Winning took on a few added dimensions Saturday night for Eastern Washington.
Because defense and special teams helped the seventh-ranked Eagles to an easy 55-17 Big Sky Conference football win over North Dakota, the whole season could take a new dimension, beginning next week.
“That’s probably as complete a win as we’ve had since Portland State (a 50-17 win in 2010),” said Eastern head coach Beau Baldwin, whose team won the Football Championship Subdivision title that year. And, perhaps not coincidentally, it’s also been two years since the Eagles had returned a kickoff for a touchdown.
“I didn’t even know that,” said Hill, a freshman wide receiver whose 99-yard return in the second quarter gave the Eagles a double-digit lead that only grew larger thanks to an efficient, balanced offense and a defense that regained its composure against the run.
Next up is a trip to second-ranked Montana State, which survived a 48-41 scare at UC Davis earlier Saturday and stands as the biggest obstacle to the Eagles (3-0 in the Big Sky and 4-1 overall) returning to the top of the conference.
On Saturday, Eastern quarterback Vernon Adams turned in his most complete performance in three starts, completing 12 of 15 pass attempts for 151 yards, four touchdowns and an otherworldly 252.6 passer rating.
But Adams also has more than one dimension, and he showed it with the game still in doubt in the third quarter. The Eagles had just been dealt a 15-yard offensive pass interference penalty on wide receiver Brandon Kaufman, and two plays later were facing third-and-16 at their own 42.
“I just saw that everybody went back like it was a prevent,” said Adams, who dashed 23 yards for a first down.
“That’s the added dimension Vernon brings to the table,” said Baldwin.
Two plays later, the Eagles scored on the most bizarre play of the season, as wide receiver Greg Herd ran 9 yards on a reverse, then fumbled into the hands of teammate Ashton Clark.
Clark, who caught the game-winning TD last week against Montana, took the ball the remaining 12 yards to the end zone and Eastern led 41-17 with 8:55 left in the third quarter.
For the last quarter and a half, the Eagles put away UND on the ground, finishing with 44 rushes for 290 yards, a welcome added dimension for a team that last year gained almost three-quarters of its yards through the air.
“It was really fun to run the ball like that late in the game,” Baldwin said.
Best of all, the Eagles welcomed back running back Demitrius Bronson, the apparent go-to back during fall camp until a hamstring injury held him to five carries in two previous games.
“It felt good,” Bronson said after the game. “My teammates kept saying, ‘Are you ready?’ And I took the opportunity and ran with it.”
Bronson picked up 118 yards on 13 carries, and scored the final TD of the game with 7:47 left.
None of which would have mattered if the Eastern defense didn’t toughen up a week after giving up 433 yards last week against Montana.
North Dakota took a page from that playbook, going 59 yards in barely 3 minutes to take a 7-0 lead, but the Eagles held the visitors to only 61 yards on the ground the rest of the half.
“We made couple of adjustments in how we were playing that read option,” said defensive coordinator John Graham. “The kids did what we asked of them, so it was good to see.”
Even before that, Eastern responded with Bronson’s first big run of the season, a 34-yard burst off left tackle that set up Adams’ first touchdown pass of the game, a 28-yarder that Herd caught in stride against tight coverage.
North Dakota still led 7-6 after blocking the extra-point kick and stayed with the Montana playbook, but Eastern tore it up and forced a three-and-out.
“We made a lot of adjustments,” said defensive end Paul Ena. “And that made it a little cleaner for the linebackers.”
Eastern used six plays to take the lead for good. Adams was sacked on first down at the UND 33, but dusted himself and found Clark for a 36-yard TD down the right sideline. Just as he was on the winning TD catch against Montana, Clark went untouched into the end zone.
Said Baldwin, “We went in with that mindset that we were going to be extremely aggressive.”
Trailing now 13-7, North Dakota moved 55 yards in six plays to the Eastern 20, but cornerback Donald Baines broke up a third-down pass intended for Jameer Jackson and North Dakota settled for Zeb Miller’s 37-yard field goal with just over a minute left in the first quarter.
Ten seconds later, Hill returned the kickoff for a touchdown.
Nonetheless, “I liked where we were offensively at halftime,” said UND head coach Chris Mussman. “We were one or two plays away, if we could have gotten a stop, from being in the ballgame and really making a run. We just couldn’t get a stop.”
North Dakota linebacker Derrick Goard suffered a possible neck injury in the third quarter. “I hope we don’t have to leave him here,” Mussman said. “We’ve done that before and that’s not a lot of fun.”