The Easterner

No. 11 EWU Football Outlasts Rival Montana, 48-41

By Michael Brock, Sports Editor

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MISSOULA, MT. — It was a tale of two halves for the EWU football team on Saturday evening against the University of Montana. After trailing 24-6 at halftime of the rivalry game in Missoula, the Eagles scored 42 points in the second half and outlasted UM, 48-41.

Both teams started off the game slowly; UM was forced to punt on its first two possessions, which EWU turned into a 3-0 advantage. But then Montana scored 17 straight points to take a 17-3 lead with 12:48 left in the second quarter.

EWU senior kicker Roldan Alcobendas missed a 39-yard field goal on the next drive and the Eagle defense held UM scoreless their following two possessions. With under a minute remaining in the first half, Alcobendas redeemed himself with a 23-yard field goal to pull the Eagles closer.

It looked like 17-6 would be our halftime score, however UM redshirt freshman quarterback Gresch Jensen had other plans. With time expiring, he hit sophomore wide receiver Justin Calhoun on a 44-yard Hail Mary to take the 24-6 halftime lead.

It was all Montana at this point, as UM picked up four sacks in the first half, and held EWU to just two yards rushing. But Gubrud and the Eagle offense were just awakening from their 30-minute slumber.

Sophomore wide receiver Dre’ Sonte Dorton opened up the second half with a 51-yard kickoff return, which set up EWU’s first touchdown. The eight play, 36-yard drive was topped off with a two-yard pass from Gubrud to junior running back Sam McPherson which pulled EWU within 24-13.

After a few empty drives (including a Gubrud interception and another Alcobendas missed field goal), Montana knocked down a field goal to take the 27-13 lead.

Gubrud took the offense 69 yards on the next possession (capped off by a 32-yard touchdown pass to Dorton) to make it 27-20. Then, on the first play of the drive, Jensen was picked off by junior cornerback Josh Lewis, the first interception of his career and the team’s first of the season.

On the very next play, McPherson turned a catch-and-run into a 50 yard touchdown which tied the game at 27-all. The touchdown-interception-touchdown sequence took just 27 seconds.

With one quarter to play the game was knotted up, thanks to a decisive third quarter by EWU. After recording 220 yards to UM’s 307 in the first half, the Eagles out-gained the Grizzlies 259-68 in the third quarter.

Montana struck first in the fourth quarter, taking the 34-27 lead with 12:57 left in the game. But Gubrud answered back with an 11 play, 73-yard touchdown drive, finished off by a two-yard keeper by the junior quarterback.

The Eagles forced Montana into a three-and-out their next possession before senior wide receiver Nic Sblendorio’s two-yard catch gave EWU the 41-34 advantage. UM was held scoreless for a couple more drives and sophomore running back Antoine Custer punched in a 10-yard touchdown to seal the deal.

With the win, EWU starts off Big Sky Conference play with a 1-0 record and the first conference victory of head coach Aaron Best’s career.

“It’s nice to start unblemished and to feel like you started off on the right foot,” Best said following the game. “There are still a few things we have to clean up, but it just goes to show how resilient this team is.”

Overall, the offense set some impressive marks against Montana. For one, Gubrud finished 44-65 passing for 549 yards and four touchdowns to go along with 11 rushing yards and another touchdown. Both his 549 yards passing and 560 yards of total offense were single-game school records.

Junior quarterback Gage Gubrud scans the field. Credit to EWU Football and EWU Athletics.

Moving to the receiving core, Sblendorio finished with a career best 18 receptions for 189 yards and a touchdown, while junior wide receiver Nsimba Webster had 13 catches for 143 yards of his own.

Custer added nine rushes for 43 yards and a touchdown and McPherson had seven rushes for 21 yards, along with three receptions for 70 yards and two touchdowns.

On the flip side—the defense simply got things done, especially in the second half. Junior safety Mitch Fettig led the way with 14 total tackles, including nine solo. Junior linebacker Ketner Kupp had 10 tackles of his own (three solo), while fellow junior linebacker Kurt Calhoun finished with eight tackles (three solo) and senior safety Jake Hoffman had seven tackles (four solo).

In all, 12 Eagles defenders had at least four tackles.

Last week, Montana’s starting quarterback, senior Reese Phillips, went down with a season-ending leg injury against Savannah State, leaving Jensen to start the game against the Eagles. Jensen played better than expected—especially in the first half—but was ultimately outlasted by Gubrud. The young quarterback finished 25-49 for 358 yards with two touchdowns and an interception.

The Eagles will take on Sacramento State next Saturday in the team’s conference home opener at Roos Field.

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No. 11 EWU Football Outlasts Rival Montana, 48-41