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 Subdivision 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 berth 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, 7-0 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 QB 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 TDs 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-America 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 QB 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 John 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 the defense kept us from going down,” Baldwin said.
Kupp, a freshman from Yakima, finished with eight catches for 139 yards and two TDs. He broke the FCS freshman record with 1,231 yards.