CEDAR CITY, Utah – After living most of this season on the edge, Eastern Washington finally lost its footing.
Getting back up won’t take long, EWU quarterback Kyle Padron said after the top-ranked Eagles suffered a 30-27 upset loss to Southern Utah here Saturday afternoon.
“You really don’t have a choice,” Padron said. “Tomorrow we’ll be a little bitter, but we’ll be ready next week.”
That’s when the Eagles host Cal Poly in a nonconference game with implications that are now even bigger for the Eagles, who fell to 6-2 overall and 5-1 in the Big Sky Conference with three games left in the regular season. Another loss and the Eagles can probably forget about a first-round bye in the FCS playoffs.
“We just have to stay positive,” Padron said. “Maybe this will be the best thing that could happen to us.”
Even as Padron said those words, head coach Beau Baldwin tried to console running back Demitrius Bronson, whose fumble early in the fourth quarter was only one of several turning points in a game that included five ties and wasn’t decided until Colton Cook’s 36-yard field goal for Southern Utah with 3 seconds left.
Perhaps the odds evened out Saturday. The Thunderbirds finally won a close one after three narrow losses. And the Eagles, after winning four of their last five by six points or less, finally saw the other guys “make one or two plays more than we did,” Baldwin said.
Mostly that was All-American quarterback Brad Sorensen, who threw for 392 yards to rally the Thunderbirds (4-5, 3-3) to one of the biggest wins in school history.
“It’s fantastic to send the seniors off like they deserved,” Southern Utah coach Ed Lamb said.
While the Thunderbirds were celebrating, the Eagles were left to ponder the what-ifs of a confounding fourth quarter that saw Eastern’s offense come away empty on its last three possessions:
With the Eagles leading 27-20 with 14 minutes left, Bronson fumbled at the 12 and the T-Birds recovered, only the second lost fumble of the season for the Eagles.
With EWU ahead by the same score 4 minutes later, Padron threw a sure first-down ball that wide receiver Nick Edwards lost in the setting sun. It was Eastern’s last chance to take a two-score lead.
Tied at 27 with 5 minutes left and driving, it was Kaufman’s turn to lose the ball in the sun. Three plays later, kicker Jimmy Pavel was wide left on a 37-yard field goal – his first miss of the year – with 2:51 to play.
From there, the T-Birds consumed all but the final 3 seconds, driving 61 yards in 10 plays to set up Cook’s winning field goal.
“A few times we made some mistakes, especially going in to score,” Baldwin said. “But you have to hand it to them, too. Sometimes teams will force you into some mistakes as well.
“It was just a good, hard-fought battle.”
Southern Utah landed the first punch in the first quarter. On their second possession, the Eagles picked up three straight first downs to the Southern Utah 37, but a sack and an illegal-formation penalty, followed by two incomplete passes, brought up fourth-and-19 at the Thunderbirds’ 42.
Southern Utah’s Miles Killebrew crashed through the right side of the protection, blocked Jake Miller’s punt, then scooped it up at the EWU 41 and raced into the end zone.
The TD was Southern Utah’s first opening-quarter TD of the season, and marked the second time in as many games that the Eagles had a punt blocked.
“We knew they had a very solid punt team, but we just knew that if we worked hard and hit the gaps … we would have a good chance at blocking the punt and that’s what happened,” Killebrew said.
It almost got worse on the Eagles’ next possession. On second-and-11 at his 11, Adams overthrew Kaufman on the right sideline and LeShaun Sims’ diving interception put the T-Birds in business at the 28. But Eastern’s defense held, and three plays later, Cook pushed a 42-yard field-goal attempt wide left.
Padron replaced Adams on the Eagles’ next possession. After an exchange of punts, he directed the Eagles on a six-play, 80-yard touchdown drive capped by a 14-yard pass to Nick Edwards. It was Edwards’ first TD catch of the season after getting a school-record 19 last season.
The Eagles’ defense was on the field for the 14 plays on Southern Utah’s next offensive series, conceding 68 yards but keeping the Thunderbirds out of the end zone on four plays inside the 8-yard-line.
Both defenses clamped down against the run as Cook and Pavel each kicked a pair of first-half field goals. Pavel’s second kick tied the game at 13 just 2 seconds before halftime.
Eastern seized the momentum early in the third quarter, when defensive end Jerry Ceja hauled down Sorensen for an 8-yard loss, his team-leading ninth sack of the year.
Adams started the second half, leading the Eagles on a four-play, 53-yard drive capped by Bronson’s 4-yard TD run. The Eagles were poised to get the ball back when Sorensen dropped back on third-and-8 from his 16. His pass was deflected at the line, then dropped toward Southern Utah receiver Fatu Moala. The ball may have hit the turf before it hit Moala’s hands, but officials ruled the pass complete. Two plays later, Sorensen three a 46-yard completion to C.J. Morgan, the longest play from scrimmage for either team. Less than a minute later, Lavell Ika ran for a 1-yard touchdown that forged the fourth tie (20-20) of the game.
Adams needed one minute to give Eastern a 27-20 lead, hitting Ashton Clark in stride and untouched on a post route that covered 18 yards into the end zone.
Adams started both halves and finished 11 of 15 for 181 yards and a score. Padron relieved him and was 24 of 35 for 223 yards. Both quarterbacks were sacked twice.
“It’s the same thinking I had last week (in a 31-28 win over Sacramento State),” Baldwin said. “Even in the first half, I think it worked out pretty well, where Kyle gave us a spark in the second quarter, so we had planned that, but I don’t think that was the difference (in the game.)”
Kaufman finished with 10 catches and 192 yards, both career highs. Clark had a career-high 11 catches for 86 yards and a touchdown, with his catch total ranking 12th in school history. Linebacker Ronnie Hamlin had 13 tackles and T.J. Lee added nine with a sack.
Safety McKenzie Murphy, playing with a padded cast on his left arm, intercepted Sorensen deep in Eastern territory to stall a SUU drive in the third quarter. Murphy broke his thumb against North Dakota and subsequently had surgery. He played against SUU after missing the Montana State and Sacramento State games.