The Eastern Washington football team has all the momentum in the world, freshly seized Saturday night and ready to be carried all the way to the national title game.
If only it were that simple: a high-intensity light switch that could be flicked on at will.
On Saturday, the Eagles had it all their way late in the third quarter of a Football Championship Subdivision quarterfinal game against Illinois State after Ronnie Hamlin’s interception return set up the Eagles to take a 38-17 lead.
“Of course we still had a quarter to play,” Hamlin said in the locker room afterward.
Plenty of time for the Redbirds to reel off 18 straight points – the second-biggest rally by an Eastern opponent this season.
A three-touchdown lead had shrunk to three points.
“Sometimes we get a little lulled to sleep once we get a big lead,” Eagles defensive end Jerry Ceja said. “When you get up that like you get a little complacent, but what separates us from other teams is the fact that we step it up when we have to.”
Sure enough, the offense restored order on Kyle Padron’s 76-yard touchdown pass to Brandon Kaufman and the Eagles went on to win 51-35.
In eight games this year the Eagles have faced a double-digit run by the opponent, but have recovered to win six of them, including four straight heading into Saturday’s FCS semifinal against Sam Houston State:
On Sept. 22 in the Big Sky Conference opener at Weber State, the Eagles saw a 29-11 lead melt to 32-26 before forcing a fumble in the final minute of the game.
On Sept. 29 against Montana, they overcame a 19-3 Grizzlies run with a 10-point, fourth-quarter rally of their own to win 32-26.
On Nov. 10, they survived the biggest run of all, a 22-0 second-quarter rally by UC Davis, but recovered in the second half to win 41-38.
In the regular-season finale at Portland State on Nov. 17, the Eagles twice gave up 13-0 runs but outlasted the Vikings 41-34.
In an FCS second-round game against Wagner, the visitors scored 13 straight points in the second half to pull within five, but Eastern seized back the momentum in the fourth quarter.
Of course, the magic switch somehow never got pulled in losses at Washington State and Southern Utah – “That’s just football,” coach Beau Baldwin said – but six out of eight isn’t bad.
“There’s going to be highs and lows,” defensive line coach Ryan Sawyer said after the Illinois State game. “You think the momentum is on your side, you’re going to roll to the win, and the next thing you know …
“You just keep on reiterating that you can’t let up.”
Even when you’re on the sideline.
“No matter what side of the ball is struggling, it’s the job of the other side to pick them up,” Baldwin said. “We have had plenty of that.”
Sure enough, after Kaufman’s catch against ISU, a rejuvenated Eagles defense got the ball back in five plays.
“It might be the momentum factor,” Ceja said. “Anytime we score, we feel the energy from the crowd, anytime they make a big play it gets the defense hyped.”
Even with a 16-point lead with four minutes left, the Eagles defense stayed hyped. With just under six minutes left and the game still not decided, 170-pound Eastern safety Allen Brown brought down Redbirds tight end James O’Shaughnessy to prevent a big gain.
“How big was that guy, anyway?” Brown asked a reporter after the game. Shaughnessy weighs 240, but it didn’t matter.
“Hey, I’m just putting my body out there,” Brown said. “It’s the playoffs.”
Two plays later, on the other side of the field, safety Bo Schuetzle made a thunderous, first down-saving tackle on ISU wideout Lechein Neblett.
Five plays after that, the Redbirds’ last hopes fell to the ground on a fourth-down incompletion with three minutes left.
“Our guys found ways to make plays whenever it felt like we were losing the momentum,” Baldwin said.
Until they got it back – for now.
Semifinal ticket information
Tickets for Saturday’s FCS semifinal game against Sam Houston State will go on sale Monday at 10 a.m. For fans who agreed to purchase tickets to all three playoff games, the cost is $20 for premium seating in sections C&D, $15 for sections A/B/E&F, $15 for end zone and $10 for east side seating (behind visitor bench) The cost will be $5 more per ticket for first-time buyers. Tickets may be purchased via www.ticketswest.com or 1-800-325-SEAT.
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