Has Aaron Best ever run this fast?
Seconds after Portland State completed a Hail Mary pass at the end of the first half, the Eastern Washington coach and former offensive lineman sprinted off the field and toward the locker room.
That gave Best a few extra seconds to compose himself and deliver a few choice words to the Eagles.
“I challenged them,” Best said with a smile.
The Eagles responded with a dominant second half and a 59-33 Big Sky Conference win Saturday afternoon at Roos Field. They also may have punched a ticket to the FCS playoffs.
On a day already full of emotion – this was Senior Day, after all – the Eagles (6-2 in the Big Sky Conference and 7-4 overall) also had to cope with the distraction of scoreboard watching.
Perhaps that explained the slow start against the winless Vikings, who matched the Eagles play-for-play in the first half.
The most galling came on the final play of the first half. Even with half a dozen EWU defenders crowding the end zone, former PSU basketball De’Sean Parson outleaped all of them for a 50-yard touchdown.
Lightning had struck twice in one season – the Eagles gave up another Hail Mary at Montana – and a two-score lead against Portland State was down to 31-26.
“I had a halftime speech prepared – I went with the one I used in Missoula because it worked,” Best said. “My big point to them was to respond.”
That hasn’t happened lately, as the Eagles had scored just three second-half touchdowns in their last three games combined.
However, they produced their best third quarter of the year against the Vikings (0-11), scoring four straight touchdowns to put the result beyond doubt.
The defense struck first, forcing a three-and-out on PSU’s first possession of the third quarter.
Eastern quarterback Gage Gubrud also answered the second-half bell, going downfield for a 39-yard completion to a double-covered Nic Sblendorio and an 11-yard TD pass to tight end Jayce Gilder.
Eastern took a three-score lead less than four minutes later. On third-and-4 from his own 41, Gubrud hit Sblendorio for 36 yards to the PSU 23. On the next play, Gubrud ran almost untouched up the middle for 23 yards to make it 45-26.
Meanwhile, the Eastern defense conceded just 31 yards in the third quarter after giving up 332 in the first half.
“We looked at the scoreboard and said to ourselves that they shouldn’t be scoring that much,” senior defensive end Albert Havili said. “Nothing against them, but we know what our standards are and what we’re capable of doing.”
Less than two minutes after Gubrud’s TD run, Antoine Custer Jr. scored his third touchdown of the night on a 27-yard run around left end.
That made it 52-26. Wide receiver Nic Sblendorio capped the scoring with a 74-yard catch-and-run late in the third quarter.
By the end of the night, Eastern had 728 yards of total offense, the third-most in school history behind the 740 at home versus Rocky Mountain in 1997 and 743 on the road at Idaho State in 2013.
Gubrud passed for 445 yards and four scores, while Custer had a career-high 117 yards and three touchdowns.
“We challenged everybody,” Best said. “It wasn’t that we needed to make adjustments, we just needed to be better at what we were OK at,” Best said.
“We needed to be great at it, Best said. “Our players ended up doing great things. There was a lot of energy and effort tonight, and a lot of smiles.”
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