Big Sky Conference

Patient Eastern Washington pushes past Montana State


BOZEMAN — Jeff Choate knew his Montana State team would have to play the perfect game to defeat the No. 3 team in the FCS. For the first 27 minutes here on Saturday afternoon, the Bobcats gave the visiting Eastern Washington Eagles everything they could handle before the demons that have haunted MSU throughout Choate’s first season reared their heads once again.

Montana State struck first as freshman quarterback Chris Murray hit a wide-open Connor Sullivan for a 53-yard touchdown, the first of the sophomore tight end’s career. MSU knew the league-leading EWU offense would chew up yards and score points and Eastern fulfilled the expectation for the duration of the first frame.

Sophomore quarterback Gage Gubrud completed all 11 of his first quarter passes, including a nine-yard touchdown strike to senior Shaq Hill on an explosive slant patter and a 10-yard touchdown toss to senior Cooper Kupp on a bubble screen in which the EWU All-America rumbled in for his 64th career touchdown.

EWU quarterback Gabe Gubsrud (8)

EWU quarterback Gabe Gubrud (8)

Montana State’s offense has been inconsistent all season but for the first 28 minutes, it looked as good as it has at any point in Choate’s first campaign. MSU answered Hill’s touchdown with a 70-yard run in which Murray’s prodigious speed was on full display in front of 18,087 on a beautiful Bozeman afternoon to take a 14-7 lead and keep EWU on its heels.

MSU had the ball tied 14-14 after Kupp’s score as the second quarter began and turned its third offensive possession into a 40-yard field goal by true freshman Gabe Peppenger to stay on top. The Bobcats continued holding the upper hand after enduring a 13-play EWU possession that resulted in a missed field goal by Jordan Dascalo. MSU forced its first EWU three-and-out since 2012 to get the ball back with three minutes, nine seconds left in the first half. The Bobcats showed a flash. The momentum was in their favor. Perhaps an unexpected upset could help the hosts to their first Big Sky Conference win.

Montana State weathered the Eastern Washington storm for nearly the entire first half. The Bobcats led for the first 27 minutes of the game. Then the dam broke and EWU flooded the hosts out of Bobcat Stadium.

With a 17-14 lead and three minutes left in the first half, Murray pulled the ball late on a zone-read option with senior Gunnar Brekke. The ball spilled onto the turf. J.J. Njoku’s recovery gave the Eagles the ball 16 yards from the end-zone. Two plays later, freshman Antoine Custer scored from nine yards out to give EWU a 21-17 lead with 2:26 in the first half. Eastern Washington never trailed again.

The No. 3 Eagles forced four more turnovers from that point on — giving MSU 20 turnovers in Big Sky play —  Gubrud maintained his patience, extended play after play with his feet and executed mistake-free football as EWU sprinted to its fifth straight win by scoring 27 unanswered points to post a 41-17 victory in Bozeman Saturday.

“What I’m most frustrated about is those turnovers,” said Choate, who’s team fell to 0-5 in Big Sky Conference play, 2-6 overall. “Two red-zone turnovers, opportunities to put the ball in there. That’s become too much a pattern here and I’m incredibly frustrated with that. Those two or three bad plays a game has got to stop. That doesn’t give us a chance. Against a very, very good football team, your margin for error is nothing. And when you give them the ball, that ain’t good.”

EWU running back Antonie Custer (28) jukes MSU safety Bryson McCabe (10)

EWU running back Antonie Custer (28) jukes MSU safety Bryson McCabe (10)

Eastern, which moved to 4-0 in Big Sky Conference play and 6-1 overall, has been the best second-half team in the league all season. The 24-17 lead EWU took into halftime was Eastern’s second halftime lead this season; the Eagles led Northern Arizona 22-21 at intermission in a 50-35 win in Flagstaff to open league play. EWU entered Saturday’s game having outscored opponents 108-20 in the third quarter alone.

