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 football win over North Dakota.
After this one, the school may need a few more links on its “BigplayVA.com” website 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 Eagles 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 more than a year, the sixth-ranked Eagles didn’t find their comfort zone in the Alerus Center until late in the game.
With 2 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 Eagles’ 24, but a sack and a penalty set up third-and-22 – and an opportunity for the Eagles’ defense.
Another All-American, Eastern linebacker Ronnie Hamlin, seized it with authority. Dropping back into coverage, he snagged an underthrown ball at his 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,” Hamlin said of his first career returned interception for a TD.
“I was just so happy when Ronnie scored,” said Lee, who was part of Hamlin’s convoy.
The Eagles had forced 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.
“Whenever you can score on defense and create the turnovers we did, you give yourself a better chance to win,” EWU coach Beau Baldwin said.
“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 added.
If North Dakota’s momentum was stalled on Hamlin’s play, it was thrown completely in Eastern’s direction on the next series.
Back on the field after the kickoff, the Eagles’ defense made perhaps the deciding play of the game. North Dakota picked up three straight first downs to reach EWU’s 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 Eagles 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, 1-2) had tested Eastern’s resilience on both sides of the ball.
“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.”
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.
Mollberg was 33 of 45 for 355 yards but was sacked five times.