OGDEN, Utah – The secret is out: This will be another wild football season at Eastern Washington.
From a surprise start by redshirt freshman quarterback Vernon Adams to the game-clinching fumble recovery by local hero Will Katoa, the Eagles kept everyone on seat’s edge during a 32-26 win over Weber State here Saturday night.
Minutes after the game ended, a fireworks show began, but it couldn’t match the Big Sky Conference opener for both teams.
“We’ve dealt with this in the past,” said EWU head coach Beau Baldwin, whose ninth-ranked Eagles are 2-1 entering next week’s home opener against Montana.
“We always seem to find a way to get ourselves in close games.”
This one ended the same as last year’s win over the Wildcats, as Eastern clung to a six-point lead in the final seconds before forcing the game-deciding fumble.
This time the hero was defensive end Jerry Ceja, who chased Weber State quarterback Mike Hoke at the 50-yard-line and slammed the ball to the turf, where it was recovered by lineman Katoa with 34 seconds left.
While Salt Lake City native Katoa was posing for pictures with dozens of relatives – “He was grabbing every ticket he could this week,” Baldwin said – Ceja was on the field.
“The whole defense has been taught to make make that effort, to make those big plays,” Ceja said.
Baldwin made perhaps the biggest play before the game started, giving Adams his first collegiate start. “I left that a real secret, didn’t I?” said Baldwin, who started Southern Methodist transfer Kyle Padron in the Eagles’ first two games against Idaho and Washington State.
Certainly the Weber State defense got the biggest surprise; the Wildcats couldn’t cope with the elusive Adams, who twice scrambled for first downs as the Eagles took an early 10-point lead while mixing the pass and run.
On the Eagles’ first possession, Edwards faced a third-and-11 from his own 24, but scrambled 14 yards to the Eastern 38, leaving half a dozen defenders in his wake.
Four plays later, he found Greg Herd for 25 yards, setting up Jordan Talley’s 6-yard touchdown run.
“I was excited,” said Adams who completed seven of 12 pass attempts for 75 yards and also gained 62 yards on the ground.
“I wish I could have gotten more throws off, but if they’re going to give it to me, I’m going to take it.”
So did the defense, which kept the Wildcats out of the red zone for the first half while taking a 20-3 lead into halftime. On Weber’s second possession, cornerback T.J. Lee III got a triple play – sacking Hoke, forcing a fumble and recovering the ball.
“I was basically baiting (Hoke) on the play,” Lee explained. “Then I backed off, read the cadence, jumped the cadence and pretty much dived on the ball and made the play.”
After that fumble, Adams confronted another key situation, but on third-and-7, he weaved past the defense again for 24 yards to the Weber State 39. The drive stalled, but Jimmy Pavel’s 25-yard field goal put Eastern ahead 10-0 with 2:15 left in the first quarter.
Talley did most of the work in the Eagles’ second touchdown drive, which ended with his 7-yard TD run with 5:40 left in the half.
The teams traded field goals before intermission, with Pavel’s 19-yarder giving Eastern a 20-3 lead at halftime.
Eastern had only a slight yardage advantage at the half – 218 yards to 181 – but every time Weber’s offense smelled the red zone, the Eagle defense sniffed out what was coming next.
But no one could know that Adams, the victim of cramps, would have to yield to Padron in the second half. Padron’s second throw was intercepted, and one play later Hoke found Lanny Papanikolas for a 28-yard touchdown. After a successful conversion run, the lead was 20-11 and the momentum shifted to Weber State.
But even in a backup role Padron gradually found his form. After safety Jeff Minnerly’s interception led to another Pavel field goal, Padron found Brandon Kaufman for a 23-yard touchdown that seemed to put the game out of reach.
At that point, Eastern led 29-11 with 1:47 left in the third quarter.
“Kyle stepped in and made some huge throws,” said Baldwin.
But so did Hoke, who hit Xavian Johnson for a 71-yard catch-and-run down the sideline, setting up C.J. Tuckett’s 1-yard TD run. After another successful two-point conversion, the lead was trimmed to 29-19 on the final play of the third quarter.
“I’m really pleased with the way we came back in the second half,” said Weber State head coach Jody Sears, a former defensive coordinator at EWU. “We flushed that first half.”
But Padron answered with a 15-play drive that consumed 6 minutes and 25 seconds and ended with Pavel’s fourth field goal, a 27-yarder that extended the lead to 32-19 with just 6:25 to play.
Padron was 11 for 17 for 149 yards, a touchdown and an interception.
Hoke came right back, directing Weber to a 13-play drive that somehow used up just 21/2 minutes and cut the Eastern lead to 32-26. Wideout Mike Walker got behind the Eastern secondary for an 18-yard touchdown.
The Eagles stalled in their final possession, giving the ball back to Weber before the Wildcats handed it back to Ceja and Katoa to end the game.
“Ultimately, we need the ability to just finish,” Baldwin said. “We were close to finishing it, and the next thing the game is a lot closer.”
Which, as Eagle fans know, is hardly a secret.
In the first quarter, the Eagles lost linebacker Zach Johnson (hamstring) and wide receiver Nick Edwards (knee). The severity of the injuries was unknown at press time.