Bozeman, MT – It's not often Big Sky Conference teams come into Bozeman and escape with victories.
In fact, in the last three years, Montana State has lost once in conference play at Bobcat Stadium, falling to Montana in the 2011 regular-season finale.
That all changed Saturday when No. 6-ranked Eastern Washington took down No. 2 Montana State, 27-24.
In a decisive Big Sky matchup, EWU improved to 5-1 overall and 4-0 in conference play for the first time in school history, while Montana State dropped its first game of 2012.
Despite totaling only 211 yards of offense and a mere 71 rushing yards, Eastern Washington utilized two enormous plays for touchdowns within 59 seconds of each other in the fourth quarter on its way to a vital conference road win.
In the first half, EWU trailed 10-3 and quarterback Vernon Adams struggled to find a rhythm. The redshirt freshman completed just 5-of-14 passes for 63 yards and threw two interceptions. The team's leading receiver, Brandon Kaufman, didn't record a reception. But the three points turned out to be vital.
"Well, when you go on the road and play the No. 2 team in the country, you better not lose special teams," Eastern Washington coach Beau Baldwin said. "I mean, or else you're in for a really long day, because Montana State is that good. So, you have got to find some edges and some advantages in other areas when you're on the road and we were able to do some good things on special teams."
Baldwin's squad did just that.
In the third quarter, the Eagles faced a 4th-and-20 and set up to punt, but a personal foul - a roughing the kicker penalty - kept the drive alive. Just a few plays later, on 3rd-and-4 in Bobcats territory, Adams found running back Quincy Forte on a swing pass out of the backfield for 33 yards, giving the Eagles a 13-10 lead - their first of the game.
After forcing MSU to punt on its next possession, the fireworks continued for EWU on special teams as Dylan Zylstra blocked a Rory Perez punt, which landed in the end zone for teammate Evan Day, and the Eagles led, 20-17.
Then, in a span of minutes - the 20,000-plus Bobcat faithful already shocked due to the turn of events - dealt with another blow, as the very next series would turn disastrous. Eastern safety Jordan Tonani picked off McGhee and returned the interception 21 yards for a touchdown, giving his team a 27-17 lead with 11:15 remaining.
"It really is crazy, you make a play like that and then the whole place just goes completely silent," Tonani said. "But, those two plays were very big. The special teams block by Zylstra and then my pick right there, I think were pretty big momentum-changers. It really helped us get this win."
In a game with so many implications for the rest of the Big Sky, Eastern shut down MSU's run game, allowing 70 rushing yards, on a staggering 50 rushing attempts. Simply put, the Eagles forced Montana State quarterback DeNarius McGhee to beat them with his arm, and strangely it paid off.
"This game was huge. It's just like every other Big Sky game, though. There's a little more on the line because they're the No. 2 team in the nation," Tonani said. "You always want to come in and get a win on the road in Big Sky games and set yourself up for a good finish (in the conference), which we did.
"When you get a lead like that, our main goal was to just keep them in front of us, and although we shut down the run, they started to throw on us a little bit, but that's expected in situations like that."
McGhee finished with 294 yards passing on 28-of-36 attempts and he threw two touchdown passes. He entered the game needing just one touchdown pass to tie the all-time program record of 60.
He broke the record with a 2-yard pass to Jon Ellis with 2:38 remaining. Not to mention, he has now started, and completed a touchdown pass, in each of his first 32 career games with the program, but it didn't matter.
Unfortunately, the junior's historical performance was overshadowed by two interceptions which led to 10 points.
"It's a tough place to play, especially against a Top 5-ranked team," Baldwin said. "It's going to take some extraordinary plays, it's going to take plays like Dylan Zylstra blocking a punt, Jordan Tonani taking a pick-six. I mean, that's the type of thing that it's going to take in a game like this. Fortunately, we were able to make a play or two more."
Eastern Washington is now 19-1 in the last three years after Oct. 1, and it was the 10th time since 2010 which the Eagles have won when trailing or tied in the fourth quarter. Besides program's first-ever 4-0 Big Sky record, the victory also marked the first time since 2005 that the Eagles have defeated Montana and Montana State in the same year.
"The kids, they just competed, they kept pressuring, they kept battling," Baldwin said. "It's a combined effort. I mean, I can't point to one thing, you're talking about a great scheme and great coaching, but, ultimately, it came down to those young men on the field making plays. It's always a little bit easier to ride home seven hours, but, again, you just got to be ready for the next one because that's the biggest game."