SEATTLE – It was hard to get a good read on just how much Eastern Washington University’s football team enjoyed the opportunity to play in front of a home crowd in an NFL stadium.
A lopsided victory over a quality opponent tends to skew opinions.
So it made sense that the Eagles had nothing but praise for Saturday’s first “Showdown on the Sound,” and their initial venture into Qwest Field, the home of the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks, where they put a 47-10 smackdown on Big Sky Conference rival Portland State to keep their FCS postseason playoff hopes alive.
Just four days after learning of the NCAA’s decision to lift the postseason ban it had slapped on them earlier this year, the Eagles (6-3 overall, 5-2 in the Big Sky) used another big day from senior quarterback Matt Nichols and a splendid defensive effort that included a record-tying four interceptions from Matt Johnson, to turn back the Vikings (2-7, 1-5) for the first time in four years.
A crowd of 6,124 was on hand in the 65,000-seat stadium to help 17 seniors – 10 of whom hail from the west side of the state – celebrate their final “home” game as an Eagle and beat PSU for the first time in their careers. And its vocal contribution did not go unnoticed.
“It was actually loud in here,” said Johnson, a sophomore strong safety, who four picks matched a Big Sky single-game record held by two others, but fell one short of the school record of five set by Mark Cordes in 1986, prior to Eastern joining the BSC. “It was just amazing; a great overall experience.”
Nichols, who threw for 413 yards and four touchdowns to equal Erik Meyer’s school record of 84 career TD passes, was equally impressed with the way the day played out
“It was an amazing atmosphere, and just being in this stadium was something special,” he said. “Obviously, it helped a lot to come in and win 47-10 against a team we’ve had a lot of problems with in the past.”
Nichols, after struggling early, completed 21 of 30 passes and threw for more than 400 yards in a game for the fifth time. He hit backup running back Tyler Hart with touchdown tosses of 38 and 47 yards, connected with tight end Nathan Overbay from six yards out for another and capped his day with a 25-yard third-quarter scoring strike to wideout Tony Davis before giving being pulled early in the fourth quarter.
But it was the Eagles’ defense, which picked off five passes and kept PSU’s potent run-and-shoot offense out of the end zone, that earned the most Coach Beau Baldwin’s postgame plaudits.
“It’s huge,” he said of the five picks, which came against a Vikings team that torched the Eagles for 623 yards and five touchdowns through the air in last year’s 47-36 win in Portland. “When you’re struggling on offense, you’re looking for a spark from someone. And our defense has been able to give us that spark in a couple of different situations – whether it’s been stops in the red zone, like against Northern Colorado, or the turnovers like we got here today.”
Johnson credited EWU’s ability to change and disguise its passes coverages for his first two interceptions, explaining, “Their quarterback never even saw me.” But his third and fourth picks, he added, were the result of him reading receivers and making plays.
“We strive on turnovers and try to get three a game, at least, on defense,” Johnson said. “We know it’s a big boost for our offense, especially when things aren’t going right for them.”
PSU, with quarterback Drew Hubel making his first start since sustaining a knee injury three weeks ago, was outgained 545-278 and got four of its points from a pair of first-half safeties, the second of which Nichols jokingly blamed on Johnson “for intercepting a pass on the 1-yard line.”
Baldwin said the key to slowing the Vikings down this year was his defense’s ability to limit big plays.
“We kept things in front of us,” he explained. “We were able to give help, we were able to rally to football and we were able to make the tackle for a 5-yard gain instead of missing a tackle and giving up a big gain, which happened to us at least once last year.”
The Eagles now get a week off to heal some lingering injuries before returning to action on Nov. 14, when they will face Southern Utah in a non-conference matchup in Cedar City, Utah.