This was a game they couldn’t overlook, and the Eastern Washington Eagles didn’t.
In workman-like fashion, the 25th-ranked Eagles dismantled Sacramento State 45-10 before a hardy-but-sparse Homecoming crowd of 5,305 at Woodward Field Saturday afternoon.
“We just came out and took care of business,” Eastern coach Paul Wulff said. “I don’t know that we were real emotional all game, but we played at a good enough pace to win, although we weren’t really efficient throughout the game.”
It was the second straight week Eastern played an overmatched Big Sky Conference opponent, sandwiched between four games against ranked teams.
Now they can focus on the final two critical games that will determine their playoff fate. The Eagles (6-3, 5-1 conference) face fifth-ranked Cal Poly in a non-conference game next weekend in their final home game. Then they head to 24th-ranked Montana State in two weeks with a chance to win at least a share of the league championship.
No. 4 Montana, the team that handed Eastern its league loss two weeks ago, fell 35-31 at Portland State, leaving MSU atop the league standings after the Bobcats hammered Northern Arizona on the road.
Eastern held Sacramento State (2-6, 1-4) to minus-34 yards rushing and 201 overall, while piling up 431 total yards.
Those numbers were more dominating before backups played the fourth quarter. That’s when Sac scored its touchdown and picked up 109 yards to 2 for Eastern and cut a difference of almost 13 minutes in time of possession to under 8.
Both teams had 16 third-down plays, but while Eastern converted seven into first downs, the Hornets were successful just once.
“We didn’t play a great football game, but we still found a way to win,” Wulff said. “When you don’t play your best game and you still win, that’s a heckuva sign. … You’re not going to play your best game every week. Hopefully, when you don’t play you best game, you still have a chance to win. That’s the way it was for us.”
Hornets coach Steve Mooshagian was impressed.
“I felt like they were the best team in the conference, and they proved it today. They’re a better team,” he said. “Defensively they’ve improved a ton from a year ago. They have great quickness and they swarm to the ball. We knew they were going to have to throw the ball to beat them.”
Sac threw the ball 48 teams but completed just 25 for 235 yards and three interceptions. The last one was returned 54 yards by freshman Gregor Smith to close out the scoring with 2:39 left. The Eagles also had four sacks.
Basically all the Hornets had was Fred Amey, who had a career-high 15 catches for 156 yards, scoring the Sac touchdown midway through the fourth quarter.
Brandon Keeler led the defense with eight tackles, and sophomore David Eneberg, in his first start at linebacker for injured senior Doug Vincent, had six.
“Doug’s a really good friend of mine,” Eneberg said. “I just felt like I needed to step up. … I was a little nervous, but once I got on the field after that first play, it felt natural. I just did what the coaches told me to do.”
Coming on the heels of a 51-7 win at Weber State, Eastern’s 96 points were the most ever in back-to-back league games and the 17 allowed was the fewest since 1994. Sacramento State, whose longest run was 6 yards, had the biggest rushing deficit since Eastern joined the Big Sky in 1987, a string of 197 games.
“I thought we played extremely well,” Eneberg said. “Our goal was to stop the run and make them pass.”
The usual suspects speared headed the offense. Darius Washington rushed for 97 yards on 26 carries with two touchdowns. Erik Meyer hit 20 of 33 passes for 261 yards and two touchdowns. Erik Kimble caught both the touchdown passes, finishing with five catches for 73 yards. His second touchdown, a 6-yard slant, capped a 99-yard drive that made it 31-3 late in the third quarter.
“The O-line wasn’t clicking on the first few drives,” center Kraig Sigler said. “Defense did a great job making up for it. … 99 yards is something. When you see the ball lying on the 1-yard line, that’s what everybody’s saying, ‘Go 99 and score a touchdown.’ No game is over by halftime, so you’ve got to come out and make that statement.”
The fifth touchdown was scored by fullback Lars Slind, the first of his career on the last play of the third quarter.
“It felt good to finally get a chance,” said Slind, who had two chances from the 2-yard line. “The first chance it was kind of crowded and I tried to dive over. I was kind of disappointed I didn’t get it and I thought I lost my chance.”
Sac’s problems in the first half contributed to Eastern’s success.
The first touchdown came after a squib punt by the Eagles into the biting 30 mile per hour wind hit a Hornet just beyond the line of scrimmage that EWU recovered. That turned into a 66-yard drive capped by Washington’s 18-yard run around left end.
The Hornets responded with a 45-yard drive and Mitch Lively’s 32-yard field goal but that was about the extent of their offense, considering their net for the first half was 38 yards.
The second interception of Ryan Leadingham interception by Ryan Phillips on the second play of the second quarter kicked started the Eagles to 17 points when they had the wind at their back.
Skyler Allen started it with a short field goal. Then, aided by two facemask penalties, Eastern went 71 yards with Meyer hitting Kimble with an 18-yard strike in the corner of the end zone.
The Eagles ended the half with an 11-play drive that took up almost 5 minutes with Washington scoring on a 1-yard run.
“We just started to get in a rhythm,” Slind said. “We were kind of respectful of them at the beginning of the game but they didn’t have too much emotion and we were kind of flat. But once we started getting in our groove they couldn’t stop us.”