In a frenzied week, filled with the distractions of an assistant coach’s dismissal and the realization that two more starters would not be available because injuries, Eastern Washington University’s resilient football team found a way Saturday afternoon to finally close the deal.
The Eagles, behind the near-perfect first-half play of senior quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell and a solid defensive effort, snapped a four-game losing streak and picked up their first win of the year by holding off Big Sky Conference rival Weber State 27-21 in front of a Hall of Fame Weekend crowd of 7,427 at Roos Field.
Mitchell, who threw for 281 yards, staked Eastern (1-4 overall, 1-2 Big Sky) to a 24-7 halftime lead by throwing two touchdowns passes to Nicholas Edwards and another to Greg Herd, and the Eagles’ defense came up with a late-game fumble recovery to secure a much-needed victory over the Wildcats (2-3, 2-1).
Making the win more satisfying was the fact that it capped a crazy week that saw head coach Beau Baldwin terminate the contract of former running backs coach Chris Hansen and cobble together a game plan that did not include starting wide receiver Brandon Kaufman (broken hand) and starting cornerback Alden Gibbs (thumb surgery), the latest victims of EWU’s season-long injury scourge.
“This feels about as good as a lot of wins I can ever remember,” Baldwin said. “It’s one of those deals where it’s so gratifying because you’re down and everyone, in some respects, (is) starting to count you out – especially with all the injuries. I mean, it’s been unreal.
“So to see so many guys stepping up; young guys starting in new positions and some guys that were, maybe, just role players stepping into bigger roles, is just special.”
In Kaufman’s absence, Edwards became Mitchell’s go-to receiver, hauling in 10 passes for 115 yards, including first-half touchdown catches of 22 and 5 yards – the first of which came when he reached around a Weber State defender and fell to the ground in the end zone with the ball pinned to the defender’s back.
Herd finished with three catches for 92 yards, turning a short reception over the middle into a 51-yard touchdown play that gave Eastern a 14-7 lead it never relinquished. Redshirt freshman Cory Mitchell, the older brother of the Eagles’ starting quarterback, pulled down three passes for 23 yards.
“The win feels great,” said Bo Levi Mitchell, who completed 22 of 29 passes and threw two interceptions, one of which bounced off the chest of his intended target. “It’s the first of, hopefully, seven. We feel like everybody played great. The coaches made great calls and the players made plays.”
And on the absence of the 6-foot-5 Kaufman, who caught 29 passes for 373 yards and touchdown in Eastern’s first four games, Mitchell added, “You lose a big weapon, sure, but at the same time, it’s like you concentrate more on spreading the ball around.
“I know I get caught up a lot in trying to get the ball to (Kaufman), and with good reason – he’s a great player. It’s unfortunate that we lost him, but we’ve got other receivers I can trust and some younger guys in Cory and Ashton Clark that came in and did their job really well.”
Despite its first-half dominance, Eastern was forced to overcome a couple of major individual gaffes – like a roughing-the-punter penalty that kept a late first-quarter Weber State drive alive, only to see it end with a missed field-goal attempt, and a potentially devastating personal foul penalty on senior defensive tackle Renard Williams for excessively celebrating his third-down sack of Wildcats quarterback Mike Hoke early in the second half.
The penalty on Williams gave WSU a first down on EWU’s 24-yard line. The Wildcats scored three plays later on a 1-yard run by Hoke to cut Eastern’s lead to 24-14.
But a 32-yard field goal by Mike Jarret late in the third quarter, his second of the game, forced Weber State to score two more touchdowns to win the game. But all the Wildcats could muster was a 40-yard scoring pass from a Hoke to Austin Raught early in the final period.
The Wildcats managed one last gasp in the final 47 seconds, however, when Hoke – while scrambling for his life – dropped a desperation pass, on fourth-and-18 from his 32, between three EWU defenders and into the hands of teammate Shaydon Kehano for a 51-yard gain and a first down on the Eagles’ 17.
But two plays later, Eastern defensive tackle Charles Moetului knocked the ball out of Hoke’s hand and the Eagles’ Anthony Larry recovered with 21 seconds left.
“Again, just proud, “ Baldwin said when asked how he felt about his team’s final defensive stand. “Obviously, no one likes to give up a fourth-and-20. But what we did better today than we’ve done this year, on both sides of the ball, was that when something went wrong, we didn’t let it carry over to the next down and distance.
“It was a hectic week, for a lot of people, and an emotional week, as well. But these guys stuck together and did everything they could during the week to put the distractions aide and put us in a position to win a game like this against a great Weber State team.”
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