Cats fall to Eagles in tight matchup

The Montana State Bobcats came to play, but in the end Eastern Washington’s (EWU) junior quarterback Vernon Adams would not be denied. The Cats met the Eagles in the final non-conference game of the season on Sept. 20. Expectations were high for both teams heading into the matchup, and the game between the FCS heavyweights lived up to the hype.

The Cats came into the game riding a two-game win streak while the Eagles had a bye last week after falling to the University of Washington 59-52. Their preseason MVP candidate Adams certainly did his part though, throwing for an amazing 475 yards and seven touchdowns. Adams looked to replicate that success against the Cats on Saturday, but found a Bobcats defense in his way.

The Cats got off to a hot start on both sides of the ball. They forced an Eagle punt on the first drive of the game and on the ensuing possession took the ball 87 yards capped with a touchdown connection between sophomore quarterback Dakota Prukop and junior receiver Tanner Roderick.

The whole game would not be so easy though, as senior Eagles running back Quincy Forte answered with a 76-yard touchdown run, his first of 4 TDs on the day. This back and forth continued through the second quarter as the teams exchanged blows. The Cats snagged the lead just before halftime thanks to a Prukop touchdown run, and headed into the break, up by three.

Weary of the post-half letdown that plagued them last week, the Bobcats looked to open the third quarter strong and did. “I really like the way we came out in the second half,” MSU skipper Rob Ash said after the game. And he had every reason to be pleased: The Cats methodically drove the field after receiving the second half kickoff, traversing 75 yards on a nearly six minute drive capped off with a 9-yard run across the goal line from junior running back Anthony Knight.

A 70-yard scoring scamper by senior running back Shawn Johnson late in the third quarter put the Bobcats up 44-30, and for a moment it seemed as if the Cats would be able to down the Eagles. With Adams struggling to find a rhythm thanks to an aggressive MSU defensive line and the Cats offense clicking, there were plenty of reasons to be optimistic.

Unfortunately for MSU, the Eagles didn’t crumble quite so easily — thanks in part to some Bobcat miscues. Up 44-37 on their own 35-yard line, the Cats made the decision to go for it on fourth-and-1. The gamble backfired as the Cats failed to convert and handed EWU the ball with excellent field position and the Eagles took advantage. They scored handily to even the game at 44 apiece. Asked about the decision to press for the first down rather than punt as conventional wisdom would suggest, Ash defended the decision. “We’re going to be that team,” he said, “That’s just how we’re going to play — aggressively.”

The Bobcats found the endzone once again with just two minutes left in the game, grabbing a 51-44 lead when Johnson caught a Prukop pass in the flat and dove forward for the score. However, the Eagles did not quit. Hassled all day, Adams pieced together an impressive display of tenacity and grit, leading the Eagles down the field. At one point on the drive, it looked as if the Cats had the Eagles cornered. Facing a fourth-and-10 down by a touchdown, Adams managed to find an open receiver streaking down the sideline and hit him in stride, picking up the first down and then some. EWU finally punched the ball in with 27 seconds left on the clock and made the gutsy decision to play for the win rather than overtime and went for the two-point conversion. Aided by a Bobcat offside penalty, Adams scrambled for the one and a half yards needed for the conversion and the lead, 52-51.

The Bobcats still had half a minute to get in field goal range, and though they tried mightily, the clock was working against them and they couldn’t get close enough, settling for a desperation pass as time expired. For a brief second it looked like the Cats would grab the jump ball, but could not as the ball bounced to the turf and the Eagles’ comeback was complete.

“It was very disappointing,” Johnson remarked after the game. “Everybody brought everything they had to the table. That’s football though, it goes both ways … This is going to make us stronger as a team though, more together as a family.”

Johnson certainly came to play, tallying 3 TDs on the day along with 150 yards rushing on 14 carries. Prukop threw for 248 yards and 4 TDs and another one rushing. For EWU, Adams finished with 358 yards and 2 TDs along with two interceptions. Forte led the Eagles in rushing, picking up 190 yards and four scores on 17 carries.

The Bobcats finish their September homestand on Sept. 27 for Homecoming against North Dakota. Kickoff is at 2:05 p.m. in Bobcat Stadium.