In this game, necessity was the mother of prevention.
With Eastern Washington running out of safeties and the coaches running out of options for a big game against Montana State, they turned this week to All-America cornerback T.J. Lee III.
Four days later, Lee turned into a free safety – a position he’d never played – and finished with a game-high 14 tackles and the game’s only interception in Saturday’s 54-29 Eagles win.
Lee made the switch after the Eagles lost starting safety Tevin McDonald to a broken fibula last week at Idaho State. That came on top of injuries the previous week to Allen Brown and Todd Raynes.
“It’s really not that easy,” Lee said after the game. “It took a lot of hard work with the coaches and it took me staying in there in the film room, getting brain-dead and then coming back the next day and doing it again.”
By Saturday, Lee said, “I just had to come out and play.”
Lee wasn’t the only one. Another corner, Miles Weatheroy, moved to strong safety, while field cornerback Ronald Baines moved to boundary corner and backup Bo Schuetzle moved up to the starting role at field cornerback.
If that sounds confusing, it wasn’t to the Eagles involved.
“It was really smooth because it was pretty much all corners out there,” said Schuetzle, who said everyone was on the same page – even if the names had changed.
It also didn’t hurt that “T.J. is just a natural at whatever he does,” Schuetzle said.
Playing against two-time Big Sky Offensive MVP DeNarius McGhee and a punishing ground game, the Eagles gave up 151 yards rushing and 270 total yards by halftime. By game’s end, the Bobcats had 504 total yards, but got only 55 on the ground in the second half.
The new-look secondary did its part; Weatheroy added eight tackles and Baines had seven.
Schuetzle had five more, including one of the game’s biggest. With MSU trailing 47-29 miday through the fourth quarter and facing fourth-and-8 at the Eastern 35, Schuetzle tackled receiver Tanner Broderick two yards short of the first-down marker.
“We’d seen that play on film over and over,” Schuetzle said. “I finally saw it and I got the break on it.”
Adams’ big day
Eastern quarterback Vernon Adams isn’t the same quarterback who struggled last year in Bozeman.
“I’m more mature now,” said Adams, who on Saturday calmly picked apart the Bobcats for 300 yards, no interceptions and a pass-efficiency rating of 302. He nearly broke the Big Sky and school record of 310.4 set by Eastern’s Mark Tenneson against Sonoma State in 1992.
His four touchdown passes give him 38 and broke the school record of 37 set by Bo Levi Mitchell in 2010. Adams now ranks second in Big Sky history behind the 42 that Brian Ah Yat had in 1996 for Montana. It also ranks 14th in FCS history.
“Vernon was special and the receivers were special,” Eagles coach Beau Baldwin said. “I didn’t realize (Vernon) had just two incompletions – that is impressive. That is just the type of player he is. He keeps getting better, and he keeps working at it.”
Now 16-3 as a starter at EWU, it was the ninth 300-yard passing game of his career. He also had his second-most rushing yards with 76, giving him a total of 376 yards of total offense in the game.
Eastern ran only 48 plays on the afternoon – the fewest of the season – but still gained 591 yards against a Bobcats defense that ranked second in the conference.
That averages out to 12.3 yards a play, easily topping the previous season high of 9.6 last week at Idaho State. It also broke the conference record for yards per play, 11.1 set by Northern Arizona against Portland State in 2010.
Until Saturday, MSU was giving up just 5.0 yards per play in conference games.
For the fourth time this season, the Eagles ran it more than they passed – 28 times for 244 yards.
Twice as nice
Combined with a 42-37 win at Montana two weeks ago, the Eagles have back-to-back sweeps of the Montana schools for the first time since 1992.
Last year, the Eagles beat the Grizzlies 32-26 in Cheney, then upset MSU 27-24 in Bozeman.
The win also avenged a 36-21 home loss to the Bobcats in 2011 – Eastern’s first loss on the red turf.
Eastern is 21-3 at the Inferno.