The Eastern Washington football team has climbed out of so many holes this year, it’s become a conditioned response.
On Saturday, it came late in the third quarter of an FCS second-round game against underdog Wagner College, which had just scored 10 straight points to take a two-point lead.
The Eagles promptly dug themselves a deeper trough after a fumbled kickoff return, but the Eastern defense forced another field goal, Wagner’s fourth of the game. Two minutes later, now trailing by five, the offense drove 75 yards for the eventual winning score in a 29-19 victory before 7,039 at windblown Roos Field.
With the 10-2 Eagles safely out of the hole and into a quarterfinal game Saturday against Illinois State, it was tempting to ponder the what-ifs had Wagner taken a two-score lead into the fourth quarter.
“I still feel confident we could have have responded if that had happened, but it didn’t,” said safety Jeff Minnerly, a veteran of the 2010 national title team that had its share of narrow escapes.
This season, Eastern has rallied five times to win after trailing in the second half.
On Saturday, against the proverbial gritty underdog team that did little to beat itself except for not putting even more defenders on receiver Brandon Kaufman, the Eagles almost did it to themselves: a slow start, a laggard running game and a minus-three in the turnover battle that head coach Beau Baldwin had intended to win.
Yet the Eagles prevailed mostly because both offense and defense practiced what Baldwin preached: “We felt like this was an opportunity, and that we’re never going to act like a victim,” Baldwin said after the game.
That included quarterback Kyle Padron, who lost his starting job almost three months ago to redshirt freshman Vernon Adams, regained it this week and overcame a few hurdles Saturday before leading a pair of game-clinching touchdown drives.
“I think anyone who’s a competitor wants to be the guy out there,” said Padron, who learned midweek that he would get the start. “I wanted to be out there all season, but the cards weren’t dealt that way to me.”
The cards seemed stacked early against Padron, facing a stubborn Wagner front seven “that was very intense,” he said. Padron misfired on five of his first nine passes as Eastern fell behind 3-0, but Padron completed 11 of his next 13 passes for 195 yards to give the Eagles a 14-6 lead at halftime.
Poised to extend the lead early in the half, Eastern did just the opposite as Padron dropped back to pass to wide receiver Nick Edwards from his own 35.
“The safety rolled to a cover-three, away from Nick, and I thought Nick was going to go past the guy, but (the safety) pushed him and widened him out,” said Padron.
The ball sailed into the arms of Wagner safety Jarrett Dieudonne, who returned the ball to the Eastern 18 while Kaufman was whistled for offensive pass interference.
Three plays later, Wagner was within a point at 14-13. After Eastern went three-and-out, the Seahawks marched 38 yards to the Eastern 15, but settled for a field goal, their third of the game.
“The biggest difference in this game was our red-zone defense,” Baldwin said after the game. The Eagles struggled to contain shifty Wagner quarterback Nick Doscher, who threw for 153 yards and ran for 44 more, but struggled inside the 20.
“Elusive, that’s the way to describe him,” said Eastern defensive end Jerry Ceja, who finished with two sacks but was within a whisper of several more. “I got past the O-lineman, but I couldn’t get to him,” Ceja said.
But even as the defense took the field after Shaquille Hill’s fumbled kickoff return at his own 26, the tide began to turn.
“Our tackling improved in the second half,” Baldwin said.
Wagner gained a first down at the 16, but defensive end David Gaylord forced a hurried third-down throw by Doscher and Wagner again settled for three points.
Starting at his own 25, Padron completed three straight passes to the 50, then hit Kaufman down the sideline. Kaufman almost lost the ball against tight coverage, but held on at the 3-yard line.
“That was extremely lucky,” Kaufman said.
Two plays later, Quincy Forte scored from the 3 to give Eastern the lead for good, 22-19, after Padron hit Kaufman for the two-point conversion on the last play of the third quarter.
Ceja and linemate Evan Day sacked Doscher for a loss of 9 on Wagner’s next possession, setting up one of Eastern’s best drives of the season.
Starting from his own 27, Padron completed 8 of 10 passes – none longer than 12 yards, but consuming 73 yards, 7 1/2 minutes and culminating in Bronson’s second TD, a 2-yarder that gave Eastern its only two-score lead of the day.
Padron finished 26 of 36 for 327 yards and a first-half TD pass to tight end Ryan Seto.
“I’m happy for him, no question,” Baldwin said. “I’ve had respect for him like no other player I’ve ever had. He deserves it.”
Wagner, which came into the game on a nine-game winning streak, kept the Eagles off-balance early.
On their second possession, the Seahawks pulled off a 39-yard halfback pass from Williams to David Crawford that looked more like a punt, but it set up David Lopez’s 46-yard field goal with 12:10 left in the half.
On Eastern’s third possession, Padron took the Eagles 80 yards in nine plays, hitting Seto for a 21-yard touchdown with 8:42 left in the first half.
But Wagner came right back, as Doscher hit a wide-open Joe Sidaras down the right sideline for a 43-yard gain to the Eastern 9. The Eagles held again, and Lopez’s 21-yarder made it 7-6 with 4:23 left in the half.
Padron answered for Eastern by completing 5 of 6 passes, including a 45-yard catch-and-run by Kaufman that ended at the Wagner 15. Five plays later, Bronson bulled into the end zone with 17 seconds left to put the Eagles ahead 14-6 at intermission.