Meaningful snaps, they call them, when the freshmen get to play with the game on the line.
This time, they meant even more.
In a game that was as much a coming-out party as Homecoming, the newcomers made some of the biggest plays in the Eagles’ 34-10 win over Southern Utah on Saturday night.
From Samson Ebukam’s improbable pick-6 to Kendrick Bourne’s long touchdown catch, the fourth-ranked Eagles got a big lift from the young guys before the usual suspects took it from there in front of a sellout crowd of 10,135 at Roos Field.
“It’s a whole new level of adrenaline rush,” said Ebukam, a true freshman from Portland by way of Nigeria, and now heading to Montana and an even bigger rush after the Eagles improved to 3-0 in the Big Sky Conference and 5-2 overall.
“Griz Week,” as the Eagles players call it, has already begun.
“We needed that before Montana,” said Eastern defensive tackle Dylan Zylstra, whose bull-rush of Southern Utah quarterback Aaron Cantu led to the Eagles’ first touchdown midway through the first quarter.
Zylstra broke past two blockers, hoping Cantu would “hold it just a little longer” so Zylstra could get the sack.
Meanwhile, Ebukam was “just doing my assignment and looking at the running back” when the ball sailed from Cantu’s hand. “It was in the air a couple feet away, and I said there’s no way I’m going to drop it or I’m going to hear about it for a long time,” Ebukam said.
Instead, Ebukam heard nothing but cheers from the seventh-largest crowd in Roos Field history as he returned the ball 21 yards for the first score of the game.
“That’s pretty cool for a freshman to get a touchdown like that,” Zylstra marveled.
It happened again early in the second quarter. Leading 14-3 at halftime but shut out in the second quarter, the Eagles got the ball back midway through the third quarter. Quarterback Vernon Adams directed perhaps the best drive of the night, capping an eight-play, 85-yard march with a 31-yard scoring pass to Bourne.
“They were playing outside press, so I just took it inside and I was open, and Vernon hit me with a nice pass,” said Bourne, a true freshman from Milwaukie, Ore., who was listed as questionable with an ankle injury.
That made it 21-3, and the Eagles pulled away behind an aggressive defense and another big day from freshman wide receiver Cooper Kupp, who caught 11 balls for 168 yards, including a 52-yard TD catch that put the Eagles ahead 27-3 less than three minutes after Bourne’s TD.
Only four minutes later, the Eagles’ commitment to the run paid off again as Mario Brown picked up the last of his 61 yards on an 11-yard scoring run to make it 34-3.
Meanwhile, Southern Utah (5-3, 2-2), was forced out of its ball-control offense. Predictably, the deep passes were directed at Eagles cornerback Ronald Baines, who responded with the most improbable takeaway of the night.
Trailing 14-3 but with a first down at the Eagle 20, Cantu threw complete for 5 yards to Easton Pederson, but Baines got a piece of the ball – a piece that got bigger as the pair fell to the turf. By the time they hit, Baines had wrested the ball away for an interception.
Baines’ play gave Eastern a 3-2 win in the turnover battle, which couldn’t have started worse for the Eagles. Eastern crossed midfield on its first possession only to have Adams’ third-down pass deflected at the line and intercepted by defensive end James Cowser.
Getting the ball back after a three-and-out, Adams took the Eagles to the T-bird 19. But on first and 10, Adams scrambled up the middle and was stripped of the ball. Cowser was there again, recovering at the 21.
After Ebukam’s pick-6, the Eagles got the ball back two minutes later and embarked on their only scoring drive of the half. Starting from their own 16, Adams hit five passes with no misfires, including a 43-yarder to Kupp down the right sideline to the T-bird 41.
Four plays later, Adams hit Ashton Clark for a 12-yard TD to put the Eagles ahead 14-3.
Adams finished 25 for 35 for 298 yards and three TDs. Kupp’s effort equaled the 12th-best in school history tied with 10 others, including Clark’s 11 grabs at SUU last year.