FLAGSTAFF, Arizona – This wasn’t about payback, although that felt pretty good too.
Eastern Washington’s 50-35 win at Northern Arizona on Saturday night was more about the journey, about a September that began with so many questions – about the new quarterback, his new blockers, the entire defense … and of course that ridiculous schedule.
The season will pose more questions, but the Eagles are 3-1 because almost every doubt was erased by a win that checked more than a few boxes.
On the road against the Big Sky Conference preseason favorite and the only league rival with an actual win streak against the Eagles, they won with a near-complete game.
Unshaken by a rough outing last week, quarterback Gage Gubrud responded with 487 yards of total offense. The defense picked up where it left off against Northern Iowa, giving up 491 yards but snagging three interceptions and holding NAU to 6 for 17 on third down.
Of the 60 players who made the trip to Flagstaff, all but three saw action.
“That’s why we’ve built this depth, and we trust all these players,” EWU head coach Beau Baldwin said. “It will pay dividends down the road.”
That road has a long way to run, but for now the Eagles are back in rarefied air – and not just because this game was won at an elevation of 7,000 feet. Ranked fourth in FCS, they’re also the new favorites to reclaim the Big Sky title they held for three years until last season’s 6-5 letdown.
“From start to finish, we played a lot of great football,” Baldwin said. “It’s a mental and physical approach, and our players really got after it. Especially in the second half, we were playing great team football.”
Leading only 22-21 at intermission, the Eagles got another strong third quarter on both sides of the ball.
It began on offense, as Gubrud showed all the poise he displayed in the win at Washington State and the near-miss at North Dakota State. His final stats: 35 of 56 for 392 yards and two touchdowns. He also ran for 95 yards.
The third quarter began with a 27-yard pass to Cooper Kupp, his right shoulder healed. The short passing game carried the Eagles into the red zone, where Gubrud converted a fourth-and-1. On the next play, he hit Nic Sblendorio for a 5-yard score that pushed the lead to 29-21.
After the defense forced a three-and-out, Gubrud showed more savvy, stepping up in the pocket to hit Sblendorio for 28 yards to the NAU 31. Then he ran 28 more to set up Tamarick Pierce’s 3-yard score to make it 36-21.
NAU (1-3) responded with a touchdown, but the Eagles put the game out of reach on Antoine Custer’s 1-yard run and Gubrud’s 21-yard scamper.
That made it 50-28 – the same margin as NAU’s 52-30 win last year in Cheney. At that point, the crowd of 10,179 was streaming out of the Walkup Skydome.
“There’s no doubt, this win means a lot,” said safety Zach Bruce, who had a momentum-shifting interception in the first half.
Wide receiver Shaq Hill was more to the point.
“They always give us our best game, so we just had to come in here and punch them in the mouth,” said Hill, whose 39-yard catch and run gave Eastern an early 12-7 lead.