PULLMAN – The Eastern Washington players and coaches have been here before.
Big stadium, big crowd – and a chance to beat a Pac-12 team slipping through their fingertips in the end zone in the final seconds of the game.
With a chance to spoil the party in Pullman, the Eagles fell just short Saturday afternoon in a 24-20 loss at Washington State that left no one in the mood to celebrate a near-miss.
“I don’t believe in moral victories,” said Eastern head coach Beau Baldwin, whose club fell by three at Washington in the season opener last year. Three weeks later they were 0-4.
This time the Eagles get two weeks to think about the next game, the Big Sky Conference opener at Weber State on Sept. 22.
“Normally, I think this is too early for a bye week,” Baldwin said. “But these were two emotional weeks against local schools, FBS schools, and maybe now we can just get back to basics and clean up some things.”
Especially on offense, where the Eagles outgained WSU 469 yards to 355 but struggled to sustain drives against a defense that covered the deeper routes while also forcing quarterback Kyle Padron to scramble.
“They changed things up a little more than we saw on film, but we’ve only had a chance to see them once on film, so you’re adjusting on the run,” Baldwin said.
Padron did that all afternoon, completing 26 of 55 passes for 379 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions, the first coming on a second-quarter scramble. Flushed from the pocket, Padron overthrew and was picked off by linebacker Cyrus Coen at the Eastern 44.
Coen returned the ball to the 17, and WSU quarterback Jeff Tuel hit Isiah Myers on the next play to put the Cougars ahead 21-14.
“I can’t turn the ball over like I did today,” Padron said. “I put my team in a bad spot.”
The Eagles came away empty after two decent chances in the second quarter. Two runs by Jordan Talley put the Eagles at midfield, but after two short runs by Quincy Forte, Padron was hurried and threw incomplete on third-and-6 from the Cougars’ 46.
“We had our shots,” Baldwin said. “And we were a play or two from finishing it. That we couldn’t sustain some drives, I’m the one who has to put them in situations where we can finish those drives.”
It was the same story on defense: adjusting on the run – and to it.
Like the Cougars, the Eastern defense took away the long pass.
“We knew the route concepts they had,” All-Big Sky cornerback T.J. Lee III said. “We knew they’d get some chunks of yards on the underneath routes.”
But as the Eagles played with only three down linemen in the second half, Cougars coach Mike Leach grounded the Air Raid offense, ran between the tackles and kept the Eastern offense off the field for all but 5 minutes of the third quarter.
“And we knew he (Leach) was capable of that, not just throwing the ball.” Baldwin said.
But the Cougars blew several chances to put Eastern away in the fourth quarter, especially when facing a first-and-goal at the Eastern 2-yard-line and a chance to go up by three scores with less than 6 minutes to play. But linebacker Zach Johnson forced a fumble by running back Teondray Campbell, and safety Allen Brown, at 170 pounds the smallest player on the field, found the loose ball.
“I wanted to scoop it up, but we needed the ball, so I didn’t want to chance it,” Brown said.
The Eagles then moved 99 yards in 12 plays, capping the drive with Brandon Kaufman’s second TD reception, a 17-yarder that made it 24-20 after a blocked extra point.
Washington State recovered the onside kick, but Eastern got the ball back at its 16 with 1:29 left.
In the end it came down to making a big play, which Padron and Kaufman did in the first quarter on a 93-yard play down the right sideline. But the Cougars traded space for time, setting up Padron’s heave into the end zone from the WSU 32 with 3 seconds left.
Several players leaped for the ball, which was batted twice before it fell to the turf.
“I thought we had it,” Kaufman said. “I thought we could use that game last year (at UW) as inspiration, but we came up short again. Now we can only move forward.”