GREELEY, Colo. – With its offense struggling to establish any kind of rhythm for the second week in a row, Eastern Washington University’s defense came up huge once again on Saturday, lifting the 12th-ranked Eagles to a 35-28 Big Sky Conference win over the University of Northern Colorado at Nottingham Field.
The victory tied Eastern Washington with Montana for first place at 4-1 while Montana State (3-1) fell back after a loss to Northern Arizona.
Eastern’s defense, put in several tough situations once again because of special teams mistakes and the offense’s inconsistency, answered nearly every challenge and set up Taiwan Jones’ game-winning touchdown by forcing a fumble to stop a promising Bears drive with just over a minute left.
After the Eagles (5-2 overall, 4-1 in the Big Sky) tied the game at 28 on a 4-yard pass from Bo Levi Mitchell to Brandon Kaufman with a little more than 3 minutes remaining, the Bears (2-5, 1-4) mounted a drive that seemed destined to put them in position to try a game-winning field goal.
But that potential scenario blew apart when EWU defensive lineman Jerry Ceja stripped scrambling UNC quarterback Dylan Orms of the ball, which was picked up by Tyler Jolley and returned to the Bears’ 39-yard line with 61 seconds left.
From there, Mitchell handed the ball off twice to Jones, who picked up 15 yards on his first carry, before breaking a 24-yarder for the winning score.
The win was the third straight for the Eagles, and their six in a row over UNC, 1-7 all-time against Eastern.
“It was one of those games where it felt like we had just sputtered quite a bit (on offense) in the second half,” said EWU coach Beau Baldwin, whose Eagles managed only 26 yards of offense in the third quarter.
“But we talked about it and (decided) it didn’t matter – ‘We can’t change that now. All we can control is what we do from the 7-minute mark, 8-minute mark,’ or whatever it was.
“And our guys found a way.”
Mitchell, who completed 16 of 25 passes for 172 yards on the day, was 9 of 11 in the fourth quarter and brilliantly engineered the 12-play, 80-yard drive that tied the game with 3:08 left. Then, after Jolley’s fumble return, he turned things over to Jones, who scored his third touchdown of the day.
Jones, who has battled injuries the past three weeks, wasn’t 100 percent healthy, but still managed to burn the Bears for 168 rushing yards on 21 carries – one of which resulted in a 73-yard touchdown run that gave Eastern a 21-14 lead early in the second quarter.
“Taiwan played his best game, probably, since the Montana game,” Baldwin said. “I don’t question Taiwan’s heart – he’s one of the toughest players we have, pound for pound. He was just getting past an (abdominal contusion) injury that made it hard for him to even function the past couple of weeks, and he’s still fighting through that.
“I love the kid, and I love the way he works.”
EWU’s other touchdown came on a 97-yard, first-quarter kickoff return by Jesse Hoffman.
Still, it was the Eagles’ defense, faced with defending a short field on several occassions, that should get most of the credit for the win.
Senior strong-side linebacker J.C. Sherritt finished with a game-high 14 tackles, including a sack and two others for losses, and also picked off an Orms pass to end the game.