BOZEMAN — Anticipation turned to dejection in a hurry Saturday at Bobcat Stadium.
A game that looked like a sure Montana State victory — and a major step forward in the pursuit of a Big Sky Conference championship — slipped away in an all-too-familiar way as No. 6-ranked Eastern Washington stole a 27-24 win over the second-ranked Bobcats.
Individual records meant little to Bobcats quarterback DeNarius McGhee on this day.
McGhee established the school standard by throwing his 61st career touchdown pass. But the junior star was also at the center of the firestorm when he served up an interception to a seldom-used safety who returned the ball for what proved to be the winning touchdown.
It was the Bobcats’ second conference loss at home in the last three seasons, and it stung to their core.
“It’s tough. How can you explain it?” McGhee said after a long pause. “You play this game to win, and that’s what we’re used to. I never even thought about coming out of this game with a loss. So I was pretty shocked.
“We really have to move forward and get better.”
After a scoreless first quarter the Bobcats built a 10-point lead on a 2-yard touchdown pass from McGhee to tight end Lee Perkins and a 30-yard field goal by Rory Perez. With the way its defense was playing, MSU was in a favorable position.
McGhee’s touchdown pass tied Kelly Bradley’s career record, and he’d later break it in the fourth quarter with another 2-yard toss to wideout Jon Ellis.
Tray Robinson revived a lagging running game in the third quarter when he capped a drive with a 1-yard touchdown run to give the Cats a 17-13 lead — and the momentum going into the final 15 minutes.
But they couldn’t hold it. And turnovers coupled with special teams mistakes did them in.
Early in the fourth quarter, Perez had a punt blocked by EWU’s Dylan Zylstra that teammate Evan Day recovered in the end zone for a touchdown. That gave the Eagles a 20-17 lead with 12:17 on the clock.
Then, on MSU’s ensuing drive, redshirt freshman safety Jordan Tonani jumped in front of a McGhee pass and took it back 21 yards for another score to put EWU up by 10 points. Just like that.
Despite McGhee’s late touchdown throw to Ellis — and despite dominating the stat sheet — the Cats couldn’t come all the way back.
“The defensive performance by our team, I thought, was magnificent,” said sixth-year Bobcats coach Rob Ash. “Gosh. I just heard; 211 yards was the total for Eastern.
“It’s just heartbreaking to think you lose a game when the defense played that well.”
MSU’s defense, ever mindful of dual-threat quarterback Vernon Adams, limited the Eagles to 140 passing yards and just 71 yards on the ground. Adams completed only 40 percent of his throws (12 of 30) with a pair of interceptions.
The Bobcats’ defensive line was in the lineup together for the first time since Week 2. Ends Caleb Schreibeis and Brad Daly, and tackles Zach Minter and Craig Ashworth made life tough on Adams, who had trouble escaping the pocket and couldn’t connect with his receivers down the field.
EWU’s lone touchdown came on a dump pass in the flat from Adams to running back Quincy Forte, who sped 33 yards to the end zone in the second quarter.
Usually dominant on offense, the Eagles survived with opportunism on defense and special teams. It can be said that the Eagles didn’t win the game as much as MSU lost it.
Afterward, Schreibeis, a team captain, made an emotional statement about where the Bobcats go from here. Schreibeis made it clear: The turnovers, mistakes and general carelessness in crucial situations cannot continue.
“It’s a great opportunity for this team to look at the small things and see how it can change the outcome of a game,” said the Billings West product. “It’s not necessarily offense or defense. It’s special teams. It’s the small, little, technical things that sometimes can be easily overlooked, but they’re huge because they can make the difference between a good team and a bad team.
“I have faith in this team and I know this team can come back from it. This team is going to learn from this and we’re going to be stronger. This is terrible. It’s not something we like to do. But this might be that thing that forces us to look at the film and get things fixed that have been plaguing us for a few weeks here.
“If we get those things fixed we’re going to be a good team. And that’s going to be fun. Those are going to be fun games to play when we’re rolling.”
NOTES: The Bobcats benefited from the return of senior LB Jody Owens, who suffered a bruised quadriceps the week prior. Owens made six tackles. … MSU LB Na’a Moeakiola and CB Darius Jones each intercepted Adams in the first half. … Tonani was inserted in EWU’s lineup for injured S Jeff Minnerly. … Eastern LB Ronnie Hamlin led all players with 15 tackles. … EWU sacked McGhee seven times.