On a chilly 30-degree day in Cheney, Wash., the fifth-ranked Eastern Washington University football team was either hot or cold.
After a promising start, the Eagles were out-scored 22-0 in the second quarter, regained the lead in the fourth quarter then blocked a field goal in the final minute to preserve a 31-28 victory over UC Davis Saturday (Nov. 10) in a Big Sky Conference game at Roos Field in Cheney, Wash.
The Aggies were poised to pull off the upset with a long drive on their final possession, but Eastern’s David Gaylord blocked a 52-yard field goal attempt by Brady Stuart with 46 seconds left to preserve the Eagle win and keep Eastern’s Big Sky Conference championship hopes alive.
Northern Arizona fell 35-29 in three overtimes to Southern Utah on Saturday, meaning the Eagles will be playing for at least a share of the league title at Portland State next Saturday (Nov. 17). Eastern, ranked fifth in The Sport Network NCAA Football Championship Subdivision Top 25 Poll, is now 8-2 overall and 6-1 in the Big Sky.
The win was Eastern’s 11th in the last three seasons when it has trailed or been tied in the fourth quarter. Of Eastern’s six Big Sky wins this season, five have come by a combined margin of 21 points – two six-point wins and a trio by just three points.
“I can remember a few like that,” admitted a relieved Eastern head coach Beau Baldwin after the game. “It’s one of those hard-fought Big Sky wins.”
Eastern trailed at halftime 25-14, causing Baldwin to admit what he said to the team in the locker room: “Basically I told them the truth. We were getting our tails kicked.”
Eastern quarterbacks Vernon Adams and Kyle Padron combined to complete 19-of-31 passes for 242 yards and a touchdown, but the Eagles were out-gained in total offense 435-361. Adams scored the go-ahead points for Eastern with a 9-yard run with 8:13 left in the game.
“It is part of who we are and part of what we do in terms of still finding ways to win even when we are not playing your best ball,” Baldwin. “I give credit to UC Davis in terms of what they did making plays, but I know there were some things that we need to look at and not fall into. I just felt a little bit of a lull in our team when we went up 14-3, and then it all of a sudden catapulted into a bunch of good stuff for them. We can’t let that happen.”
The game was the final regular season home game for 16 Eastern seniors, who were honored in pre-game ceremonies.
Junior Demitrius Bronson added 63 yards and a pair of touchdowns on the ground for EWU, and senior Greg Herd led all receivers with seven catches for 101 yards and a score. Junior Brandon Kaufman added five catches for 109 yards – the seventh time this season and 15th time in his career he has gone over the 100-yard mark.
Defensively, senior linebacker Zach Johnson led the Eagles with 10 tackles, and junior cornerback T.J. Lee added nine. Redshirt freshman safety Jordan Tonani had seven tackles, an interception and a pass broken up.
Eastern went into the game knowing the 3-6 overall record for the Aggies was deceiving. Eastern was the fifth team UC Davis faced this season currently ranked in the top 19 nationally.
Now in position to garner one of 20 spots in the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision Playoffs, Eastern is a win away from possibly securing at least one more game at home. The pairings are announced on Nov. 18 and begin six days later with eight of the 20 teams playing first-round games. The other 12 get first-round byes to the second round on Dec. 1.
Besides sending the seniors out with a victory, Eastern finished the regular season 5-0 at home. Since the red Sprinturf surface was installed in 2010, Eastern is now 15-2 at “The Inferno,” with one of the losses a 43-26 setback to PSU on Senior Day last season.
Eastern jumped out to a 14-7 lead on a pair of impressive scoring drives led by Adams and ended by touchdown runs by Bronson. The first was a five-play, 69-yard drive that ended with Bronson’s 13-yard TD run. The Aggies kicked a field goal after an Eastern fumble, but the Eagles responded with a six-play, 69-drive that was capped by Bronson’s 1-yard touchdown rush.
At that point, the Eagles had a 141-31 advantage in total offense, as UC Davis failed to convert on its first five third-down attempts.
But over the next 18 1/2 minutes, UC Davis converted four of five third downs and rolled up 247 yards of offense to take a 25-14 lead at halftime. In that same time span, Eastern had only 37 yards of offense and only one first down, and had to punt on its final three possessions.
The Eagles went with Padron to start the second half, and aided by a pair of 15-yard penalties on UC Davis, the Eagles drove to the Aggie 19-yard line. But a third-down sack resulted in a 45-yard field goal by Jimmy Pavel, equaling the school record of 16 set last year by Mike Jarrett. The field goal also gives EWU 17 for the season, breaking the previous team record of 16 set last year.
After a UC Davis field goal, Eastern scored on a 76-yard drive to pull within 28-24 with 4:17 left in the third quarter. On the eighth-play of the drive, Padron found Herd down the sideline for a 51-yard touchdown on a third-and-15 play.
“The second quarter wasn’t real great and we needed a spark,” said Baldwin of going with Padron to start the second half. “Had we gotten the ball one more time with significant time in the first half, Kyle was going to go in then. Once we didn’t, I decided to play Kyle in the third quarter. He did a great job. He led us to 10 points, which were huge.”
Eastern’s defense forced UC Davis to punt three-straight times, and finally, midway through the fourth quarter, the Eagles capitalized. Adams led the Eagles on a five-play, 66-yard scoring drive, capping it with a 9-yard run to give EWU a 31-28 lead with 8:13 to play.
“Sometimes, as a young quarterback especially, when you get to watch the game from the sidelines you can start to see things that you didn’t see early on,” added Baldwin of going back to Adams in the final quarter. “Vernon came back in with some energy. I am just trying to listen to my gut. It’s not always right, but If I don’t go with my gut what am I going to listen to?”
Just over a minute later, UC Davis committed its first turnover of the game on an interception by Tonani – his third of the season. But Eastern had to punt after a sure TD catch down the sideline was dropped by Herd, who had a one-handed catch for a score a week earlier versus Cal Poly in the same spot on the field.
Taking over at its own 2-yard line, the Aggies calmly picked up five first downs in driving to the EWU 34-yard line. Three-straight incompletions – including one broken up by Lee -- led to the blocked field goal attempt.
The Aggies, who are now 3-7 overall and 2-5 in their first year as a member of the Big Sky Conference (football only), were coming off a bye week. They are a hard-luck team with an excruciating schedule, and suffered narrow losses by eight points or less to three other nationally-ranked teams -- Cal Poly (28-20), Montana State (48-41) and South Dakota State (12-8). They also lost just 21-7 on the road to nationally-ranked Big Sky leader Northern Arizona.