Aside from the short field they were facing, courtesy of a woeful 26-yard punt by Sacramento State’s Augie Heath, there wasn’t much reason for optimism among the members of Eastern Washington University’s offensive unit when they took the field one last time against the Hornets on Saturday afternoon.
Trailing by three points with just a little more than 3 minutes left in the game – and not having generated a smidgen of momentum since midway through the second quarter – the 8th-ranked Eagles, and their Big Sky Conference title hopes, looked prepped for burial.
But sporting a bit of an attitude because of its earlier foibles, Eastern’s beleaguered offense somehow managed to put together a 35-yard, seven-play drive that culminated with a six-yard touchdown pass from Bo Levi Mitchell to Brandon Kaufman with just 33 seconds remaining and treated a Roos Field homecoming crowd of 7,147 to an unlikely 28-24 victory.
The win kept the Eagles (6-2 overall, 5-1 in the Big Sky) tied with Montana – which survived a major scare of its own on Saturday – atop the BSC standings, and prompted Mitchell to admit he felt “lucky” to turn back a Sac State team (3-4, 2-3) that outgained EWU by 65 yards, ran 26 more plays and finished with a time-of-possession advantage of almost 12 minutes.
“It’s one of those things where we play great under pressure and we know how to fight till the end, just because of how close we are,” Mitchell, a first-year junior transfer said after watching the 6-foot-5 Kaufman outjump Sac State’s 5-6 cornerback Kyle Monson in the right rear of the end zone to pull down his game-winning touchdown pass. “I think that’s why we find ways to come back and find ways to win.”
Eastern led this one 21-0 midway through the second quarter, thanks, primarily, to a Matt Johnson interception at Sac State’s 18-yard line that set up the Eagles’ first score, and a mesmerizing 77-yard touchdown run by junior running back Taiwan Jones, who broke at least five tackles on his way to the end zone.
But with his team poised to bump its lead to 28-0 with just more than 4 minutes left in the first half, Mitchell lofted a wobbly first-down pass over the middle that was picked off by the Hornets’ Evander Wilkins.
Sac State then proceeded to put together a 60-yard drive that ended with a Chris Diniz’s 28-yard field goal just 7 seconds prior to intermission.
That series of events seem to energize the Hornets, who dominated the second half, hanging up 21 fourth-quarter points on a pair of short scoring runs by Bryan Hillard, and Henry Fernandez’s 23-yard touchdown return of a blocked punt.
Eastern, meanwhile, managed only 76 second-half yards prior to its final drive.
“Yeah, you get a little shocked,” Eagles coach Beau Baldwin said about spitting away a three-touchdown lead. “We felt it a little bit last week against Northern Arizona, and even that one wasn’t such a lopsided score before they came back and took the lead, but (our players) never felt a panic.
“You never want to look in the rear-view mirror. We (figured) we can’t do anything about the third quarter now, we can’t do anything about that last drop, that last throw or that last series. All you can do is go forward and that’s what we did.”
According to Mitchell, he and his teammates came out for their last-chance drive, “pardon my language, but pissed off.
“You’re telling yourself, you better get made right now and you better go score,” he added. “You don’t sit back on your heels, and you don’t let (Sac State) win the game, because they’re not supposed to. We’re suppose to win the game, so you come out and say, ‘We’re going to drive it down their throats like we should have the whole game, and we’re going to score to win the game.’ ”
By his own admission, Mitchell played “horrible,” completing just 15 of 28 passes for 141 yards – although three went for touchdowns. He was picked off twice.
Still, he liked his team’s chances as soon as he broke huddle on his last play of the game and saw Kaufman staring at man coverage against Monson.
“Their whole team knew where we were going with the ball, and they still didn’t stop it,” Mitchell explained. “Honestly, I’m surprised they didn’t throw another guy out there (with Monson) to help. I’m sorry, but the 5-6 corner’s not stopping my 6-5 receiver.
“I can throw a horrible ball and (Kaufman) is still going to make the catch.”
Kaufman started clapping his hands to get Mitchell’s attention once he saw the mismatch against Monson.
“Coach (Baldwin) gave us the fade play from the sidelines, and I got excited,” said the sophomore, from Denver. “I had a feeling it was coming to me with No. 7 (Monson) on me, and I started screaming at Bo to throw in inside and high – and that’s exactly what he did.
“People probably figure we snuck another one out. But we came in knowing we should win and expecting to win, so when we did, it was no surprise to us.”