GRAND FORKS, N.D. – Big plays aren’t just for quarterbacks anymore.
The Eastern Washington defense finally joined the fun Saturday afternoon, seizing two late turnovers and the momentum in a 35-14 win over North Dakota.
After this one, the school may need a few more links on its “BigplayVA.com” web site dedicated to the exploits of quarterback Vernon Adams. With the game on the line, it was Eastern’s defense that turned a close game into a runaway.
“It feels awesome,” said All-American Eagle cornerback T.J. Lee III, who had two of the Eagles’ four takeaways.
Momentum took a while to shift in Eastern’s direction. Even in the comfort of a dome for the first time in over a year, the sixth-ranked Eagles didn’t found their comfort zone in the Alerus Center until late in the game.
With two minutes left in the third quarter, a 15-point Eastern lead had dwindled to 21-14 and North Dakota had just returned a punt to the Eastern 40. The hosts picked up a first down to the Eagle 24, but a sack and a penalty set up third and 22 – and an opportunity for the Eagle defense.
Another All-American, Eastern linebacker Ronnie Hamlin, seized it with authority. Dropping back into coverage, he snagged an underthrown ball at his own 23, then followed a wall of blockers down the right sideline for a 77-yard score.
“I’m always joking with the coaches, that if I get a pick again, I’m going to try everything to score,” said Hamlin of his first career pick-6.
“I was just so happy when Ronnie scored,” said Lee, who was part of Hamlin’s convoy.
The Eagles had forced just six turnovers in five games going into this game; now the ledger stands at 10 – a big reason Eastern improved to 4-2 overall and 2-0 in the Big Sky Conference going into next week’s homecoming game against Southern Utah.
Said coach Beau Baldwin, “Whenever you can score on defense and create the turnovers we did, you give yourself a better chance to win.”
“We work on it all the time in practice, we stress it and we talk about it. We were able to force turnovers today that maybe have eluded us in the first few weeks.” Baldwin said.
If North Dakota’s momentum was stalled on Hamlin’s play, it was thrown completely in Eastern’s direction in on the next series.
Back on the field after the kickoff, the Eagle defense made perhaps the deciding play of the game. North Dakota picked up three straight first downs to reach the Eagle 27 before quarterback Joe Mollberg found receiver Kenny Golladay for a short gain up the middle.
Surrounded by Eastern defenders, Golladay rumbled forward to the 10, where safety Tevin McDonald stripped the ball and Lee recovered.
“I was trying to get it for a while, that’s why he (Golladay) was dragging us, but I finally got the tip of the ball and stripped it out,” McDonald said.
Three plays later, Adams rejoined the fun, hitting Ashton Clark for a 54-yard pass to set up the clinching touchdown, Mario Brown’s 3-yard run that put the Eagles ahead 35-14 with 7:49 left in the game.
Until then, North Dakota (2-4 overall, 1-2 in the Big Sky) had tested Eastern’s resilience on both sides of the ball.
While getting shut out in the first quarter for the first time this season, Eastern trailed 3-0 while getting outgained 108 to 43. But early in the second quarter, the Eastern defense forced a three and out thanks to a quarterback hurry by backup tackle Matthew Sommer, and Adams came alive.
Two plays after a shanked punt set Eastern up at midfield, Adams scrambled for 10 yards and was hit out of bounds by cornerback Chavon Mackey. That put the Eagles at the UND 17, and five plays later Adams hit Shaquille Hill for a 5-yard touchdown on third down.
North Dakota closed the gap to 7-6 on a 45-yard field goal, but Adams found Cooper Kupp down the sideline for 58 yards to set up Quincy Forte’s dramatic fourth-down, 1-yard touchdown run on the final play of the half.
The Eagles were seemingly in control early in the third quarter after a wide-open Kupp capped a nine-play, 77-yard drive with a 1-yard scoring catch to make it 21-6.
“This was a grudge match early on, and you have to weather those storms and find a way to get a lead,” Baldwin said. “And we were able to score to start the second half, which was big.”
But UND responded with the longest drive of the day, a 12-play, 91-yard journey that ended with Adam Shaugabay’s 1-yard TD run and a 2-point conversion by Blair Townsend to make it 21-14 with 5:38 left in the third quarter.
Adams had another big day, completing 22 of 30 passes for 307 yards and two touchdowns. He was sacked twice and fumbled twice, but recovered both.
Clark had seven catches for a game-high 116 yards.
For UND, Mollberg was 33 for 45 for 355 yards, but was sacked five times.