Taking what they were given, the Eagles finally grabbed everything in sight Saturday afternoon.
After a slow start, Eastern Washington tore several pages out of the South Dakota State playbook, then tore apart the Jackrabbits 41-17 in a second-round FCS playoff game at chilly Roos Field.
Against a hard-running team that doesn’t beat itself, the Eagles went out and rushed for 287 yards – including a career-high 202 from Quincy Forte – and won the turnover battle to advance to a quarterfinal game against Jacksonville State at 1 p.m. next Saturday.
“I think sometimes people look at us as a passing team because of some of the numbers we have had throwing the ball,” Eastern coach Beau Baldwin said after the Eagles ran the ball 43 times and passed just 22 times.
In the process, quarterback Vernon Adams may have had the quietest five-touchdown game in FCS playoff history.
“We are going to have those games where teams are going to play softer coverage or try to defend the pass,” Baldwin said while stressing that the 12-degree temperature at kickoff didn’t affect the plays or the execution.
“We have to be able to run the ball,” Baldwin said.
Did they ever.
Frustrated in the first half by a South Dakota State (9-5) defense that dropped as many as nine defenders into coverage, the Eagles (11-2) didn’t convert a third down until late in the first half. In the process, they ran just 26 plays and went into halftime tied at 14.
But on their second possession of the third quarter, Forte busted a 49-yard run – and burst the floodgates. Three plays later, Adams hit wide receiver Cooper Kupp on a crucial fourth-down pass. Forte then pounded ahead for two more plays to set up Adams’ 3-yard scoring pass to Zach Wimberly that made it 21-14.
Eastern added another TD after getting the ball back following a botched fake punt by South Dakota State, then got the clincher on the second play of the fourth quarter.
Facing third-and-9 from his own 31, Adams found wide receiver Cory Mitchell in single coverage along the left sideline. “It was just a great throw, right where I needed it,” said Mitchell, who slowed down after making the catch, let the defender overrun him and strolled into the end zone for a 34-17 Eastern lead.
Adams still finished with 217 yards and now has 51 touchdown passes to move into a tie with Jimmy Garoppolo of Eastern Illinois for third all-time in FCS history, just five from the record. Kupp had four catches for 90 yards and two scores, breaking the single-season Eastern record with 20 TD catches. Kupp also broke the FCS record for most touchdowns by a freshman, set by Randy Moss of Marshall in 1996.
But the night belonged to Forte, a junior from Fairfield, Calif., who carried the ball 21 times and put the final points on the board with a 20-yard run with 3:06 to play.
But he wasn’t done. When the Eagles got the ball back with a 1:40 to play and Forte sitting at 193 yards, the coaches sent him back in.
“I had no idea I was that close,” said Forte, who gained 2 yards on his next carry, then 7 more to become Eastern’s first 200-yard rusher since Taiwan Jones had 230 in a playoff game in 2010 against North Dakota State.
Forte also shattered his previous best of 123 yards.
“He deserves it,” Eastern running backs coach Kiel McDonald said.
Meanwhile, the Eagles defense held the Jackrabbits’ Zach Zenner, the leading rusher in the nation coming into the game, to just 71 yards on 21 carries.