On a perfect day for football, the Eagles almost lived up to the occasion Saturday night.
Eastern Washington finally found some perfection in the third quarter in a 41-19 win over Weber State before 9,734 fans at Roos Field.
The underdog Wildcats were hanging around after halftime when Eastern’s defense forced a trio of three-and-outs, while the offense forged a pair of run-heavy drives that put the Big Sky Conference opener beyond doubt.
“It wasn’t a perfect game, and it never is,” head coach Beau Baldwin said of the defense, which was in an ornery mood after back-to-back losses to Toledo and Sam Houston State.
Six-ranked Eastern led 27-12 at halftime, then punted on its first series of the third quarter. After the defense got the ball back, EWU quarterback Vernon Adams returned the favor with an interception at the Weber 22.
But the defense bailed out the offense again, and this time the Eagles took full advantage in an eight-play, 65-yard drive that included just two passes. Running back Demitrius Bronson capped the series with a 9-yard run to make it 34-12 with 5:34 left in the third quarter.
Through three quarters, which was all that mattered on this night, Eastern outgained Weber State 439-188. In contrast to the loss at Sam Houston State, the linebackers were making most of the tackes; Cody McCarthy had nine and Ronnie Hamlin had eight.
“That was awesome,” Baldwin said. “I was really looking to come out and score in one of those first two drives in the second half, and until we get a drive to put us up by three scores, that was a tribute to those (defensive) guys, and they responded.”
After another Weber three-and-out, the Eagles all but put this one away with a 9-play, 71-yard series led by resurgent running back Mario Brown.
Brown’s 28-yard run carried the Eagles past midfield to the Weber 30, then he caught two passes from Adams, including a 6-yard touchdown to make it 41-12.
In all, the Eagles got at least six carries from four different backs – five, if you count Adams, who gained 74 yards on nine scrambles.
Brown led the way, gaining 90 yards on 10 carries. Bronson added 42 more, including two scores.
“We have a stable of backs who bring so many things to the table,” said Brown, a big part of the 2010 national championship team, who redshirted last year because of injury.
“Everybody knows Eastern is a passing team, at least that’s what people make it seem, but we can be a running team too,” Brown said.
On the night, Eastern passed 29 times for 194 yards, but ran 44 times for a season-high 279.
“I just think that we just have to keep feeding it (to the running backs),” Baldwin said. “I want to continue to keep that balance, and the more balance we have the better chance we have for big plays.”
The Eagles were as crisp as the fall afternoon in their first two series on both sides of the ball. Two Weber State three-and-outs were matched by 50- and 29-yard touchdown passes from Adams to Cooper Kupp.
But the Eagles could afford to be less than perfect against a struggling Weber State team that had been outscored 214-22 in its four previous games. Suddenly, they were just that. A personal-foul penalty helped Weber cross midfield before punting, and Adams fumbled at his own 21 on the Eagles’ next offensive play.
“I just have to be smarter with the ball,” said Adams, who completed 16-of-23 passes for 194 yards and four touchdowns.
The Wildcats pounced on the next play, with true freshman quarterback Austin Chipoletti hitting Erik Walker for a 21-yard touchdown.
The Eagles regained a two-score lead on Adams’ 14-yard scoring pass to Ashton Clark, but Weber responded with the longest drive of the night for either team, a 13-play, 75-yard series.
Josh Booker’s 1-yard touchdown run made it 20-12, but Eastern went ahead 27-12 just before halftime on a 2-yard scramble by Adams.