SAN LUIS OBISPO, Calif. – The final score doesn’t show it, but Eastern Washington earned this one the hard way.
Overcoming a listless first quarter, poor field position all day, and the loss of quarterback Vernon Adams early in the second half, the Eagles still managed to overhaul Cal Poly 35-22 Saturday afternoon.
One more win, in the regular-season finale next week against Portland State, and the third-ranked Eagles can expect the road to Frisco and the Football Championship Sub-division title game to take a major detour through Cheney for the second year in a row.
In the process, third-ranked Eastern clinched at least a share of the Big Sky Conference championship, its third in the last four years under head coach Beau Baldwin. Eastern has clinched the conference’s automatic bid for the playoffs.
“It’s hard to win one Big Sky title, let alone three out of the last four years,” Baldwin said after the game, played in front of 6,847 fans on Homecoming weekend. “That’s amazing, and I’m just proud of all the people who are a part of making that happen.”
It didn’t happen immediately. Like a slow-starting engine – they were shut out in the second quarter for only the second time this season – the Eagles finally pulled out of the station and pulled away in the third quarter, padding a 14-3 halftime lead with three big scoring plays. The clincher was running back Mario Brown’s 34-yard scoring run against an all-out blitz, putting the game out of reach at 35-3 with 18 minutes still left to play.
Adams was long gone by then, slightly injuring his throwing shoulder on a 24-yard scoring pass to Cooper Kupp barely two minutes into the third quarter.
“It was a stinger, but he’ll be fine.” Baldwin said. “He might have been able to play, but we just thought we would do the smart thing moving forward.”
Indeed, the Eagles (9-2 overall, 7-0 in the Big Sky) went fast forward in the third quarter. After the defense forced a punt at midfield, the Eagles scored again in just five plays as backup quarterback Anthony Vitto found Shaquille Hill for a 54-yard score down the left sideline and a 28-3 lead midway through the third quarter.
Meanwhile, the defense slowly got the better of Cal Poly’s triple option. The Mustangs returned the opening kickoff to the Eagle 44-yard line, then settled for a 22-yard field goal, but didn’t score again until they notched three cosmetic touchdowns against the Eastern backups.
After giving up 96 yards on the Mustangs’ first two possessions, Eastern gave up just 146 yards in the middle quarters.
“We were basic in our play-calling,” said T.J. Lee, the All-American cornerback who was playing at safety for the second game in a row.
“They did exactly what we thought they were going to do,” Lee said.
Even when the Mustangs came out of their shell, the Eagles made them pay. Cornerback Bo Schuetzle, moving over to fill Lee’s spot at corner, made two interceptions, including a drive-killer late in the first half.
Cal Poly had first and 10 at the Eastern 43 when quarterback Dano Graves threw a sideline pass that was deflected by linebacker Miquiyah Zamora and picked off by Schuetzle.
“There’s been a lot of opportunities, and I’ve been lucky enough to capitalize on them,” said Schuetzle. “All this hard work in practice and it’s finally paying off.”
Tough defense came in handy on a day when the Eagles were saddled with their worst collective field position of the season. Their first five drives began on their own 16, 36, 4, 10 and 31-yard lines, and they managed just 17 yards in their first two possessions.
Meanwhile, Cal Poly started three of its first five series at its own 40 or beyond.
“Our defense got better as it went along,” Baldwin said, crediting defensive coordinator Gary Graham and his staff for keeping the Mustangs, the top rushing team in FCS, out of the end zone for 50 minutes.
“We got into a little bit of a grind, and because the defense was doing what they were doing early in the game, they kept us from going down. If they weren’t playing their best football, we would have gone behind,” Baldwin said.
Instead, the Eagles marched 96 yards and a score on their third possession. After Adams hit a trio of first-down passes to Mitchell and Clark, Quincy Forte found a hole vacated by a blitz and ran outouched 37 yards for a 7-3 Eastern lead.
“They came with the blitz really hard, but our O-line sorted it out and then we beat them with speed,” said Forte, who finished with 63 yards on 14 carries.
That set the tone for the offense, which finished with 486 total yards, including 351 through the air. Eastern’s scoring drives covered 96, 70, 65, 70 and 80 yards.
Said Cal Poly coach Tim Walsh, “They really didn’t drive the ball against us. They made big plays, and they did a good job of knowing when we were bringing some pressure.”