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Eastern Washington can’t stop Illinois State in losing FCS quarterfinal 59-46

When push came to shove Saturday, the Eastern Washington football team was knocked flat on its back.

And out of the playoffs.

With an offense that at times seemed unstoppable, Illinois State rolled to a 59-46 Football Championship Subdivision quarterfinal victory over the Eagles that wasn’t even that close; the Redbirds led by as many as 25 points before Eastern rediscovered its old offensive flair – alas, however, it was too little, too late.

Until then the Eagles were still in a fog, long after the real one had lifted from the field. All-America quarterback Vernon Adams Jr. struggled with his consistency, receivers dropped key passes and the running game never got untracked.

“Offensively, there were things we didn’t click on that sometimes we do,” quarterbacks coach Zak Hill said. “Sometimes we are hitting that big play, which there were a lot of big plays, but yes, it felt a little choppy at times.”

Meanwhile, the Eastern defense was getting chopped up, dissected and pushed down the field on every drive that mattered. The Redbirds will face New Hampshire in next week’s semifinals mostly because of an offense that rolled up 542 yards – including 336 on the ground – didn’t commit a single turnover and converted 13 of 20 opportunities on third and fourth downs.

“We just kind of emptied the sink; we gave them everything we had, but we just didn’t have an answer,” EWU defensive coordinator John Graham said.

The Eagles certainly didn’t have an answer for running back Marshaun Coprich, a 5-foot-9, 205-pound junior whose combination of speed and power produced 258 yards and four touchdowns.

“In the playoffs, it’s all about matchups, and this wasn’t a very good matchup for us,” said Eastern defensive tackle Dylan Zylstra.

That included ISU’s offensive line, which features a pair of 330-pound guards and the kind of power game the Eagles haven’t seen since a 59-52 loss at Washington on Sept. 6. Perhaps not coincidentally, that’s also the last time the Eagles gave up this many points.

“To use a boxing analogy, we felt we were heavy punchers and they were boxers, and we wanted to take the fight to the middle of the ring,” said Illinois State coach Brock Spack, whose team improved to 12-1.

“That’s the way we approached the game, and it worked out for us,” Spack said.

The first standing eight-count was delivered by quarterback Tre Roberson, who completed 19 of 24 passes for 206 yards while running for another 62. Early in the second quarter, ISU led 17-10 but faced fourth-and-1 at the Eastern Washington 43.

Robinson rolled right, looked for an open receiver, then tucked the ball and ran for 15 yards down the right sideline. Three plays later, he hit Cameron Meredith for a 7-yard touchdown.

Said Eastern linebacker Ronnie Hamlin, “If one player misses a wrong read, it is out of the gate with these guys because they are fast.”

After twice trailing by 14 in the first half, the Eagles (11-2) seemingly had righted the ship late in the first half; Adams completed 6 of 7 passes before running back Jabari Wilson scored from three yards out with 36 seconds left before halftime.

That made it 24-17, but ISU responded on its first drive of the third quarter. After getting four straight plays of nine yards or more, the Redbirds faced fourth-and-1 at the EWU 21. Coprich, sidelined with an ankle injury late in the second quarter, showed no ill effects as he cut outside, then upfield for a 21-yard TD run.

“That defense was pretty good that we faced – I would say one of the top three. But our offensive line came out ready to play, especially in that second half,” said Coprich, who has 2,087 rushing yards this season.

Eastern answered with Tyler McNannay’s 36-yard field goal – his 10th straight – but Coprich’s two-yard plunge on ISU’s next drive pushed the lead to 38-20.

By the end of the third quarter – which Eastern had dominated this year by a 292-94 combined score – the Eagles found themselves trailing 45-20.

In addition to his own inaccuracy, Adams seemed confused by a defense that mixed four- and three-man rushes and also mixed coverages. “We just do what we do,” Spack said.

The 25-point margin was the same, 52-27, with 10:30 to play before Adams hit Cooper Kupp with a 30-yard TD with 8:57 left, then a 30-yarder following a successful onside kick.

Suddenly the Eagles had a glimmer of hope, and kicked deep. Two plays later, Coprich took Spack’s boxing analogy and ran with it – a 74-yard knockout touchdown with 7:29 left. After pausing for a second, Coprich stepped into a gap and ran for daylight.

“It was a huge play. But those plays you just anticipate and wait – you don’t rush it,” Coprich said.

Eastern cut the deficit to 59-46 on a 47-yard pass from Adams to Shaq Hill with 1:40 to play. After the game was delayed for 20 minutes by a medical emergency in the stands, ISU recovered the onside kick and ran out the clock.

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