There would be no escape this time for Eastern Washington, except by the fans who were fleeing Roos Field by the middle of the fourth quarter.
You couldn’t blame them. They hadn’t seen anything like this in four years: an Eagle team being humbled on its own field by another team from the Big Sky Conference.
All those close calls of recent weeks came home to roost on Saturday for the Eagles, who lost more than a game in their 52-30 defeat at the hands of Northern Arizona.
In the short term, they lost a share of first place in the Big Sky Conference with two games left in the season. They also lost their composure, with turnovers and penalties that stifled any chance of a comeback against the Lumberjacks.
Also gone in the Eagles’ worst-ever loss on the red turf was their eight-game Big Sky win streak and 19-game home win streak against conference rivals.
More important, the Eagles may have lost a chance of hosting a first-round FCS playoff game after falling to 6-3 overall and 5-1 in the Big Sky with two games left in the regular season.
“We all have been used to a lot of wins in a row so it becomes a bit of a shock feel,” coach Beau Baldwin said after the game. “But I’ve known it for a while with this year team that we were going to be in a lot of tough ballgames.”
Indeed the Eagles have been in survival mode for several weeks, winning their last two games against Northern Colorado and Weber State by a combined three points.
Added Baldwin, “If you’re a little off you’re a little sloppy – no matter who it is in this conference, you can’t overcome that.”
The Eagles didn’t help themselves, committing four turnovers, including a pick-6 early in the fourth quarter that turned a 10-point deficit into a 31-14 NAU lead. To top things off, returner Simba Webster fumbled the ensuing kickoff, leading to another Lumberjack TD that left Eastern four scores behind with 12 minutes left.
“I give NAU a lot of credit – they were the better team today,” Baldwin said. “They out-coached us and out-played us, and that’s how I always feel when we are on the end of games like this.”
The tone was set early – on offense, defense and special teams.
After forcing NAU to punt on its first possession, the Eagles moved smartly down the field after taking over on its own 40. Running back Jalen Moore gave the Eagles a first down with a 15-yard run to the NAU 11, then gave the ball to the Lumberjacks on a fumble recovered by Neal Murphy.
It was the first fumble recovery of the season for NAU (6-3 overall, 4-2 Big Sky), which got its second a few minutes later.
EWU’s defense forced another punt, but Kupp made a rare mistake on the return. “I wanted to keep the ball from rolling further,” said Kupp, who allowed the ball to graze off his shoulder pad. NAU recovered at the 22, scoring five plays later on a 4-yard run by Casey Jahn.
Said Kupp, “I can’t be expecting the other guys to pick up for my mistakes. I need to do a better job.”
After Eastern drove to midfield and downed a punt at the NAU 7-yard-line, the Lumberjacks embarked on an epic 22-play drive that also consumed 9 minutes and 14 seconds before Jahn scored from 2 yards out.
The Eagles responded with a 10-play, 75-yard drive that ended with Kupp’s 7-yard touchdown pass from West, but they wouldn’t reach the end zone again until the game was out of hand.
Wide receiver Kendrick Bourne, who had 154 yards, credited NAU’s constantly-shifting schemes. Often, the Lumberjacks employed a Cover 4 that took away the deep ball, but the Eagles couldn’t exploit it with their running game.
The Eagles finished with just 71 yards on the ground, while West had one of his worst games of the season, going 20-for-38 for 244 yards before being replaced in the fourth quarter by Reilly Hennessey.
“If you’re working toward being a great offense, you should feel like it doesn’t matter what the other team does,” Baldwin said. “It’s about us executing and knowing there are always opportunities, and those are the steps we need to continue to make as an offense in my opinion.”
After an exchange of punts, the Eagles drove to the NAU 9-yard-line, but West was sacked for a loss of 6 and Jordan Dascalo was wide left on a 32-yard field goal try as time expired.
It was more of the same early in the third, as Eastern drove to midfield but stalled after two incomplete passes. NAU took over on downs, freshman Case Cookus completed two long passes and the Lumberjacks were up 21-7.
The Eagles were still in the game early in the fourth quarter, trailing 24-14 and facing fourth-and-1 at the NAU 40. With plenty of time, West threw over the middle, but the ball was deflected at the line and intercepted by defensive back Marcus Alford, who returned it for a 70-yard score.