Beau Baldwin didn’t need to flip through a thesaurus to come up with a word to describe the offensive performance of his Eastern Washington University football team Saturday.
The Eagles’ head coach kept it simple, and went with “ugly.”
But Baldwin was quick to point out that those kinds of games happen much more frequently than any coach would like. And when they do, you need your defense to apply a little makeup – which is what 13th-ranked EWU’s stop corps did against Northern Arizona University in treating a pro-Eastern Roos Field crowd of 7,472 to a 21-14 Big Sky Conference win over the Lumberjacks.
On a gray, sunless afternoon on which the Eagles (4-2, 3-1 Big Sky) celebrated the return of star running back Taiwan Jones by turning the ball over five times, Baldwin’s defense came up big, limiting NAU (3-2, 1-1) to 39 yards on the ground, picking off three passes and holding the Lumberjacks scoreless in three of their four red-zone possessions.
“They were great,” Baldwin said of his defense, which gave up 747 yards in a 49-45 road win over NAU last fall. “The defense was put in a lot of tough situations today and, in almost every one of those situations, they responded.
“They responded with stops. They responded by creating turnovers. If you want to have a championship team, through the course of the season you’re going to run into an ugly game like this here and there. And our defense really stepped it up in a game that was extremely ugly, from an offensive standpoint.”
Senior linebacker J.C. Sherritt, sophomore safety Jeff Minnerly and sophomore cornerback Artise Gauldin each had an interception for Eastern, helping offset a sloppy offensive effort that included three lost fumbles – two of which were coughed up by Jones – and two picks thrown by junior quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell.
“I was really proud of the way we played,” said Sherritt, who also had a hand in a game-high 16 tackles, including a sack. “Once again, we came up with some really big plays in the red zone and some really big turnovers.”
It helped that NAU’s senior quarterback Michael Herrick, who threw for 574 yards and four touchdowns in last year’s loss to the Eagles, did not play in the second half after getting kicked in the head on the last play – a desperation pass attempt from near midfield – prior to intermission.
But even with a healthy Herrick under center, the Lumberjacks didn’t get much done against EWU’s defense.
Northern Arizona, after having its first touchdown set up by an Eastern fumble early in the second half, got its second when Jones – who missed last weekend’s 35-24 road win over Weber State with an abdominal contusion suffered in a 30-7 loss to Montana State a week earlier – fumbled in his own end zone and Lumberjacks cornerback Brian Hunter recovered.
Jones, who left the game following that fourth-quarter fumble with what EWU’s head athletic trainer Brian Norton described as tightness in his back and hip, gained just 48 yards on 16 carries against the Big Sky’s leading rush defense.
But Mitchell, despite throwing two picks, helped ease the sting of Jones’ subpar performance by completing 20 of 26 passes for 288 yards and three touchdowns.
“I kind of go into every game thinking that way,” Mitchell said, when asked if he felt he needed to be more productive with the pass against a run defense as good as NAU’s. “You know, we’ve got Taiwan and he’s gong to make some plays and open up the offense. And when he does, I’ve got to execute and put the ball where it needs to be – put it where our big receivers can make plays.
“Because, as you saw today, if you give them the opportunity, they’re going to catch it.”
Mitchell spread his scoring passes around, connecting with Nicholas Edwards on a 7-yarder in the first quarter; hooking up with Brandon Kaufman on a 20-yard in the second; and capping Eastern’s scoring with a 9-yard toss to Ryan Seto midway through the third.
But his biggest completion might have been his last, which came on a third-and-7 from the EWU 35-yard line late in the game when the Eagles were trying to run out the clock. With less than 90 seconds left in the game, and NAU having already used up its three second-half timeouts, Mitchell hit Kaufman with a 35-yard strike down the right sideline for a big first down that secured the victory.
“Maybe it wasn’t the game-winning touchdown,” said Mitchell, who celebrated the crucial completion with a demonstrative fist pump, “but it was a game-winning throw and catch that Kaufman made a heckuva play on.
“And you just can’t ask for much more than that.”