GRAND FORKS, N.D. – Following a week of crisis, Eastern Washington found the right response mechanism.
“We played angry,” said Eagle linebacker Jack Sendelbach.
And Angry Birds they were, especially on defense, as Eastern claimed a 21-14 Big Sky Conference win Saturday at North Dakota.
The rewards are many. The Eagles (6-4 overall and 5-2 in the Big Sky) regained some confidence, clinched a winning season for the 11th year in a row and stayed in contention for a spot in the postseason.
Coming off two straight losses, the Eagles were without suspended quarterback Gage Gubrud and linebacker Kurt Calhoun. Late in the first half they also lost sparkplug running back Sam McPherson to injury.
However, they didn’t lose their way in a must-win game that doubled as Senior Day for North Dakota.
“We don’t have to find adversity, adversity finds us,” Eastern coach Aaron Best said. “We’re just waiting for it and we know it’s coming.”
There may be more adversity ahead. Next week, Eastern must beat Portland State and get some help to earn an at-large berth in the FCS playoffs.
But that’s for another day. This was a win to be savored.
“It’s a testament to these players for having a ton of grit,” Best said. “That’s because of who they are – they believe in the system, they believe in themselves and they believe in each other.”
Adversity came early with a three-and-out and an early North Dakota touchdown.
However, Eastern found success on the ground thanks to McPherson, who had 157 all-purpose yards and figured in all three touchdowns before being injured. His status for next week is uncertain.
McPherson not only had a career-high 118 yards rushing, but threw a touchdown pass and caught another.
In the first quarter, McPherson took a handoff from Barriere and ran right, then threw down the middle for 2 yards to tight end Talolo Limu-Jones.
Midway through the second, McPherson snagged a short pass from Barriere and juked past several defenders for a 14-yard score that gave Eastern its first lead.
McPherson’s biggest play also was his last. On first-and-10 from the EWU 35, he burst through a hole up the middle and raced to the UND 2 before being tripped up.
Four plays later, Barriere scored from the 1 on the last play of the half to give the Eagles a 21-7 lead.
Eastern failed to score again, but the defense and punter Jordan Dascalo rose to the occasion.
Eastern’s defensive backs struggled the week before in a loss to Weber State, but made the big plays against UND.
Early in the fourth quarter, the Fighting Hawks (3-8) had second-and-9 at the Eastern 12. Quarterback Keaton Studsrud passed to Stetson Carr, but cornerback Nzuzi Webster stripped the ball at the 1 and Sendelbach recovered.
“It was a case of right place, right time,” said Sendelbach, who also led the Eagles with 11 tackles.
Meanwhile, Dascalo had a career day, averaging 57 yards on seven punts to help Eastern win the field position battle.
Eastern managed to reach its own 20 following the fumble, but Dascalo hit a 51-yard kick to put UND at its own 29.
One play later, Studsrud took a rare shot downfield and paid dearly when Eagles conberback Josh Lewis intercepted an underthrown ball.
After an Eastern punt, UND put together its best drive of the game, a 13-play, 73-yard march capped but Studsrud’s 2-yard pass to Noah Wanzek.
That made it 21-14 with 4 ½ minutes left. Needing to run out the clock, Eastern went three-and-out, but Dascalo came through with a career-best 67-yard punt that was downed at the UND 3.
“Jordan might have made the play of the game,” Best said. “He did what he was coached to do, and he did it really well.”
The Eastern defense did the rest, forcing a four-and-out. Taking over on downs with 1:53 left, Barriere took a knee three times to seal the win.