The second-ranked Bobcats (6-1, 3-1) fell to the sixth-ranked Eastern Washington Eagles (EWU) (5-1, 4-0) in a battle for first place in the Big Sky Conference on Saturday. The 20,477 fans in attendance couldn’t help the Bobcats fight back from the turnovers, penalties and special teams plays that plagued them all day.
What looked like a miscommunication due to crowd noise early in the first half, the Cats lined up in shotgun formation and center Shawn Sampson snapped the ball before DeNarius McGhee was ready. EWU returned the fumble 50 yards before McGhee knew what happened. The same loud crowd helped the Bobcat defense get a stop on fourth and goal and no damage was done.
With 8:49 left in the second quarter, McGhee made MSU history by hooking up with sophomore tight end Lee Perkins for the game’s first score. Punter Rory Perez hit a 30-yard field goal to push the lead to 10-0 with less than a minute in the half, but the Eagles marched down the field on a great catch by EWU wide receiver Greg Herd and got into field goal range with a little help from a pass interference call on MSU cornerback Steven Bethley. A 40-yard field goal made it 10-3 Bobcats at halftime.
The Cats started slow in the second half, as McGhee was chased out of the pocket and forced to throw a pass that ended up in the hands of EWU linebacker Ronnie Hamlin. “I should have just thrown it out of bounds,” McGhee said later. After the interception, an apparent fumble recovered by the Cats was not called by referees, instigating boos from the Bobcat crowd. The Cats defense held the Eagles to a 40-yard field goal on some great defensive plays by cornerbacks Bethley and James Andrews, breaking up consecutive passes in the end zone.
A roughing the kicker call by officials on MSU cornerback Sean Gords during a punt gave the Eagles a second chance on fourth down with 18 yards to go. The second chance turned into seven points with 7:12 to play in the third, when EWU quarterback Vernon Adams hit running back Quincy Forte for a 34 yard touchdown, making it 13-10 Eagles.
The run game finally arrived for the Cats in the form of Tray Robinson. After running for a couple first downs and EWU committing late hit penalties on consecutive plays, MSU had plenty of chances to score and Robinson ran it into the end zone from one yard out to take a 17-13 lead with a minute to go in the third.
Then the wheels came off. With just over 12 minutes left in the game, EWU defensive lineman Evan Day recovered a blocked punt in the end zone to give the Eagles a 20-17 lead. Less than a minute later, McGhee tossed an interception that Jordan Tonani returned 21 yards for a score, making it 27-17. The Cats tried to answer with a field goal attempt from 33 yards out, but Perez missed: his first miss of the year.
McGhee was able to hit Jon Ellis for a touchdown on the next possession, setting the new school record with 61 touchdown passes, but “DeNarius doesn’t care about records or stats or anything but winning,” said Coach Rob Ash. McGhee said, “I didn’t give my team a chance to win the game late…that’s on me.”
The mood may have been somber at the press conference, but Coach Ash tried to focus on the positive aspects of the game. “The defensive performance of our team was just magnificent,” he said. MSU defensive end, Caleb Schreibeis, had two sacks and EWU managed to cover just 211 yards, but special teams struggled, the run game struggled, and McGhee struggled. “There’s a lot of guys who are very determined to not feel this way again,” Ash said. “You can just see it in their eyes.”
The MSU Bobcats are now the fifth-ranked team in the FCS coaches poll while the EWU Eagles are currently ranked first. The Cats next game is Oct. 27 against North Dakota.