By Craig Haley, FCS Executive Director
Cheney, WA (Sports Network) - Taiwan Jones, who usually lets his pinball-like runs do his talking, actually delivered a message to his Eastern Washington teammates at halftime on Saturday:
He told them he was going to leave everything he had on the field when he was done playing against Big Sky Conference power Montana.
Little did he know how crowded Roos Field would be by the end of Eastern Washington's 36-27 victory.
Mardi Gras broke out not once, but twice as the Eagles and their home fans in a stadium-record crowd of 11,702, celebrated the end of Montana's 15-game winning streak in conference play and the beginning of a new era of red turf unveiled at EWU.
The atmosphere was every bit what people at EWU envisioned could come out of installing the funky turf that is matched by the original blue at Boise State. Almost as great for the Eagles is they will have two years to enjoy Jones running all over it.
Somebody should call the NCAA and have it add a new championship sport: outdoor track in the fall. Jones would be the favorite for sprint and distance titles now that he is quicker and better than he was when EWU had a grass surface. He torched Montana for 221 yards and a touchdown on a career-high 27 carries and totaled 305 all-purpose yards.
"It's our turf, we want to defend it, we're proud of it," EWU head coach Beau Baldwin said after his 18th-ranked squad (2-1, 1-0 Big Sky) gave Montana (1-2, 0-1) its first back-to-back losses in the regular season since 2002. The Griz, who fell at Cal Poly as the No. 1-ranked team last Saturday, last started a season 1-2 in 1992 - which also is the last season they didn't go to the FCS playoffs.
"The atmosphere was like something you dream of," EWU defensive tackle Renard Williams said.
The ending certainly could not have been scripted.
Montana tied the game, 27-27, on Brody McKnight's 22-yard field goal with only 1:33 left. Yet somehow the Eagles efficiently went on a 12-play drive in such little time to go ahead 30-27 on Mike Jarrett's 31-yard field goal with four seconds to go.
On the final kickoff, the Griz lateraled the ball across the field, only to have it downed after five different touches. EWU coaches and players, as well an eager student body, rushed the field in excitement and celebrated for nearly two minutes before they were ushered off the field because the Eagles were assessed an unsportsmanlike conduct for having people on the field before the kickoff had actually ended.
It gave the Griz the ball at their 40-yard line. On the untimed down, quarterback Andrew Selle scrambled around to by time for receivers, but he was sacked by Tyler Jolley and coughed up the ball. Williams, not exactly shaped for the 40-yard dash, scooped up his second fumble recovery and lumbered into the Montana end zone for a final touchdown.
Mardi Gras II.
"I got to see us lose to this team about three years now," Jones said. "It's a feeling that you don't like to repeat. Just seeing my seniors, and knowing it's their last chance to play against them, and for all the juniors, it's our last time playing against them in front of our home crowd, so it was just an emotional game, and you had to take it play by play. We knew we were going to be down at times, but we just had to stay together and get it done."
EWU was down 14-0 in the first quarter, but gave Montana the red carpet treatment with its speed and quick-strike ability. Quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell, the SMU transfer, played better than he had in the Eagles' first two games and the defense forced an un-Griz-like six turnovers, including two interceptions by Matt Johnson.
Montana was a disaster on special teams, and EWU's Darriell Beaumonte blocked a punt and returned it six yards for a touchdown midway through the third quarter to put the Eagles ahead for the first time, 24-21.
McKnight, who hammered a 53-yard field goal, and Jarrett then traded field goals twice, with Jarrett's final one the winning points, 30-27.
"We knew this was the game that was going to set our season apart," said Mitchell, who threw for 234 yards, including a 32-yarder to Brandon Kaufman for the Eagles' first touchdown. "You walk on (the red turf) and you get a new kind of energy. You say, 'Hey, this is my home, I'm not going to let some guy walk in my home and take something.'"
With over $1 million in donations made toward the turf project, the newly nicknamed Inferno lit up the Big Sky. The turf, of course, is the you-have-to- see-it-to-believe type, but that description also is shared by the breakaway talents of Jones.
He might as well be a Argentian soccer player because he's basically Taiwan, not Taiwan Jones, to anybody talking about him.
Taiwan has gone over 300 all-purpose yards twice in three games and is the national leader at 287.3 per game.
"It's a different level," Mitchell said. "I had an amazing running back in high school and I had an amazing running back at SMU, and neither one put together comes close to Taiwan - his speed, his vision, his overall want for the ball."
If there was an encouraging sign for the Griz - considering the situation they're not used to being in - it's that slow-starting Chase Reynolds got on track with 114 rushing yards and quarterback Andrew Selle had the type of performance that made first-year head coach Robin Pflugrad go away from a platoon with Justin Roper. Selle was outstanding when the Griz went to a no- huddle offense and he finished 19-of-34 for 204 yards, including a 20-yard touchdown to Antwon Moutra that gave them a 21-14 halftime lead. He threw two interceptions.
Trumaine Johnson also returned an interception for a touchdown for the second time this season, giving Montana five such returns this season.
"There's kind of two ways to go right now," Pflugrad said. "I like the character of our team, I like the attitude, I like the effort. We have a lot of new faces and I think we're still getting to know each other to a certain degree."
The Eagles are no longer getting to know their new red turf. It's already home.