CHENEY, Wash. — A couple of long passes, one perfect onside kick and the Montana Grizzlies were seeing red again on Roos Field after a last-minute, 32-26 loss Saturday to the Eastern Washington Eagles.
Redshirt freshman quarterback Vernon Adams fired touchdown passes to Brandon Kaufman and Ashton Clark 90 seconds apart to rally the No. 7 Eagles from a 26-17 deficit. The victory, Eastern’s second in a row over UM on its red turf, moved the Eagles to 2-0 in Big Sky play.
The No. 21 Grizzlies, in danger of falling out of the Football Championship Subdivision rankings for the first time since 1992, had the ball and a nine-point lead with 7:32 left. Now they are 2-3 overall, including an 0-2 mark in Big Sky Conference play.
This is despite rushing for 407 yards, a number unheard of since Jack Swarthout’s Wishbone offense left Missoula. The Griz did it mostly without Dan Moore, who was sidelined early by a foot injury.
Eastern found little room on the ground, but thanks to Adams — and that onside kick — it didn’t matter.
“That was one of the goals you have coming in,” UM coach Mick Delaney said of out-rushing EWU. “We did both of those things for the most part. We did a lot of really, really good things and did enough bad things that we didn’t close it out.”
It was a maddening loss. Adams, who supplanted SMU transfer Kyle Padron as EWU’s starting quarterback last week, threw for 353 yards and three touchdowns, but he was bottled up in the third quarter.
Then he passed for 171 yards in the fourth.
He hit Kaufman for 36 yards and a 14-7 Eastern lead at 11:42 of the second quarter, and then Kaufman again for 30 yards with 2:19 left in the game.
That cut Montana’s lead to 26-24, and Kaufman wasn’t done. The ensuing onside kick hopped up perfectly for the 6-foot-5 junior receiver, who knocked it out of the hands of Griz safety Matt Hermanson. After a scramble, Shaquille Hill recovered for the Eagles at their 45.
“It went through a couple of players’ legs and I just spotted it and jumped on it,” Hill said.
Adams completed passes to Clark for 20 yards and running back Quincy Forte for 15 ahead of his winner. The freshman broke containment, seemed ready to run and then found Clark wide open in the left flat. A two-point pass to Greg Herd capped the scoring.
Montana got the ball back with 53 seconds left and drove to Eastern’s 29, but Trent McKinney’s final pass was a short one to Ellis Henderson, who cut away from the sideline. The final seconds ticked off and the Eagles’ fans and band swarmed the field.
“One of our mottos is ‘panic will always equal defeat,’ ” Eastern coach Beau Baldwin said. “But as long as you don’t panic you always give yourself a shot. Our guys did that again.”
There were a lot of what-ifs for the Griz. Jordan Canada, who ran for 167 yards and a TD, and Peter Nguyen (119 yards) fumbled inside Eastern’s 20. Nguyen’s came in the fourth quarter and UM holding a 23-17 advantage.
Adams, for all his gifts, turned the ball over twice in the fourth quarter. His pick and a 73-yard run by Canada set up a Chris Lider field goal for UM’s 26-17 lead, with 8:26 left.
Then Adams lost the ball on a scramble four snaps later, and Trevor Rehm recovered for UM.
It was then that the Griz found no running room: Three rushes gained just 1 yard, and they punted with 5:46 left.
Adams drove Eastern 82 yards in 10 plays. Then came the onside kick, and then the dagger.
“You can’t let people run by you at the end of the game, not deep,” Delaney said. “The kid (Kaufman) made a couple catches. But even at that you have to make a play on the onside kick. We recover that, we run the clock out and win the football game.
“We didn’t make the play, plain and simple. We had it in two people’s hands and it came out, and they recovered it.”
McKinney ran for 95 yards, including a 7-yard TD that closed a 17-10 halftime deficit to one (Lider missed the PAT kick). The Griz then got a break when Eastern punter Jake Miller dropped the snap, giving Montana the ball at the EWU 7.
Canada scored from 2 yards on second-and-goal. Montana led for the first time, 23-17, at 2:47 of the third quarter.
The Grizzlies were dominating: In that quarter they held Eastern to minus-4 yards of offense. But it still got away, with Eastern emptying its backfield and Adams throwing downfield in the fourth.
“They opened us up with double-zero, went empty and had to sling the rock,” Griz linebacker Jordan Tripp said. “He got rid of it quick, which is a tribute to him. He made his reads fast.
“We shut down the run as much as we wanted and as much as we talked about, but we just have to close it out. We had them on the ropes. That’s a tribute to them to get the win. It’s just hard to talk about it.”
Montana is now backed up against the FCS playoff wall. In 2010 they lost 36-27 to Eastern on the red carpet, a harbinger for a rare non-playoff season. A trip to Northern Colorado is next.
“We’re just going to try to keep everybody focused and going,” said Nguyen, whose 37-yard TD tied the game 7-all at 4:40 of the first quarter. “All we can do now is be motivated as a team to play as hard as we can and win as many games as we can. We’re still a team, we’re still Montana, and we’re going to play as hard as we can.”