DILLON — Making the big play and stopping it turned out to be vital for the Eastern Oregon University football team in its Frontier Conference showdown against Montana Western, Saturday at Vigilante Stadium.
The Mountaineers were successful on both fronts, handing the Bulldogs their first loss of the young season.
Zach Bartlow threw for 315 yards, and Alfred Gross ran for 107 of his 120 yards in the second half as Eastern Oregon beat Montana Western, 35-23.
Coupled with its win over conference-favorite Southern Oregon last week, Eastern Oregon improved to 2-0 on the season and made a claim for itself as being the team to beat this season.
“These are big wins and that’s the difference between last year and this year,” Eastern Oregon head coach Tim Camp said. “We’ve been fortunate to be able to win close games.
“They’ve been believing in each other, they’ve been playing for each other and they’ve been playing for a purpose. I’m just so happy for the kids and how they’ve been able to approach the Frontier Conference.”
The two teams seemed perfectly matched for each other as they took turns scoring throughout most of the first half.
The Bulldogs came up with the first big play of the game when Jay Owens intercepted a Bartlow pass and gave Western a first down at the 41.
J.D. Ferris guided the Bulldogs offense on the 59-yard drive that ended with an 11-yard touchdown pass to Matt Lickfold.
The Mountaineers needed just 25 seconds to tie the score at 7. One play after a Bartlow pass to Josh Richards was dropped, Bartlow turned in Eastern Oregon’s first big play of the contest, hitting Skylar Williams for a 74-yard touchdown pass.
Western reclaimed the lead early in the second quarter on a 19-yard scoring strike from Ferris to Beau Brekke, but Eastern Oregon pulled another big play out of its bag of tricks to even the score.
This time it only too 26 seconds for the Mountaineers to tie the score. A holding penalty backed Eastern Oregon back to its own 12-yard line but the Mountaineers got out of trouble when Bartlow and Calvin Connors connected for an 88-yard touchdown catch-and-run on the next play,
“They made big plays and we didn’t make our big plays,” Montana Western coach Ryan Nourse said. “We missed on easy shots and they made them. That was the story of the game.”
Montana Western turned to its brute-force offense on its next drive, allowing running backs Sam Rutherford and Hunter Thomsen to grind their way down the field. A 17-play drive culminated with a 1-yard plunge by Thomsen that put the Bulldogs back in front. Seth Mason’s attempt on the PAT, however, sailed wide and kept the Bulldogs’ lead at six points.
Western forced EOU to work for its next set of points but the Mountaineers didn’t seem to mind. Bartlow moved the offense down the field and tied the score a 20 on an 11-yard touchdown pass to Connors. Nathan Harden added the PAT to give the Mountaineers their first lead of the game.
Eastern Oregon turned the ball over to its defense in the second half, and coupled with Western’s sudden bout of inefficiency, the plan worked.
“We made mistakes,” Nourse said. “We dropped balls, we threw errant balls and missed blocks. You can’t do that against good teams.
“There is always a concern when at the highest moments of pressure you have misfires. We saw that a lot in our punt game and in different areas. But they are fixable things. It’s a long season.
Ferris finished with 155 passing yards but completed just 5 of 20 passes in the second half for 59 yards. He also threw an interception in the game’s closing seconds.
The Bulldogs’ only points of the second half came on a 25-yard field goal by Mason with 8:35 left in the third quarter. Mason later attempted a 45-yard field goal but it was blocked.
The field goal gave the Bulldogs a 23-21 lead and Western had a chance to increase it but Ferris overthrew Lickfold in the corner of the end zone on a subsequent drive, forcing Western to give up the ball.
Eastern Oregon took the ball and used it to regain the lead, this time for good. Gross did the honors with a 45-yard touchdown run.
“We made a couple of adjustments,” Camp added. “They’re a good team. They’re a good offensive team but we made a couple of adjustments that we thought could make the difference. We kind of lucked into it a little bit.
“It’s the players being able to listen to the adjustments and being able to effectively execute them.”
Though Western slipped into 1-1 in conference play (2-1 overall), Nourse said the team will continue to move forwards. For now, it’s a matter of finding that consistency.
“I think it is consistency,” he said. “You have to make plays and plays need to be made. And you have to do that consistently at a high level with the best in the country. It has to be done and we didn’t get it done.”