Speed bumps, Beau Baldwin calls them, those little obstacles that get in the way of a successful football season.
Halfway through Saturday’s game with UC Davis, the Eastern Washington coach and his players had to scale a mile-high wall of frustration en route to a 31-28 win Saturday afternoon at chilly Roos Field.
The Eagles went into the lockerroom on Senior Day coming off their worst quarter of the season, 15 minutes of pain that saw the underdog Aggies score 22 unanswered points and take an 11-point lead at halftime.
But every coach has a halftime speech, reserved just for this moment.
“I basically told them the truth, that we were getting our tails kicked,” Baldwin said. “And not just the players; as coaches too – we were getting outcoached and outplayed.”
And outgained, 229 yards to 28, with no first downs, against a 3-6 team playing only for pride and coach Bob Biggs’ final road game of a 35-year career.
“They were dominating up front and all over the field,” said senior defensive end Jerry Ceja. “Coach made that clear, and we came out with a whole new mind-set in the second half.”
Indeed, the Eagles eventually turned things around, with some key defensive stops, a long touchdown pass from Kyle Padron to Greg Herd, and finally, one of the biggest special-teams plays of the season.
Trailing 31-28 in the final seconds, the Aggies tried to force overtime with a 52-yard field goal attempt, but defensive end David Gaylord put a big right hand on the ball and the Eagles were finally able to celebrate.
“We sent out lankiest guys to the block side, and got as much penetration as we could,” Gaylord said. “It was a low kick, so we got lucky on that part of it, but our guys on the right side blew up the guards.
“I just closed it out and got my right hand on it.”
And thanks to Southern Utah’s triple-overtime win over Northern Arizona that ended moments earlier, the Eagles have their hands on a possible Big Sky Conference co-championship. A win at Portland State next week would guarantee at least that much.
Even better for the Eagles (8-2 overall, 6-1 Big Sky), another win would undoubtedly mean a first-round bye in the FCS playoffs that begin two days after Thanksgiving. Brackets will be announced on Nov. 18.
Had the Eagles lost Saturday, Thanksgiving would be spent in the film room, prepping for a first-round game on Nov. 24. “But the kids were able to respond,” Baldwin said.
With the Eagles trailing 25-14, Baldwin replaced Vernon Adams with Kyle Padron to start the second half, and the Eagles drove nine plays and cut the gap on a 45-yard field goal from Jimmy Pavel – his 16th of the season, which equals the school record set last year by Mike Jarrett.
The Aggies responded with a 10-play drive that ended with a 21-yard field goal, as defensive tackle Andru Pulu hurried Aggie quarterback Randy Wright into an incomplete pass.
On the Eagles’ next possession, Padron completed five straight passes, three of them to senior Greg Herd who finished with a game-high 101 receiving yards on seven catches.
Three plays later, they connected again on a 51-yard touchdown that brought the Eagles to within four points, trailing 28-24 with 4:17 left in the third quarter.
“I got a great outside release, and he put some zip on the ball to give me a chance to make something happen,” Herd said.
Something also had to happen on defense; it did, and after the field goal, the Aggies were held to 90 yards total offense in the last 19 minutes of the game. “We tried to scratch, claw fight to pull this one out,” said defensive tackle Evan Cook.
So did the Aggie defense, which forced two Eastern punts, the second after Adams couldn’t move the team after coming back in for Padron.
But with 9:45 left in the game, the Eagles got the ball back on their own 34-yard line. Adams completed passes of 23 and 24 yards to Brandon Kaufman, then scored his first career rushing TD with a 9-yard run.
Adams bootlegged to his right, faked a pass and dashed past several defenders into the end zone for the eventual winning score.
“He always has pass-run option on that kind of bootleg,” Baldwin said. “It’s one of those things, if it’s not there, he has the option to run.
“He made a good decision.”
Momentum turned further toward the Eagles on the next Aggie possession. After gaining a first down to the Davis 28, Wright threw downfield and was intercepted by redshirt freshman safety Jordan Tonani.
“We made some little tweaks here and there (in the second half) that helped, but mostly it was just heart,” Tonani said.
Eastern wasn’t able to capitalize, as Herd dropped an Adams pass in the end zone, setting up the final drive for the Aggies.
Davis marched 64 yards from its own 2 to the Eastern 34. Two incomplete passes set up a third-down pass down the left sideline. Eastern cornerback T.J. Lee III appeared beaten on the play, but was able to deflect what would have been a touchdown pass to Corey Galindo.
“We were in man coverage,” Lee said. “He got a good push-off on me that made me stumble, I so I did what I could to knock it down.”
One play later, Gaylord got his hand on the field goal, and the Eagles were able to celebrate.
The game started well enough. After Miles Weatheroy’s crunching tackle on the opening kickoff, the Eagle defense forced a three-and-out, the Eagles needed just five plays to go ahead 7-0 on Demitrius Bronson’s 13-yard touchdown run barely 3 minutes into the game.
Eastern got the ball back three plays later, but the Aggies capitalized on Quincy Forte’s fumble to set up a 41-yard field goal by Brady Stuart.
The momentum was all Eastern’s late in the first quarter, as Bronson capped a six-play, 69-yard drive with his second TD, a 1-yard plunge that put Eastern ahead 14-3 with 3:46 left in the first.
After an exchange of punts, the Aggies were on their own 11-yard line, and outgained 159 yard to 36 just as the first quarter was ending.
But on the final play of the quarter, the Aggies picked up an innocuous-looking 13 yards on a running play. What ensued was one of the biggest turnarounds of the season for Eastern.
In the second quarter alone, the Eagles gave up three touchdown drives of 89, 72 and 79 yards as the Aggies seized a 25-14 lead at the half.