BOZEMAN — A comedy of errors against one of the nation’s best quarterbacks leading one of the nation’s best teams buried the Bobcats on Saturday.
Beginning with an errant pitch in the red zone that put Montana State a step behind against Eastern Washington’s electric offense to a controversial targeting call that resulted in Tyrel Thomas’ ejection to the inability to capitalize on the rare interception throw by EWU All-American quarterback Gage Gubrud, MSU’s string of mistakes proved to be costly.
Throw in a pile of penalties, missed opportunities and Gubrud’s ability to exploit any mismatch and the host Bobcats were playing chase from the get-go. Gubrud threw for 311 yards, senior tailback Sam McPherson scored a pair of key touchdowns and No. 5 Eastern Washington’s defense played with vigor in bottling up MSU’s one-dimensional offense on the way to a wire-to-wire 34-17 victory in front of 18,667 at Bobcat Stadium.
“Very, very good football team and one that clearly, they were picked to win this league and I think they showed why today,” MSU third-year head coach Jeff Choate said following his team’s first Big Sky Conference loss. “I don’t think we played our best football. I think the most disappointing thing for me today was just the lack of discipline. We had a lot of penalties at critical times in the game. And there were some discipline things in terms of the unsportsmanlike conduct.
“ I don’t know if our guys were pressing or if the moment got into their heads but that’s uncharacteristic of our program and not something you can do against a good team and expect to win.”
Eastern Washington is 2-0 in Big Sky Conference play, 4-1 overall. The Eagles have now defeated the Bobcats seven consecutive times and 14 of the last 16. Montana State enters its bye week 1-1 in league play, 3-2 overall.
““Our players played their ever-living tails off today – on the road with a seven-hour bus ride. I can’t say enough how proud I am of this bunch,” EWU second-year head coach Aaron Best. “I was excited for the fans who came to watch us and the fans who watched at home. This was a big victory for us.”
EWU won the coin toss and chose to receive the opening kick, putting the ball in the hands one of the Big Sky’s great field generals. Gubrud attacked mismatches right out of the gates, juking MSU redshirt freshman Shawn Borges from his nickel back spot on the first third down conversion of the day. On the next play, Gubrud hit senior Nsimba Webster against Borges coverage for a 34-yard gain to the 3-yard line. Gubrud scored the first of four EWU rushing touchdowns on the next play.
The game looked like it might be a shootout after the first thee offensive possessions. MSU answered EWU’s two-minute, 25-second opening drive with a two-play drive that lasted 45 seconds. Andersen completed his only deep shot on the day — his other two chucks down the field ended in interceptions — to Travis Jonsen for a 50-yard gain. Andersen ran a speed option to the right and ran over three Eastern defenders on his first of two running touchdowns, this one from 25 yards out.
Despite EWU All-Big Sky senior left tackle Tristen Taylor, EWU continued marching up and down the field. On the first third down of the possession, Andersen played his first of roughly 20 snaps at outside linebacker as the QB spy in MSU’s dime package. Gubrud slipped him for a nine-yard gain to convert a third down, then hit McPherson for a 25-yard gain that set up McPherson’s 3-yard TD run.
Using a variety of screens and read option plays, MSU answered with another explosive drive into the red-zone. Andersen’s zone-read keeper earned 14 yards to the EWU 11 but then the first crucial error occurred.
Andersen ran speed option again, this time pitching late to Isaiah Ifanse. The freshman tailback recovered the ball but not before a 10-yard loss. The Bobcats had to settle for a field goal to trail 14-10 to end the first quarter.
“I probably made a poor read, probably should’ve pitched it a little softer or sooner,” Andersen said. “That’s one we definitely would want to have back.”
MSU swelled up in the red-zone and Damien Washington’s third down pass breakup helped the Bobcats hold the Eagles to a field goal on their third possession. Rodan Alcobendas’s 24-yard kick helped him tie Eastern Washington’s career kicking scoring record. He would later break it and now has 244 points in 34 games.
Facing a 17-10 deficit 17 minutes into the game, things began to unravel for the hosts. Thomas’ hit on Johnny Edwards on the EWU sideline resulted in an ejection or targeting. Right after the call, Montana State secondary starters Jahque Alleyne, Jalen Cole and Brayden Konkol all vocally expressed their displeasure with the call.
On the very next play, Alleyne smacked EWU receiver Zach Eagle across the middle. For a moment, MSU looked like it might channel the emotions stemming from the controversial call in their favor. Two plays later, Greg “Munchie” Filer III snared his first career interception.
“We were pretty excited – our coverage is pretty confusing even to run it but we expect ourselves to make those plays and we made that play for Tyrel because we felt the call, it shouldn’t have been called,” Alleyne, a Virginia Tech transfer, said.
