As a wall of television cameras shielded him from the icy wind, Beau Baldwin warmed up to the subject of life at the top.
Moments after a 31-28 homecoming win over Sacramento State that was both exhilarating and confounding, Baldwin shrugged as if to say: That’s life in the Big Sky Conference. In their first game as the top-ranked team in the Football Championship Subdivision, the Eagles made just enough plays Saturday night to stay there for another week.
“We’ve played a lot of games like that,” said Baldwin after the Eagles (5-0 in the Big Sky and 6-1 overall) won their fifth straight game, four of them by six points or fewer.
“We knew it would be a battle,” Baldwin said. “We still have to go back and look at some things we can do to try to put ourselves in a better spot, but any time you have games like that against a great opponent, it is going to come down to the wire.”
It usually does against Sacramento State (5-3, 3-2 Big Sky), which had won four of its previous six games at Roos Field. The Eagles twice took 10-point leads in the second half, the last time when Brandon Kaufman reeled in a short pass from Kyle Padron and took it 52 yards for a touchdown that put the Eagles up 31-21 with just more than 11 minutes to play.
The Hornets went three-and-out on their next possession, but got another chance when Kaufman dropped a third-down ball “that hit me in the wrong spot.”
With just more than 6 minutes to play, the Hornets used three of then to drive 67 yards and close to 31-28 on a pass from backup quarterback Mason Magleby to T.J. Knowles for a 6-yard touchdown.
“They have some good athletes and they got them into space,” said Eastern defensive coordinator John Graham, whose unit gave up only 288 yards in the game but conceded two long touchdown drives in the second half.
With three minutes to play and still holding three timeouts, the Hornets disdained the onside kick but were seemingly beaten when Padron hit Greg Herd for a 26-yard gain to the 50 with less than two minutes left. The game appeared sealed on Demitrius Bronson’s 14-yard run, but a holding penalty on the play gave the Hornets one last shot, 21 seconds left at their 10-yard-line and no timeouts left.
Magleby hit Morris Norrise for 30 yards to the Eastern 45, but his heave into the end zone was batted down by Eastern safety Allen Brown.
“I was going for the pick, but then the wind got tricky on me,” Brown said. “We’ve got to be better, and we can’t have close games likes this. We gave up too much.”
They did on Sacramento State’s first drive of the game. Trailing 3-0, the Hornets moved 74 yards in 13 plays and took the lead on a 1-yard touchdown run by De’jon Coleman.
“They’re a fast team,” Eagles linebacker Ronnie Hamlin said, “but we missed a few tackles, and we’re better than that.”
Hamlin, the Big Sky Defensive Player of the Week last week against Montana State, had eight tackles. Linebacker Grant Williams, filling in for the fourth straight game for the injured Zach Johnson had a team-high 12 tackles.
Starting quarterback Vernon Adams responded with perhaps the most exciting play of the season. The Eagles were halfway to squandering a second-and-goal opportunity from the Sacramento State two early in the second quarter. A false-start penalty and a 3-yard loss on a run by Bronson brought up third-and-goal at the 10.
But Adams evaded a swarm of Hornets defenders, fought through a facemask penalty and fired a 10-yard touchdown to Greg Herd, a play that was posted on YouTube even as Pavel stepped up for the extra point.
The Hornets picked up only 21 yards and one first down the rest of the half, but were still in the game thanks to a stingy run defense. Eastern strived for a balanced offense, but picked up just 112 yards rushing on 36 carries – a mere 3.1 yards per carry.
The Eagles led 13-7 at halftime on Pavel’s 40-yard field goal.
The Hornets went three-and-out on their first possession of the second half, but got the ball back when Adams’s third-down pass to Greg Herd was tipped by linebacker Jeff Badger at the 28 and intercepted by defensive back Markell Williams.
Starting from their 14, the Hornets picked up a first down at the 3, but were stuffed on two straight runs before Safron rolled out on third down and found Morris Norrisse alone on the right edge of the end zone.
Trailing now 14-13, Adams drove the Eagles 52 yards in five plays, including a 22-yard completion to Herd, and two plays later, a 26-yarder to Herd. A two-point conversion pass to Edwards gave Eastern a 21-14 lead with 8:05 left in the third quarter.
For the game, Herd had nine catches for 109 yards and two touchdowns, while Kaufman caught six balls for 102 yards and one TD.
“Our guys do such a good job of responding,” Baldwin said. “Things are not always going to be perfect. So we go down 14-13 after the pick and they score, but we respond.”
Five plays later the Eagles were back in business at midfield after another Hornet three and out and a 24-yard punt. In his last series of the night, Adams was sacked at the Hornet 29, but Pavel’s third field goal, a career-high 47-yarder, made it 24-14.
“I had some great blocks, and (Jake) Potter snapped it great and Vernon got the ball right down,” said Pavel, who hit all three field goals easily through the uprights despite winds that sometimes exceeded 20 mph.
For Pavel and everyone else, it was just another obstacle to overcome, not elevated or lessened, Baldwin said, but the No. 1 ranking.
“Once you get going and the game starts, nothing really changes,” said Baldwin, who added that he appreciated the “energy” of the hardy Homecoming crowd of 8,714. “We love the crowd. It’s big for us. We’re human and we’re going to feed off that.”
Which makes life at the top that much more fun.