When a college football team has it going as well as Eastern Washington, it believes it can overcome anything. And it usually does.
Such was the case Saturday afternoon when the Eagles shook off the confidence-chilling effects of a fumbled punt return and a blocked punt to knock off Idaho 24-21 in their first return to Albi Stadium since 1990.
A crowd of 7,756 looked on in near-perfect football weather as Eastern shoved the Vandals’ early good fortune into the “Who Cares?” file with a magnificently executed four-play, 64-yard scoring drive that produced the winning touchdown with just 34 seconds left. The touchdown came just 37 seconds after Idaho had scored a TD to go ahead.
Eagles running back Rex Prescott scored the winner on a 3-yard run, but the real magic occurred on the two previous plays when quarterback Harry Leons hit wideout Jeff Ogden with a pair of long passes that moved the ball from Eastern’s 36-yard line to the Vandals’ 3.
On both plays the Eagles’ offensive line gave Leons more time than he had had all afternoon, and the senior quarterback responded with a pair of crucial strikes.
Ogden, who had six catches on the day, saved his best for last, latching onto the ball on a deep crossing pattern and hanging on despite a vicious tackle by Vandals cornerback Tony Uranga. The play covered 23 yards and set up Prescott’s decisive run that snapped Eastern’s five-game losing streak to the Vandals.
The Eagles also learned after the game that their 5-1 record in the Big Sky Conference was good enough to keep them alone atop the league standings, thanks to Idaho State’s 41-24 upset of Northern Arizona.
“We’re on a magical ride right now,” Eagles coach Mike Kramer said after watching his team raise its overall record to 8-1 with the non-conference win. “And when you’re on a magical ride, ordinary people become extraordinary.”
Kramer made no attempt to veil that his comments were directed at Leons and Ogden, a pair of former walk-ons, who have become major players in Eastern’s most successful season since 1985 when the Eagles finished 9-3.
Leons, despite being sacked four times and being hurried most of the afternoon, completed 15 of 25 passes for 270 yards and one touchdown. And Ogden once again emerged as his favorite target, piling up 151 receiving yards - including 30 on a third-quarter touchdown - to push his total for the last three games to 515.
Nearly overshadowed by the heroics of Leons and Ogden was Prescott’s fourth consecutive 100-yard rushing performance and Eastern’s most dominant defensive effort in recent memory.
And the fact that Idaho (4-5, 1-2 in the Big West), which lost for the third straight time, played without its starting quarterback and running back.
“We started five freshmen and it showed,” Vandals coach Chris Tormey said.
Prescott finished with 117 yards on 26 carries and scored two touchdowns. The Eagles’ defense, after holding Idaho to minus-3 yards of total offense in the first quarter, bent later in the game but was stout enough to help overcome two Idaho touchdowns that came courtesy of Eastern gaffes.
“We knew it was going to be a physical game and it was,” said EWU linebacker Derrick Strey, who had 13 tackles - including a sack - in helping the Eagles limit UI to 244 total yards.
Strey, a fifth-year senior, called the win “awesome” and explained that Eastern’s motivation stemmed from the fact that “the people sitting in that locker room in there had never beaten Idaho in our lives.
“And after getting beat up by them for the last four years, it feels kind of good to come out with a W.”
The Vandals, with starting quarterback Brian Brennan sidelined with turf toe and running back Jerome Thomas out with a thigh bruise, fell behind early 10-0 and needed some breaks.
They got their first one when Maurice Perigo fumbled on a punt return late in the second quarter. The ball was recovered by Idaho’s Anthony Tenner at the EWU 28 and the Vandals scored four plays later on Tenner’s 5-yard run.
UI’s second score came midway through the third period and was set up when Travis Strombaugh blocked a Tom Zurfluh punt and Scott Goss recovered at Eastern’s 11. Still, the Vandals needed another break to punch it in - and they got it when Tenner fumbled into the end zone from the 2 and teammate Jeff Pankratz recovered.
The only touchdown the Eagles defense was actually accountable for was Idaho’s last, which came on a beautifully engineered 80-yard drive late in the fourth quarter and appeared to have put the game out of reach.
Redshirt freshman quarterback Ed Dean, who had struggled under Eastern’s relentless pass rush most of the day, completed six passes during the penalty-plagued drive and put the Vandals ahead 21-17 with his 40-yard scoring strike to Deon Price with just 1:11 remaining.
But the long drive meant little in the grand scheme, thanks to Eastern’s successful final gasp.
Eastern tries to keep its roll going Saturday when it travels to NAU. Idaho has a week off before playing at New Mexico on Nov. 15.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Color photos
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: EWU 24, Idaho 21 Idaho 0 7 7 7 - 21 E.Washington 10 0 7 7 - 24 EWUPrescott 1 run (Atwood kick) EWUFG Atwood 39 IDATenner 5 run (Scott kick) IDAPankratz fumble recovery (Scott kick) EWUOgden 30 pass from Leons (Atwood kick) IDAPrice 40 pass from Dean (Scott kick) EWUPrescott 3 run (Atwood kick) A7,756. Ida EWU First downs 16 19 Rushes-yards 29-58 38-110 Passing 186 270 Comp-Att-Int 17-37-0 15-25-1 Return Yards 42 59 Punts-Avg. 9-41.6 6-36.5 Fumbles-Lost 2-0 2-1 Penalties-Yards 10-109 3-36 Time of Possession 33:28 26:32 RUSHING-Idaho, Dean 9-30, Tenner 19-27, Alderson 1-1. EWU, Prescott 26-117, MacKenzie 6-11, Leons 6-(minus 18). PASSING-Idaho, Dean 17-37-0-186. EWU, Leons 15-25-1-270. RECEIVING-Idaho, Pankratz 5-63, Prestimonico 5-58, Alderson 3-13, Price 2-49, Wilson 1-2, Tenner 1-1. EWU, Ogden 6-151, Ballew 3-32, Prescott 2-33, Correa 2-19, Knaevelsrud 1-27, Mitchell 1-8.