On a day when it couldn’t take care of the football, Eastern Washington still managed to take care of business Saturday.
In December, that might just be more important that lighting up the scoreboard.
Instead, the Eagles lit an emotional fire with hard running by Quincy Forte and an electrifying interception return by freshman linebacker Albert Havili to turn back Jacksonville State 35-24 in an FCS quarterfinal playoff game at Roos Field.
Call it semi-tough, the product of a been-there, overcome-that attitude that on Saturday sent the Eagles to their third FCS semifinal game in four years. They’ll host Towson on Saturday at 11 a.m. for a chance to return to the national championship game they won three years ago.
“To do something like that consistently you have to have a certain mindset, a certain attitude and a certain mentality,” coach Beau Baldwin said. “We have that in our locker room with our guys, and it is exciting.”
It was less than that in the first half, as the third-ranked Eagles (12-2) coughed up two balls into the JSU end zone, one on a fumble by Forte and another on a poor throw by quarterback Vernon Adams.
At one point early in the second quarter, the Eagles had 184 yards on just 16 plays and had yet to face a third down, yet trailed 14-7.
“They were uncharacteristic for us,” Eastern wide receiver Ashton Clark said of the turnovers. “But we felt good about moving the ball. We just had to finish those two.”
Meanwhile, the Eagle defense couldn’t corral JSU freshman quarterback Eli Jenkins, and at one point trailed 21-14 late in the second quarter.
In less than two quarters of play, Jenkins had completed 12 of 14 passes for 127 yards, and ran for 118 more, mostly on scrambles into the middle of the field.
But that’s when Jenkins’ season ended, with a knee injury on the final series of the first half, one of several turning points in the game: backup Max Shortell, a pocket-passer, was only 12 of 22 for 173, with two interceptions, and wasn’t a threat to run.
Meanwhile, the Eagles have found a running threat in Forte, who had 202 yards a week earlier against South Dakota State. With the game tied at 21 at haltime, the Eagles took the second-half kickoff and then handed the ball to Forte.
On what turned out to be their last offensive score, the Eagles marched 75 yards in eight plays. Forte accounted for 56 of them, including a deft 36-yard scamper to the 7 and a scoring run up the middle on the next play.
Forte finished with 24 carries for 190 yards, pushing him to 1,131 for the year and making him only the 16th thousand-yard back in school history.
“He’s putting a string together,” Eastern center Ashton Miller said. “He’s patient, and hitting the holes hard.”
The Gamecocks (11-4) drove 81 yards on their next possession, but a dropped pass in the end zone forced a field goal by Thomas Griffin.
On the Eagles’ next possession, Adams threw his second pick of the game, but cornerback T.J. Lee III made two big plays to get the ball back.
Despite getting the ball at the JSU 47 – its best starting position of the game – the Eagles gave back the ball when Adams threw incomplete to Mario Brown on fourth-and-11.
“When you get in the playoffs this time of year and you are facing one of the best eight teams in the country, sometimes games are going to have that choppy feel, and they are not going to be perfect,” Baldwin said.
“You just have to find ways to win,” Baldwin said.
The Eagles failed again on short yardage on their next possession; on fourth-and-1 from the JSU 20, Adams was sacked for a loss of 9 yards.
But six plays later, Havili intercepted Shortell and returned the ball 77 yards for a TD.
The game began with missed opportunities for both teams. After forcing a three-and-out, the Eagles drove 35 yards to the JSU 2, but Forte fumbled into the end zone for a touchback. The Gamecocks responded by driving 60 yards, only to see kicker Griffin Thomas push a 37-yard field goal try wide right.
The Eagles made the most of it, driving 80 yards in six plays. Adams hit Clark on back-to-back plays for 19 and 29 yards, and two plays later, hit Kupp in the left side of the end zone for a 29-yard score and a 7-0 lead.
The score was Kupp’s 21st this season, tying him for fourth in FCS history.
But the Gamecocks drove 75 and 80 yards on two scoring drives to take a 14-7 lead early in the second quarter. Forte leveled the score with a 3-yard run midway through the second, but JSU regained the lead on a 1-yard score from DaMarcus James.
The Gamecocks never led again after Clark scored on a 41-yard catch-and-run with 2:39 left in the second quarter.
EWU—Kupp 29 pass from Adams (K.Miller kick)
JvSt—Ellis 3 pass from T.Brown (Thomas kick)
JvSt—A.Johnson 10 pass from Jenkins (Thomas kick)
EWU—Forte 3 run (K.Miller kick)
JvSt—D.James 1 run (Thomas kick)
EWU—As.Clark 41 pass from Adams (K.Miller kick)
EWU—Forte 7 run (K.Miller kick)
JvSt—FG Thomas 26
EWU—Havili 77 interception return (K.Miller kick)
|Time of Possession||32:48||27:12|
RUSHING—Jacksonville St., Jenkins 14-118, T.Pope 14-49, D.James 15-46, M.Jones 3-16, T.Brown 2-0, Shortell 2-(-4). E. Washington, Forte 24-190, Adams 8-22, M.Brown 5-11, Team 2-(-2).
PASSING—Jacksonville St., Shortell 12-22-2-173, Jenkins 12-14-0-127, T.Brown 1-1-0-3. E. Washington, Adams 18-29-2-324.
RECEIVING—Jacksonville St., T.Brown 8-87, Barge 6-95, A.Johnson 4-49, Goffigan 2-30, T.Pope 2-25, D.James 1-11, Ellis 1-3, Screws 1-3. E. Washington, As.Clark 11-181, Kupp 4-99, Mitchell 2-39, Gehring 1-5.
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe to the sports newsletter
Get the day’s top sports headlines and breaking news delivered to your inbox by subscribing here.