MISSOULA, Mont. — Gage Gubrud’s second trip to Washington-Grizzly Stadium was much more enjoyable.
Gubrud threw for a program-record 549 yards and four touchdowns, keying a second-half comeback in Eastern Washington’s 48-41 win over Montana on Saturday night in a Big Sky Conference opener for both teams.
It was Eastern Washington’s first victory in Missoula since 2013 , and just the second since 2005,
The Eagles (2-2, 1-0) trailed 24-6 after a mistake-filled first half, capped by Montana’s 44-yard TD pass from Gresch Jensen to Justin Calhoun as the half ended.
“After that Hail Mary there was a lot of wind blown out of our sails,” said first-year Eastern Washington coach Aaron Best. “We talked about it in the locker room, that one play doesn’t define a game. They executed immensely in the second half.”
The Eagles scored 42 points in the second half.
“Way better,” said Gubrud, who broke his own single-game passing record of 520 yards. “We got beat real bad (57-16) last time.” That was in 2015, in Bob Stitt’s first year as Montana head coach and Gubrud’s freshman season.
“We kind of started the second half offensively like we did the first,” Stitt said. “We didn’t make some plays to help our defense out. Our defense just defended a lot of plays – 96 plays is a lot.”
The Grizzlies took advantage of a Gubrud fumble at his own 32 for a 2-yard scoring run from Jeremy Calhoun. That put Montana up 14-3 at 3:05 of the first quarter.
Gubrud, who also ran for a touchdown, sandwiched touchdown passes to Sam McPherson around a 32-yarder to Dre’ Sonte Dorton.
McPherson’s second touchdown catch on a 50-yard throw from Gubrud tied the game at 27-27.
Montana (2-2, 0-1) jumped back in front on a 14-yard scoring run from Alijah Lee, but Eastern Washington scored the next 21 points. Gubrud’s 3-yard scoring run tied it, and he tossed a 3-yard TD pass to Nic Sblendorio to put the Eagles up for good, 41-34, with 6:49 left.
Eastern’s final score came on a 10-yard run from Antoine Custer, Jr., after Montana gave up the ball on downs at its own 20.
Gubrud, a junior, also had a 24-yard scoring pass to Brandon Purdy in the first half. Sblendorio had 18 catches for 189 yards. If Markell Sanders hadn’t picked off Gubrud in the third quarter, Gubrud may have been more dominant. As it was he bought time and found receivers alone in the flat all game.
“They did everything that they that we’d do (on defense),” said Gubrud, who was 44 of 65 passing. “They were just who we saw on film and so we were ready for it.”
Jensen, a redshirt freshman making his first start in place of injured Reese Phillips, threw for 358 yards and two scores. He had a 2-yard run to cap a 78-yard drive to give Montana a 7-3 lead midway through the first quarter. The Griz stretched the lead to 14-3 after Jeremy Calhoun scored from two yards out with 3:05 to play in the first.
Jensen’s second touchdown pass went to Sammy Akem with 50 seconds left in the game. Montana tried to onside kick but it went out of bounds.
EASTERN WASHINGTON: It was a big road test for the Eagles. With 25,944 in attendance, the Eagles were able to dominate the second half with 397 yards of offense. Gubrud threw for 331 yards in the second half, including 219 yards in the third quarter.
“Very hard (place to win),” Best said. “It’s just an awesome game, overall. Just an awesome game to be part of. I’d love to look back the last 20 years and tell me where it doesn’t come down to the final onside kick or the final series, or final touchdown.”
MONTANA: The Grizzlies’ offense faltered in the second half, leaving a defense that came up with a fumble and interception but still ran out of gas. Josh Buss had 17 tackles and a sack.
EASTERN WASHINGTON: The Eagles stay in Big Sky Conference play with a home game against Sacramento State on Saturday.
MONTANA: The Grizzlies take to the road for a conference game against Portland State on Saturday.