Eastern scored just seven points in the third quarter — on a one-yard touchdown catch by redshirt freshman tight end Jayce Gilder of Corvallis, Montana — but the EWU defense pitched a shutout for the final 44 minutes of action and Gubrud continued to move the chains despite Montana State’s prevent-style passing defense.

“It’s not by accident we’re playing well in the second half – we began to build that months ago,” EWU head coach Beau Baldwin said after his team’s 53rd Big Sky win in 67 conference outings since he took over in 2008. “It’s a combination of the work ethic year around, and that builds you both physically and mentally. Our players are ready to make adjustments at halftime and find different things to attack in the second half. It’s been pleasant to see them find ways to get better as we go through a game. It takes a lot of grind to get to that point as a football team.”

Following Murray’s first fumble, Choate benched the freshman and went with much maligned junior transfer Tyler Bruggman for the final series of the first half plus one series in the second half. MSU was unable to move the chains, giving the ball back to Eastern with 32 seconds left in the first half. Gubrud completed long passes to sophomore Sam McPherson, Kupp and junior wide receiver Nic Sblendorio to get to the MSU 31. Baldwin called a timeout with three and inserted Roldan Alcobendas, who hit a 48-yard field goal to give EWU a touchdown lead at halftime.

MSU scored 17 points, notched 10 first downs, rushed for 138 yards and piled up 241 yards of total offense in the first half. MSU managed just 108 yards and just six first downs after halftime despite rushing for 113 more yards in the second half and 251 overall.

“We came out with a different mindset in the second half,” said EWU senior defensive end Samson Ebukam, a menace to MSU’s offense all afternoon. “We went in the locker room, calmed down a little bit, got into the flow of the game, got to work. That’s what we always do at halftime.

MSU quarterback Chris Murray (8) throws a stiff arm

MSU quarterback Chris Murray (8) throws a stiff arm vs EWU defensive tackle Albert Havili

“All the work we put into the off-season is paying off right now. We are able to play as hard as we did in the first quarter in the second, third and fourth. Other teams don’t seem to get that. Right now, we are making it happen going into the second half.”

 Montana State started the second half with a stop followed by 49 rushing yards on two carries by junior Nick LaSane, who finished with a career-high 85 yards on five carries. On the next play, Murray kept the ball on an option play out of a full house formation. Ebukam met him in the hole and viciously ripped the ball from his hands. Junior D’Londo Tucker recovered, giving EWU possession on its own 22.

A catch-and-run that included at least three slippery moves by EWU senior Kendrick Bournce netted 36 yards and moved EWU into the red-zone again. Eastern got the ball down to the MSU 14 but Alcobendas’ 31-yard field goal attempt was blocked by MSU redshirt freshman cornerback Chris Harris.

MSU couldn’t capitalize, going three and out thanks to tackles for loss by Eastern’s Dylan Ledbetter and Miquiyah Zamora. EWU’s next drive lasted eight plays and covered 65 yards, sparked by McPherson’s 32-yard gain on a screen play and capped by Gilder’s touchdown to give EWU a two-score lead.

Montana State went with Bruggman on the final possession of the third quarter after sophomore Logan Jones’ 53-yard kick return into EWU territory. MSU turned a fourth down into a first down thanks to a pass interference penalty on Nzuzi Webster against MSU junior Mitch Herbert. On the next play, Bruggman threw an interception right to Zach Bruce’s hands.

“When you give the ball up inside your own 10-yard line, that’s typically a big momentum swing, especially when it’s a one-possession game or a tie game,” MSu senior captain offensive guard J.P. Flynn said. “It’s hard to overcome a turnover within your own red-zone. It’s one thing we have to improve as an offensive unit is the importance of the ball, ball security. Right now, we are 0 to 12 the past three weeks. That statistic speaks for itself.”

