Timing is everything, and Eastern Washington picked just the right time to play its most complete game of the season.
Playing against the background of a sellout crowd, a ranked opponent and a stinging loss the previous week, the Eagles responded with a 34-17 nonconference win over Cal Poly on Saturday afternoon at Roos Field.
Even better, the Eagles (7-2 overall, 5-1 Big Sky Conference) got healthy on defense and got back on track for a deep run in the FCS playoffs, thanks to a win that was even more one-sided than the score.
If they win their last two regular-season games – at home against UC Davis next week and at Portland State on Nov. 17 – the Eagles would be in good shape for a home game in the postseason, either in the first or second round.
“Our guys kept banging, like a boxing match,” head coach Beau Baldwin said of his defense against the Cal Poly triple-option offense. “We didn’t win this game today. We won it all week in practice.”
It helped that linebackers Zach Johnson and Cody McCarthy returned to action.
“That was huge, and we were able to rotate our kids and keep the kids fresher,” linebackers coach Josh Fetter said.
“We’ve been running on fumes.”
On Saturday they were running wild, meeting the Mustangs at the point of attack and forcing them out of their comfort zone. For Cal Poly quarterback Andre Broadus, that meant throwing for 129 yards, more than twice his average, and that meant playing into Eastern’s hands.
“We want to pick and choose times when we throw it,” Cal Poly coach Tim Walsh said. “I think they put us in situations where they were dictating that maybe we had to throw it.”
Eastern went counter to pregame predictions, outgaining Cal Poly 254-251 yards on the ground. Eastern also outgained the Mustangs 542-411 in total yards. It was the Eagles’ highest offensive output of the season, bettering their 495-yard effort last week at Southern Utah. Eastern held Cal Poly to more than 50 yards less than its season rushing average.
“We had a good week of preparation,” defensive end Jerry Ceja said. “It is a bit of a change-up (from typical passing offenses), but we adjusted well.”
So did freshman quarterback Vernon Adams, who had perhaps his most polished game of the season, and stayed in the game the whole afternoon. Adams was 19 for 29 for 288 yards and three touchdowns, and set the tone early with a TD pass to Greg Herd that showed just how far he’s matured.
Seeing that Herd was being jammed at the line, Adams put a bit more air under his pass.
“That gave me a little more time to work under it,” said Herd, who responded with a one-handed grab that put Eastern ahead 14-3 late in the first quarter.
Cal Poly (7-2, 5-1) responded with its best drive of the game, a 16-play, 76-yarder that ended with a 4-yard run by Kristiaan Ivory that cut the Eastern lead to 14-10 early in the second quarter.
Eastern needed just three plays to restore the two-score lead, this time for good. Quincy Forte picked up 8 yards, then scampered for 23 to give the Eagles a first down at the Cal Poly 43. On the next play, Adams went over the top and hit Brandon Kaufman in the end zone to put the Eagles ahead 21-10.
“This is (Adams’) best game,” said Kaufman, who caught another TD pass in the third quarter and finished with four catches for 88 yards. “He made all of his reads and he didn’t panic. He was really efficient. “
That made it easier for Baldwin to stick with Adams the whole game and for one week, at least, shelve the two-quarterback game plan that included Kyle Padron.
“I watched it all week, and I saw what they (Cal Poly) do defensively,” Baldwin said. “It can be hard on them if you have a QB who can step and run once in a while if you have things covered up.
“But everything I’m trying to do is giving us the best chance to win. I thought Vernon had such a rhythm in the first quarter, and I know that’s not the easiest thing on Kyle, but I felt that keeping Vernon in gave us the best chance to win.”
Adams’ only major crisis of the game lasted about 10 seconds. With the Eagles leading 24-10 and driving early in the third quarter, Adams threw into double coverage and was intercepted by safety Jordan Williams. But Eastern offensive lineman Brandon Murphy forced Williams to fumble, and Ashton Miller recovered.
Five plays later, Adams found Kaufman for a 10-yard TD that gave the Eagles their biggest lead to that point, 31-10 with 6:26 left in the third quarter.
“I’m just so glad he (Williams) fumbled,” Adams said after the game.
Cal Poly moved quickly downfield on its next possession, and soon had first-and goal at the EWU 7-yard line. The Mustangs had overcome a false-start penalty with Ivory’ s 7-yard run to the Eastern 2. On third-and-goal at the 1, Broadus was stuffed by Johnson, and on a must-have play on fourth down, Eastern cornerback T.J. Lee penetrated and forced Broadus inside and to his knees at the one.
“The D-line did good job level rushing and the linebackers did a great job on their reads all night long,” Lee said.
Starting at their 1, the Eagles set season records for plays (18) and time consumed (7:23) in an 83-yard drive that ended with Jimmy Pavel’s 33-yard field goal with 10:15 left in the game.
“When clicking on all cylinders, I feel that we’re unstoppable,” running back Demitrius Bronson said.
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