CHENEY, WASH. — Montana and Eastern Washington played to an instant classic on Saturday evening at Roos Field, and the Eagles won 34-28. Going forward, Montana showed there's still plenty of growth and improvement to be made after being handed its first loss of the season.
The Montana defense stood tall against the high-powered Eastern Washington offense, as UM held them to just 10 points through the first three quarters. During that time-span, UM also got two interceptions and four sacks on Eagle QB Eric Berriere. The Griz defense eventually finished with five total sacks to give them 18 on the season.
"Great teams don’t deviate from what they do and that’s what Montana is, a great team," Eastern Washington coach Aaron Best said. "We didn’t protect long enough. Penalties and sacks are the two things, and the kickoff return (for a touchdown) but Flowers is a great player. Those three elements we could’ve been better at but Montana’s going to pressure everybody, they’ve done it for three games before this and we knew they were going to come tonight whether it was Eric back there or not. That’s just who they are so you stick to what you know best."
However, it's Montana's offense that faced its fair share of struggles.
The Grizzlies used a 13-play drive to get their first score in the first quarter, and added a quick touchdown pass from Cam Humphrey to Samuel Akem to take the early lead in the second quarter.
They also struck fast to open the second half to make it 21-10, but from there, the Griz offense struggled to come up with a big play to back its defense up. Montana couldn't get a score from the offense when it needed it most late in the game. Then in the fourth quarter, Humphrey threw a pair of interceptions that proved costly as the Eagles turned both into points as EWU found a way to catch up and get its offense going to get past the Grizzly defense. Montana held EWU to 5 for 19 on third down, but the Eagles converted four of their five fourth-down attempts, and racked up 538 total yards on offense.
"I mean, it goes back to they made plays and we didn’t and we need to make a few more," Hauck said about the offensive struggles. "I think that, I don’t know what coach would tell you, (but) in my opinion that’s the best they’ve played on defense."
The Griz offense finished with 358 total yards, 187 on the ground thanks to a 124-yard day from Xavier Harris. Humphrey finished the day 14 for 26 for 150 yards with two touchdowns and two picks. UM's offense was 5 for 15 on third down and Humphrey was also sacked three times.
"Awesome, flat-out awesome job and that’s been everybody’s go-to is how is the defense going to play, well it’s been on film for five games and it’s not always going to be perfect," Best said about his defense. "We play a high-tempo offense which puts our defense on the field quite a bit, longer than most teams. They did enough in the run, there was not a ton of big plays but everybody wants to know what the Achilles heel of every team is. We don’t have one. We just don’t play perfect all of the time. We play together, we always believe in each other, and we’re not going to be perfect in every single scenario even though the world wants us to be perfect in every single scenario. We played well enough to win tonight."
The offensive inconsistencies have been a storyline this season, and a point of emphasis for improvement from Hauck.
But injuries are also a concern for Montana. Humphrey and starting wide receiver Gabe Sulser both left Saturday's game, Sulser in the second quarter with an apparent leg injury, and Humphrey on the final drive with 23 seconds left after taking a big hit and also suffering an apparent leg injury. Their status going forward also adds more questions to the offensive unit.
The defense also got hit by injuries as well. Defensive end DeAri Todd, a Michigan State transfer, left the game before halftime with an apparent injury on a defense that was without starting defensive end Joe Babros and starting safety Gavin Robertson for the second straight game.
If there were any moral victories to be had, that even through the Grizzlies' struggles, UM was still one play away from possibly winning Saturday's game, which exemplified how Montana finds ways to stick around even when things aren't going perfectly.
Montana now turns its attention to Dixie State which it will welcome to Missoula next Saturday.