EWU running back Jabari Wilson looks for space

EWU running back Jabari Wilson looks for space

Gubrud’s touchdown pass to Gilder was his third of the day. He hit starting senior tight end Zach Wimberly for his fourth touchdown pass, a 25-yarder, to cap a four-play, 66-yard drive following an unsuccessful fourth-down try by the Bobcats.

Montana State played coverage schemes that included a prevalence of “dime” packages” – six defensive backs on the field at one time. In the package, Brekke played defensive back for the first time since his days at Helena Capital High. MSU ran “cloud” coverage scheme for most of the day to limit any ability for Eastern Washington to hit explosive plays over the top.

The scheme did not phase Gubrud or EWU’s collection of star wide receivers. Instead, the EWU offense was patient and dissected the Bobcat defense. Gubrud completed a 40-yard pass to Kupp, who finished with 13 catches fro 154 yards, for his longest completion of the day. Other than that, EWU ripped off most of its chunk yardage on catch-and-run plays aided by the Eastern skill players’ ability to get yards after the catch.

“A lot of teams play deep and don’t let things happen over the top,” Gubrud said. “You get in the habit of being patient and doing that as you go along each week, taking what they give you. We have great receivers so they think we are just getting small chunks of yards but really, I throw a five-yard pass and they crack it for another 25 yards. That’s a 30-yard gain. That’s not a short gain. We do a great job of racking after the catch.”

Despite not hitting many of the explosive plays customary of EWU’s explosive offense, Gubrud still had a record-setting day. The sophomore completed 37-of-51 passes for an EWU-record 520 yards and four touchdowns. Eastern found itself in long-yardage situations time and again because of 12 penalties for 105 yards, but Gubrud’s ability to extend plays with his feet killed MSU time and again. His 31-yard completion to Hill, who finished with seven catches for 147 yards, converted a 3rd & 23 into a first down. His 40-yard completion to Kupp came on a 3rd & 11.

“He was able to extend a lot of plays,” MSU senior cornerback John Walker said. “I feel like we had good coverage but I don’t think even Deion (Sanders) could cover anybody for 10 seconds.”

Kupp went over 100 yards for the 27th time in his illustrious career and tied an FCS record with at least one reception in 45 straight games. Kupp now has 64 touchdowns and 5,925 yards, both Division I records, FBS or FCS. Kupp has 370 catches, 25 behind the all-time Division I record.

Eastern Washington’s attention now turns to one of the showdowns of the Big Sky season. Montana fell victim to a 45-34 upset a Northern Arizona, dealing the Griz their second conference loss in four outings. But it doesn’t demean the magnitude of the matchup.

MSU running back Gunnar Brekke (2) playing defensive back

MSU running back Gunnar Brekke (2) playing defensive back

“I’m already pissed off,” Ebukam said. “I know we just won this game but I’m pissed until we beat Montana. We lost to them last year and we haven’t forgotten that.”

Montana State’s attention turns to its much-needed bye week. Choate is hopeful that injured players junior left tackle Dylan Mahoney, sophomore nose tackle Tucker Yates, junior defensive end Shiloh LaBoy and perhaps sophomore wide receiver John D’Agostino back in the lineup after next week’s bye. The Bobcats play at Southern Utah on November 5.

“It’s extremely frustrating,” Choate said. “We aren’t a mature enough team to finish drives on offense or defense right now. We have a week to work on that and I think we have three winnable games (SUU, UC Davis, Montana) coming up. We have to do a good job of developing momentum for ourselves.”

Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved. 


About Colter Nuanez

Colter Nuanez is the co-founder and senior writer for Skyline Sports. After spending six years in the newspaper industry with stops at the Missoulian, the Ellensburg Daily Record and the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, the former Washington Newspaper Association Sportswriter of the Year and University of Montana Journalism School graduate ('09) has cultivated a deep passion for sports journalism during his 13-year career covering the Big Sky Conference. In August of 2014, Colter and brother Brooks merged their passions of writing and art to found Skyline Sports.

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