senior Colin Bingham and sophomore Bryson Deming (usual suspects) along with newcomer true freshman Joey Elwell, who served in a wing/H-back role, plowed lanes for a ground game that averaged 4.8 yards per carry on a season-high 55 rushes.
“There was a big emphasis on the run game all week,” Knight said. “As a running back, you are always excited when you are told you are going to be able to run the ball and you have the whole o-line very excited. As the coaches said, those two, three, four-yard runs, as the game wears on, they turn into 10, 15, long runs. They will pop.”
The Griz entered the game averaging 35 rushing attempts a game and 318 passing yards per outing because of Sneed’s impressive hot streak. Montana’s previous season-high for rushing attempt was 48 in a 61-17 win over North Alabama. UM’s season-high in rushing yards remains 260 in a 45-20 win at UC Davis.
Throughout last season, the narrative surrounding the Griz offense centered upon the deficiencies of the offensive line. Saturday, that improved group, spurred on by the move of senior Cy Sirmon to center, the addition of right guard Moses Mallory from the junior college, and the emergence of right tackle Dallas Cook, bulldozed the way to Knight’s dominant day and Ostmo’s brutish game-closing effort.
“A team that runs the ball well, if you can stick with it, that’s the way it’s going to be,” Hauck said when asked about his run game gaining steam. “You can wear on the other side if you are persistent and have the ability to do that. To do that, you have to be able to generate first downs and be able to continue on with it in the game. Today, that’s how it played out and it was fun to watch our big guys lean on them.”
Montana set the tone, forging a 16-play, 61-yard drive that lasted the first seven minutes, 14 seconds of the game. The Griz had to settle for a 35-yard Brandon Purdy field goal. But the tone was set.
The two teams traded failed fourth down attempts in the first 20 minutes. Exactly two game minutes after Montana’s failed attempt, EWU sophomore wide receiver Andrew Boston maximized single-coverage against true freshman Corbin Walker, ripping off a 36-yard touchdown to put EWU in front.
A little over two minutes after that first touchdown, EWU junior quarterback Eric Barriere hit Talolo Limu-Jones for a 62-yard gain. On the next play, Tamarick Pierce, a standout on EWU’s 2018 squad who suffered a torn ACL during the playoffs lastfall that kept him out until Saturday, punched in a touchdown from five yards out.
Despite possessing the ball for less than eight minutes in the game’s first 23, Eastern Washington led 14-3 with 6:29 remaining in the first half.
The first gashing play by the Griz came when Humphrey hit Knight for a 37-yard gain, part of a three-catch, 65-yard receiving day, to spark a scoring drive that resulted in Knight’s first touchdown from four yards out.
Still, the Eagles entered the locker room with a 14-10 lead.
“We played really good football for a half, and didn’t play very good football for the other half,” EWU third-year head coach Aaron Best said. “That seems to be a common theme. We’ll tweak some things and we’ll make some adjustments. Because right now we are hitting on all cylinders for 30 minutes and hitting on very few for the next 30.”
After halftime, the Griz took full advantage of its newfound ability to wear out the Eagles but not before the latest electric play by Knight, the breakout big-play maker in the Big Sky this season.
Following a 12-play, 63-yard drive that took up 4:29 and resulted in a Seth Harrison 35-yard field goal that put EWU up 17-10, Knight answered by breaking a tackle, cutting off a Cook block and racing for a 45-yard touchdown. That spurt tied the game 17-17 with 7:18 left in the third.
“When I got the ball, Cam yelled ‘Get it’ and I just followed the read,” Knight said. “I cut off the block and it was wide open.”
Montana never looked back. The next three EWU possessions resulted in punts. Those punts never made it across midfield. The Griz started with the ball on the Eastern 46 twice in a row, leading to a 46-yard Purdy field goal and a nine-yard Knight touchdown less than a minute into the final frame that gave the hosts a 27-17 lead.
Following Knight’s second score, Griz kicker Adam Wilson made a rare mistake, botching the kickoff. An un-expecting Silas Perreiah muffed the kick and UM’s Malik Flowers recovered. Five plays and 23 yards later, Humphrey threw a back-shoulder dart to junior Sammy Akem for a six-yard touchdown that proved to be the final score fo the game with 12 minutes to play.
Montana had chance to close the game in dominant fashion when another stop and another bad EWU punt resulted in UM taking over on the Eastern 48 with 10:31 to play. Two Knight carries later, the sophomore upstart fumbled and Rudolph Mataia recovered. Knight would not see the field again despite finishing his day with 196 yards from scrimmage and three rushing touchdowns.
Ostmo, a 6-foot, 220-pound true freshman out of Lincoln High School in Portland, Oregon, salted the game away with 11 of his 18 carries over the final two Griz possessions.
“He was in there for a reason,” Hauck jabbed, referring to Knight’s fumble. “We will forgive the guy to my right for that (Knight). Our backs are running hard. Marcus ran hard. Nick ran hard. A lot of yards after contact. They were breaking tackles. Front was pushing it.”
Montana has now out-scored its opponents 189-67 this season, or an average score of 23-8. This time, UM did it in a new, and in Hauck’s case, old fashion to beat EWU for the first time in 1,465 days.
“We are a second half team, a fourth-quarter team and that’s where we want to be playing our best on any given Saturday,” Hauck said. “Today, that’s what it was so I was happy for our guys.”
Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.