Eastern Washington didn’t rise to the occasion until it was almost too late.
The Eagles seem to like it that way.
With a chance to win their first undisputed Big Sky Conference football title in 16 years – and on Senior Day, to boot – they wrung every ounce of drama out of their final regular-season game of the year Saturday at chilly Roos Field.
Scoring two touchdowns in the final two minutes, the Eagles finally overcame Portland State, 42-41, before being overcome by their own emotions as players, coaches and fans stormed the field.
As they did, senior cornerback Ronald Baines fell to his knees in gratitude. The senior from Tacoma had two interceptions, plus the game-ending tackle at the Eagles’ 23-yard line.
“It’s a great feeling that we put all that hard work, all season, to just keep making plays and doing our jobs,” Baines said.
As fun as that job is, the Eagles get a break for Thanksgiving. Guaranteed a high seed for the upcoming FCS playoffs, the third-ranked Eagles (10-2 overall, 8-0 in the Big Sky), earned a first-round bye and a second-round home game on Dec. 7.
“I give credit to all the players for battling and especially the seniors, and not just for battling today, but for battling the whole year to get to this point,” Eastern coach Beau Baldwin said.
In the end, the win came down to making plays against against a Portland State team that threw everything it had at the Eagles on both sides of the ball.
For much of the game, the Vikings (6-6, 3-5) blitzed on defense, shutting down the Eagles’ running game. On offense, they opened a season’s worth of trick plays and led for almost the entire game.
With a chance to run the table in the Big Sky Conference, the Eagles instead were running back to the locker room to regroup, trailing 21-7 after a lackluster first half.
For quarterback Vernon Adams, that meant “taking easier passes and letting my playmakers make plays, and not getting greedy.”
After another dominant third quarter – the Eagles have given up just three points in that period in their last five games – Eastern forged a 21-21 tie and apparently seized the momentum.
But the Vikings, who finished with 603 yards of offense, regained the lead with 13:56 left in the game on Kasey Closs’s third touchdown catch of the game.
The Eagles pulled even 4 minutes later on Cooper Kupp’s 18-yard catch from Adams, only to see PSU running back D.J. Adams get 10 of his game-leading 150 yards on a scoring run with 5:43 to play.
PSU got the ball back with 4:42 left after forcing another three-and-out, but on third-and-5, Baines made a diving interception to set the Eagles up at midfield.
Two incompletions later, Adams passed on the sideline to Kupp, who ran down the field only to have the ball stripped and recovered by the Vikings at their 11-yard line.
It was the Eagles’ fourth turnover of the game.
“I felt like I let the team down a little bit,” Kupp said.
At that point, the Vikings merely needed to run 3:17 off the clock, but Eagles defenders Cody McCarthy and Evan Day stuffed D.J. Adams on third-and-5 to force a punt.
Three plays later, Vernon Adams found running back Quincy Forte alone on the left flat for an easy 13-yard score and the game was tied at 35 with 1:44 to play. “That was a great call by coach Baldwin, and I was wide open,” Forte said of his third TD of the game.
But the Vikings opened up their run-oriented offense, with backup QB Collin Ramirez firing a 29-yard TD pass to Victor Dean.
Then Kinsella missed the extra point, and Eastern trailed 41-35 with exactly a minute to play.
Forte turned to Adams on the sideline. “I said Vern, that’s all we need. And he said, ‘Let’s go get that win,’ ” Forte said.
Starting from his own 26, Adams found Kupp for 25 yards and true freshman Kendrick Bourne for 34 more, to the PSU 15. The Vikings called timeout with 36 seconds left and EWU called Kupp’s number.
“I was just hoping for another chance to make up for the fumble,” Kupp said.