Oct. 7, 2006
Fourth-ranked Montana used a fast start and six Eastern Washington University turnovers to record a 33-17 Big Sky Conference football victory Saturday (Oct. 7) at jam-packed Woodward Field in Cheney, Wash.
The Grizzlies used a game-opening 56-yard kickoff return, a 94-yard punt return for a touchdown and one of three interceptions by Jimmy Wilson to help open a 21-0 lead. Eastern finished with six turnovers, including a costly fumble in the third quarter after the Eagles had pulled to within 21-10.
"We had too many turnovers, but it wasn't just turnovers (that hurt us)," said Eagle head coach Paul Wulff. "We also gave up some big plays on special teams. You can't beat a good team or a bad team when that happens."
"Our kids played hard and they tried -- I liked that," he added. "I felt like our defense was put into some bad situations the whole game and they showed promise, but their backs were against the wall the whole time."
Eastern fell to 1-5 overall and 1-2 in the Big Sky with the loss. Montana rose to 2-0 in the conference and 4-1 overall, with its only loss coming 41-7 to Iowa. The Grizzlies are the lone unbeaten team in conference play.
A Woodward Field record crowd of 11,583 attended the game, breaking the previous record set two years earlier when 10,754 attended a 31-28 Grizzly victory over EWU.
"It was a great day to watch a football game. The crowd was really good," said Wulff.
Rob Schulte had a 56-yard kickoff return to start the game, and the Grizzlies turned that into a four-play, 28-yard scoring drive. Eastern then punted on its first possession and Tuff Harris returned that 94 yards for another score. After Wilson intercepted Eastern redshirt freshman Matt Nichols for the first time, Montana scored on a two-play, 36-yard drive to take a 21-0 advantage with 6:51 left in the first quarter.
"I think (Tuff Harris) lost track of where he was on that punt return," said Wulff of Harris fielding the punt instead of letting it possibly go into the end zone for a touchback. "It turned out to be a big play for Montana. Montana made a lot of breaks for themselves -- it was a great play on his part."
"The same thing happened on the opening kickoff that happened on that punt return for a touchdown,"
Wulff said of the opening kickoff. "On both plays we had two kids get washed out of their lanes. Those two plays were huge and they were the telling point in the ballgame."
Eastern scored 10 points in the second quarter on the team's longest drive of the game and a 39-yard field goal by Brett Bergstrom. The scoring drive was 80 yards that took just four plays, and was capped by 43-yard touchdown pass from Nichols to fellow freshman redshirt Brynsen Brown.
After Eastern's defense held Montana scoreless for the last 21:51 of the first half, Eastern went into the lockerroom trailing by just 11 points. But Brown fumbled on the first play of the second half, and Montana recovered at Eastern's 45-yard line. Eight plays later, Montana led 27-10 as the Grizzlies followed with a pair of field goals to score 12 unanswered points and put the game out of reach.
"We opened up the second half and I thought we we're in good shape," said Wulff. "But we threw a screen for 12 yards and we fumbled. You just can't do that."
"The mistakes that we made were big mistakes," he added. "There is a difference between a mistake and a big or critical mistake. We made too many critical mistakes. Those are the mistakes that change the game and give the other team points, and those are the mistakes that are just too big to overcome."
Montana's defense took over after that, holding Eastern to just 127 yards in the second half after Eastern had a 204-132 edge at intermission. Montana had 235 of its yards in the second half. Montana finished the game with 367 yards of offense compared to 337 for the Eagles.
Nichols finished 15-of-23 for 186 yards, but had three interceptions in the first half and one in the second. Chris Peerboom relieved him and completed 4-of-10 for 74 yards and one interception. He closed the scoring in the game with a 56-yard touchdown pass to Charles Searcy with just 45 seconds to play.
Eastern rushed for only 77 yards in the game, including 23 yards by Dale Morris in his first action of the season after suffering a pre-season foot injury. Brown caught seven passes for 92 yards.
"It looked like we were better today at getting to the quarterback," said Wulff, whose team had just four sacks entering the game. "We went after the quarterback today and we blitzed a little more than we normally do."
Eastern's Ryan Donckers continued his excellent punting with a 49.4 average in five punts.
The Eagles have shared the last two Big Sky titles with Montana, but the Grizzlies have won or shared every league title since 1998. Eastern is the last Big Sky school other than Montana to win the outright title, with that coming in 1997 when the Eagles advanced to the semifinals of the NCAA Division I-AA Playoffs.
Although EWU has appeared in the playoffs each of the last two seasons, Eastern's lone victory thus far was a 19-10 triumph at Montana State on Sept. 23. Eastern's next game is at league newcomer Northern Colorado on Oct. 14 in the first of two-straight road games.
"The kids are trying, it's just not coming through," said Wulff. "We just need to keep working and getting better. We still have five Big Sky games. We've only played three so there's a lot of football left. We are going to go into another week and get better."