It was difficult to determine the most fitting omen for Eastern Washington University’s 43-26 Senior Day loss to Portland State at Roos Field Saturday afternoon.
For some in a sellout crowd of 9,003 – especially those who realized Eastern was matched up against the best rushing offense in the Big Sky Conference – it might have been the sight of Eagles All-American defensive tackle Renard Williams dressed in street clothes and limping through senior introductions on a tender ankle he sprained in last week’s overtime road win over Sacramento State.
But for others, it might have been the Vikings’ bizarre second-quarter touchdown pass play on which the football was touched by at least six people and inexplicably ended up in the hands Justin Monahan, cutting EWU’s early lead to 14-12 and creating a major shift in momentum.
In any event, both ultimately had major impacts on the outcome as PSU (5-3 overall, 3-2 BSC) dashed the postseason playoff hopes of the defending national champion Eagles (4-5, 4-3) behind a relentless running attack engineered by senior quarterback Connor Kavanaugh.
The elusive Kavanaugh, the trigger man in coach Nigel Burton’s pistol offense, accounted for 154 of the Vikings’ 338 rushing yards and also completed 16 of 23 passes for 147 yards and a touchdown, which was too much for Eastern’s spread passing game to match.
Bo Levi Mitchell, the Eagles’ senior quarterback, threw for 440 yards and four touchdowns, but completed only 20 of 42 passes, was sacked five times and threw a third-quarter interception that was returned 23 yards for a touchdown by Joel Sisler.
But this one was decided by Eastern’s inability to stop the run – which should probably not come as much of a surprise considering the Eagles’ defense was operating without three of its best run stoppers in Williams, senior linebacker Zach Johnson and senior safety Matt Johnson, who were all sidelined with injuries.
“Those guys are really important to our defense,” said junior defensive Jerry Ceja, who was the only EWU defender to record a sack on Kavanaugh. “We’ve got a lot of young guys in there, trying to do the best they can. But when you don’t have those veteran guys in there, you take a dive.”
Eastern coach Beau Baldwin again refused to use the obvious as an explanation for the derailment of his team’s chances of successfully defending its national title.
“I won’t use injuries as an excuse,” he said. “I look at last year, and – with the exception of Taiwan Jones, late – we were probably as healthy as any team could hope to be. And I wouldn’t want other teams saying we beat them because they had a bunch of injuries.”
Baldwin gave credit to Portland State’s offense, and the guy who makes it work.
“They’ve got an incredible running offense, and they do a great job with it,” he said of the Vikings. “And Kavanaugh makes it go. He’s just a really impressive player, and I knew that coming in.”
The Eagles seemed to settle in nicely after a shaky start and were leading 14-6 in the second quarter when PSU tried a double-handoff pass attempt that was thrown by wide receiver Nevin Lewis and intended for backup tight end Kalua Noa.
Lewis’ wobbly throw was tipped by Eastern defender Allen Brown and seemed destined to be picked off until teammates Jeff Minnerly and T.J. Lee collided in an attempt to make the interception and deflected the ball to Monahan.
On the ensuing kickoff, the ball dropped in front of an Eastern player and bounced backward toward PSU’s Andrew Godinet, who fell on it on the Eagles’ 20-yard line, setting up the third of Zach Brown’s three first-half field goals.
“That near pick that ended up in a touchdown, followed by that kick that landed soft – that was the two play swings that probably changed a little bit of the momentum,” Baldwin said. “But a lot of wild things happened in the first half, and in the end, they made more plays than we did.”
Among the wildest was a 96-yard first-quarter scoring pass – the second longest in EWU history – from Mitchell to Greg Herd, who finished with five catches for 196 yards.
But Herd took little solace in the catch or the big numbers he posted.
“The score is the only thing I was focused on,” he said. “And that negates any individual numbers. I’d rather got out there and get no catches and get a win than have something like this happen and suffer a loss.”
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