POCATELLO – Eastern Washington’s offense was its best defense Saturday afternoon – especially when more Eagle defenders were dropping to the turf.
On the strength of the biggest offensive output in school history, the Eagles pulled away from Idaho State 55-34 in a Big Sky Conference game that sets up an even bigger one next week at Roos Field.
That will come Saturday against Montana State, which like Eastern is 5-0 in the Big Sky after a 35-28 win over Northern Colorado. The winner of that game will all but clinch the conference title and a spot in the FCS playoffs.
“I can’t wait,” said Eagles quarterback Vernon Adams, who led the Eagles to 743 yards of total offense, breaking the school record of 740 set in 1997 against Rocky Mountain.
Eastern’s coach in that game was Mike Kramer, now the head coach at Idaho State.
Adams completed 26 of 42 passes for 432 yards and five touchdowns; eight of those – for 205 yards and two scores – went to freshman receiver Cooper Kupp.
“A solid day,” said Kupp, who has 13 touchdown catches this season. Kupp closed the scoring with a sensational catch, spin and sprint for a 54-yard score.
The win was marred by the loss of starting safety Tevin McDonald, who suffered a broken left fibula in the second half. The Eagles already were without starter Allen Brown and top backup Todd Raynes, who missed Saturday’s game with hamstring injuries.
“It saddens me to see that happen,” coach Beau Baldwin said of McDonald, who transferred last spring from UCLA.
“He’s a tough-minded young man and he’ll fight back from it. I still expect him to play for us at some point this year,” said Baldwin, adding that some players may have to be moved from other positions, presumably cornerback.
The game wasn’t nearly as easy as the score indicated. The third-ranked Eagles (7-2 overall) blew an early 10-0 lead and fell behind late in the second quarter when ISU wide receiver Luke Austin made a one-handed grab for a 49-yard score and a 24-17 Bengals lead.
But Shaquille Hill returned the ensuing kickoff 80 yards, and running back Quincy Forte scored two plays later on a 4-yard pass from Adams. The defense, which gave up 392 yards in the first half, forced an ISU punt, and Adams took advantage.
Completions to Zack Gehring and Ashton Clark put the Eagles at the ISU 35, where Adams went over the top for Kupp, who made a leaping grab in the end zone to put Eastern ahead 31-24 at halftime.
“I give Idaho State credit,” Baldwin said. “We were reeling a little bit, but we found a way to get a couple of stops.”
But Idaho State (3-6, 1-5) seized back the momentum when Adams threw his only interception on the first play of the second half. The Eagles defense set the tone for the second half, holding the Bengals to a field goal.
While Eastern gave up just 142 yards and one touchdown in the second half, Adams and the offense moved 75 yards in just six plays, with Adams hitting Hill for a 44-yard touchdown that made it 38-27 in favor of Eastern.
Then came the decisive turn in the game. Idaho State drove to the Eastern 26-yard line, but Justin Arias’ pass was intercepted by linebacker Ronnie Hamlin at the 17. One play later, Forte unleashed the Eagles’ biggest run from scrimmage this season – an 83-yard dash down the right sideline for a TD that put Eastern ahead 45-27.
It was the Eagles’ ninth-longest run in school history, and the longest since Taiwan Jones had a school-record 96-yarder at Idaho State on Oct. 3, 2009.
Eastern piled up a season-high 311 yards on the ground, with Forte getting 119 of them on just six carries. Freshman Jabari Wilson, recovered from a shoulder injury that cost him a month of playing time, had six rushes for 83 yards.
“We were certainly explosive and our players made plays,” Baldwin said. We got more out of our running game, which was huge. We just have to come back and correct things from this game. Wins or losses, you have to find a way to get better the next week.”
Arias hit 44 of 64 passes for 413 yards and three scores for Idaho State, which had 566 yards of total offense – the most given up by the Eagles this year. Luke Austin had 10 catches for 177 yards.