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 on 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 QB Mike Hoke at the 50-yard-line and slammed the ball to the turf, where it was recovered by lineman Katoa, a native of Salt Lake City, with 34 seconds left.
“The whole defense has been taught to 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 WSU.
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 24 but scrambled 14 yards to the Eastern 38-yard line.
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 7 of 12 pass attempts for 75 yards and also gained 62 yards on the ground.
Eastern’s defense kept the Wildcats out of the red zone 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.
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 EWU ahead 10-0 with 2:15 left in the first quarter.
Talley did most of the work in the Eagles’ second TD 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 TD. After a successful conversion run, the lead was 20-11.
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 TD that seemed to put the game out of reach.
At that point, Eastern led 29-11 with 1:47 left in the third quarter.
Hoke then hit Xavian Johnson for a 71-yard catch-and-run down the sideline, setting up C.J. Tuckett’s 1-yard TD run and a two-point conversion to trim the lead to 29-19.
“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 6:25 and ended with Pavel’s fourth field goal, a 27-yarder that extended the lead to 32-19.
Padron was 11 for 17 for 149 yards, a TD and a pick.
Hoke then hit Mike Walker for an 18-yard score to cut the lead to 32-26.
Northern Arizona 41, Montana 31: Zach Bauman rushed for 253 yards and three TDs and the Lumberjacks (3-1, 1-0) forced five turnovers in Missoula en route to their first victory over the Grizzlies (2-2, 0-1) in 15 years.
Montana State 41, Northern Colorado 16: DeNarius McGhee passed for 387 yards and two TDs to propel the Bobcats (4-0, 1-0) to a win over the Bears (1-3, 0-1) in Bozeman.
Southern Utah 49, Portland State 42: Lavell Ika scored the go-ahead TD on a 1-yard dive with 1:35 left, and the Thunderbirds (2-2, 1-0) stopped the Vikings (1-3, 1-1) at the 1-yard line on the final play to hold on for a victory in Portland.
Cal Poly 28, UC Davis 20: Deonte Williams ran for 188 yards and three TDs and Akaninyene Umoh scored on a 51-yard romp to power the Mustangs (3-0, 1-0) to a win over the Aggies (1-3, 0-1) in San Luis Obispo, Calif.
North Dakota 35, Sacramento State 13: The Fighting Sioux (3-1) dominated the Hornets (2-2) in the second and third quarters en route to a win in Sacramento, Calif.