One play after ripping off a 17-yard gain, Andersen appeared to complete his seventh straight pass. But sophomore Lance McCutcheon had possession poked out by Nzuzi Webster. Eastern senior All-Big Sky defensive tackle Jay-Tee Tiululi ended the MSU possession with a sack, the third in the first 25 minutes by EWU’s high-motor defense.
“Early we were trying to find our footing, and we weren’t really in sync defensively. But then we did find our footing,” Best said. “We brought calculated pressure when they were forced to throw, and we put them in third and medium to longs.
“That outfit doesn’t want to throw – they want to be in third and short. When you put them in positions where it’s not their strength, you have the upper hand.”
On the first play of Eastern’s fourth possession, Tamarack Pierce ripped off a 38-yard run. MSU senior defensive end Tyrone Fa’anono rode him out of bounds. Pierce tripped on the barrier after a Fa’anono shove. The officials though it was late, resulting in a penalty that pushed the ball to the MSU 12. Pierce scored on the next play to take a 24-10 lead. That momentum swing proved to be too much for the Bobcats to overcome.
“It was a great play by Greg and our offense had a great opportunity but we really weren’t able to get anything going on that drive,” Choate said. “It was difficult for us to slip the field and take advantage of the situation and it led to another score.”
Out of halftime, the teams traded stops. MSU’s second half possession’s second play included confusion on a personnel grouping. MSU burned a timeout, then came out of the break with Andersen throwing deep. The floated throw was intercepted by EWU senior All-Big Sky safety Mitch Fettig.
Alleyne nearly bailed Montana State out but he had what seemed like a sure interception ripped out of his hands by EWU tight end Talolo Limu-Jones, instead resulting in a 22-yard gain. Two catches for 28 yards by Andrew Boston led to a Gubrud two-yard touchdown that was negated by a holding call. Andersen stuck Gubrud at the 1-yard line on third down, forcing Alcobendas’ second field goal to give Eastern a 27-10 lead with 5:38 left in the third quarter.
“It’s extremely frustrating because I expect myself to make those plays and if I make that play, the outcome is a bit different,” Alleyne said. “You win some, you lose some.
“They are No. 5 in the country for a reason. The RPOs, they are hard to read and come pretty quick. They have a good quarterback, probably the best we’ll see all season. You have to adjust to certain things, which we couldn’t do.”
The Bobcats flipped from Andersen to Tucker Rovig at quarterback, then back to Andersen in the second half. Andersen finished the day 12-of-19 for 156 yards while rushing for 94 yards on 23 carries. But MSU’s mistakes continued to keep the Bobcats playing chase.
On a trick play, Andersen threw to Willie Patterson in the flat. The redshirt freshman threw back to Andersen, who turned on the burners on a 32-yard touchdown. But the play was negated by a chop block penalty called on Tyler Natee and Connor Wood.
“We had a lot of penalties today and when you are playing a great team like Eastern Washington, you can’t shoot yourself in the foot,” Andersen said following his first loss in his first start at quarterback. “We had the touchdown called back, multiple penalties that were really costly. We have to clean that up.
“Usually, we are a disciplined team but today, I don’t know if it was the moment or what got to us but we played out of character.”
Rovig threw an interception negated by a roughing the passer penalty three plays before the first drive of the fourth quarter stalled out. Bailey’s 42-yard field goal sailed wide right — his first miss in eight attempts — giving EWU possession with a 27-point lead with 10:40 left.
The Eagles were not absolved from errors — Webster, Terrence Grady and Zach Eagle all dropped passes in the first three quarters — and that continued as Gubrud found a streaking Dre Dorton, who dropped the sure touchdown. Like they did all game, the Eagles did not let the mistakes derail their relentlessness.
McPherson, the Big Sky’s third-leading rusher entering the game, bounced an inside run up the EWU sideline and sprinted 57 yards for a touchdown to put the game away.
“We do this thing called ‘Run to win’ during the middle of practice and that really helps in the fourth quarter,” McPherson said. “You see a lot of teams get worn down and we take it a step up in the fourth quarter.”
Andersen completed three straight passes for a total of 33 yards on an 8-play, 75-yard touchdown drive capped by Andersen’s second touchdown and capped the scoring.
Fitting for the day, Montana State recovered the ensuing onside kick but Callahan O’Reilly was flagged for off sides.
“You wonder ‘were we too hyped’ but we came out and we operated very, very well in the first half on offense in particular,” Choate said. “We will examine it. We got beat by a good team today. We didn’t play our best football. We didn’t play a disciplined brand of football. We penalized ourselves in a number of ways and we have to learn from that and move forward.
MSU takes the week off before hosting Idaho for homecoming on October 13.
“Still a ton of football left to play for us,” Choate said. “We have to go into this bye week and we’ve gotta improve. That’s flat out what it is. Down the stretch in the Big Sky Conference, there’s a bunch of good football teams and we will have one coming to our house in a couple of weeks.”
Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.