By Craig Haley, FCS Executive Director
Cheney, WA (Sports Network) - The red carpet has basically been pulled out from underneath Eastern Washington's season.
The dream of winning back-to-back FCS championships has been replaced by the nightmare of a winless September.
It's felt like a Mike Tyson roundhouse to the face.
Or, even worse on Saturday, a Jason Cunningham kick to the gut.
No team was happier to extend the inexplicable beginning to EWU's season than its bitter Big Sky rival, the No. 4-ranked Montana State Bobcats, whose 36-21 victory at sold-out Roos Field put the Eagles' playoff hopes on life support.
The only one other defending national champion to suffer through an 0-4 start to its season was the Southern Illinois squad which finished 3-8 in 1984.
The headline in the Spokane Spokesman-Review earlier in the week said it all: Eagles hang from a cliff with eight bullets to dodge.
Now it's seven bullets and counting. And it might be wishful thinking that EWU can salvage a playoff berth with both a perfect October and November, when September has been so imperfect.
"When we win our seven games in a row, I think we definitely deserve a look," said a determined Brandon Kaufman, the All-America wide receiver who caught six passes for 140 yards and a touchdown in the loss.
Montana State (3-1, 1-0 Big Sky) won without getting one of the bigger games out of redshirt sophomore quarterback DeNarius McGhee, who's had so many during his short career.
Instead, running back Cody Kirk rushed for 117 yards and a touchdown, linebacker Jody Owens had two of the defense's five sacks as it preyed on EWU's injury-decimated offensive line and quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell, and Cunningham got the biggest kick out of the Bobcats' victory, going 5-for-5 on field-goal attempts, including a pair of 55-yarders in the first half.
MSU's win was its first in Cheney since 1991. In fact, EWU had been unbeaten through eight games on the red turf that was installed before last year's championship season.
"This was a fabulous win for us," Bobcats head coach Rob Ash said. "We left some points on the board and still got 36 up, so I'm really happy with that side of it. And I thought our defense came back and played tough against a really, really fine offensive team, especially in the same half."
Fittingly, an EWU turnover -- there's been 10 this season -- led to MSU taking the lead for good.
Eagles freshman tailback Jordan Talley, who rushed for 108 yards and two touchdowns, including one in the second quarter that provided their first lead in a 12-quarter span, fumbled the ball away to MSU safety Steven Bethley at the EWU 30-yard line.
The Bobcats turned the fortune into a McGhee 1-yard touchdown run, which provided a 17-14 advantage with 7:26 left in the half.
Cunningham, a pro prospect who has been mentored by NFL kicker Billy Cundiff, who played for Ash at Drake, ended the half with his second 55-yard field goal, and the third of his career.
The Bobcats' all-time leading scorer added 31- and 32-yard field goals in the third quarter to extend the lead to 26-14.
The Eagles, with faith in reserve, closed within 26-21 on Talley's second touchdown just 38 seconds in the fourth quarter.
But McGhee guided a 12-play, 78-yard touchdown drive, capped by his 12-yard pass to Elvis Akpla with 7:29 left, proving that Elvis hadn't left the building. Unless you were talking about EWU's season.
"They never went away. I give them a lot of credit for that," Ash said. "And I think they felt like they could still come back and make some plays in the pass game and get back into it.
"We had tremendous senior leadership last year and I thought we would never be able to equal that. But I think we have. I think we have a group of guys that are just fabulous competitors."
Now the Eagles have to be that way even more. It's a team that returned 10 players who earned a form of All-Big Sky honors last year and 30 players with a combined 335 starts. And, of course, the Eagles had the national title in tow.
"When you're the champ, you've got a target on your back, obviously," Kaufman said. "But you have to respond as a man. That shouldn't be a problem. There's a reason you're a champ in the first place."
"It is a tough pill to shallow," Baldwin said. "But, at the same time, it's part of this deal. And when you're in these situations, you've got to find ways to dig deep and battle back."