It had been a long time – too long in the minds of many of Eastern Washington football players – since the Eagles had been able to build a comfortable lead, take a few deep breaths and turn things over to some of the young guys on the roster.
But Saturday, on a near-perfect autumn afternoon, Eastern found itself with just such a luxury as senior quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell torched Big Sky Conference rival Northern Colorado for 400 yards and three touchdowns through the air, while also running for another score.
The end result was a 48-27 homecoming victory for the Eagles (3-4 overall, 3-2 in the Big Sky), who ran their winning streak to three, kept their faint FCS playoff hopes alive and gave the majority of those in a sellout Roos Field crowd of 8,742 reason to celebrate.
“It feel great to finally get some breathing room and get some of our younger guys a chance to play,” said Eastern coach Beau Baldwin, who pulled most of his starters midway through the fourth quarter, “because they’re deserving.”
Mitchell also expressed satisfaction in being to turn things over to his backup, sophomore Anthony Vitto, after completing 28 of 38 passes, including touchdown tosses of 42 and 19 yards to Nicholas Edwards and 12 yards to Greg Herd.
“It’s been awhile,” he said of the lopsided win. “And it feels good, because we played a good team today. They’ve got some great athletes and we needed to play well to get the win.”
Winless Northern Colorado (0-7, 0-5) took an early 7-3 lead on Quentin Hildreth’s 4-yard touchdown run late in the first quarter, and was still hanging around in the third period when Dave Eden’s 20-yard field goal cut Eastern’s lead to 27-20.
But then Mitchell, whose second-quarter touchdown run – just the second of his career – came from 1 yard out, led the Eagles on three straight scoring drives to put the game out of UNC’s reach.
“I could just tell during the game that he was playing great,” Baldwin said of Mitchell’s performance. “You never really know the stats, but you do know when he’s in control and doing all the right things with the football.
“And for two straight games, he’s been in credibly poised that way.”
Herd finished the game with a career high 11 catches for 159 yards, and Ashton Clark had a career-day, as well, hauling in six passes for 74 yards.
“We had a big game through the air (against Northern Arizona) last Saturday,” Herd said, “and our goal this week was not to just settle for that, but to build on it and get even more catches, more yards, more big plays and more touchdowns.
“It was fun getting all those balls thrown my way. Bo just did a great job of finding weaknesses in their defense, finding the open guy and getting him the ball. And I’m glad I was able to take advantage of my opportunities.”
According to Mitchell, there was no plan to utilize Herd as much as he did going into the game.
“I just got out there, read the coverages and threw to whoever was open,” he said. “Greg just happened to be open a lot, and he played strong when he had to. And anytime you can throw a 5-yard route and have him turn it into a 55-yard gain, you’re going to have a lot of passing yards.”
Eastern defense, struggled to contain UNC’s short passing game most of the afternoon. Bears quarterback Seth Lobato threw for 408 yards, but only one touchdown, while also tossing a pair of interceptions.
But the Eagles sacked him five times and were stingy in the red zone, twice forcing the Bears to settle for short field goals instead of touchdowns.
Junior defensive end Paul Ena recoved a fumble and had four tackles for losses, including 11/2 sacks, while T.J. Lee and Allen Brown each came up with an interception.
“It felt good to kind of dominate a game again, which we really have done since (a 51-17 win over) Portland State last year,” said senior safety Matt Johnson, who finished with six tackles.
“It was nice to finally look at the scoreboard again, knowing we could down and rest a little bit,” added Herd. “But we’ve to get back in the office on Monday and keep building on this.”