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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
Partly Cloudy Night 73° Partly Cloudy

Jabari Wilson, EWU race past Portland State, win Big Sky title

PORTLAND – As the rains kept falling Friday night, the Eastern Washington football players soaked it all in. And with a little help from their friends in the stands, the Eagles absorbed their place in EWU history: a third straight Big Sky Conference title, a first for the school. “We’ve been around a great group of guys and we’ve had the talent, had the coaching – that’s how you make that dream a reality,” said senior captain Jase Butorac after the Eagles pulled away from Portland State 56-34 at rainy Providence Park. More dreams await. “This is awesome, but now we want to win the national championship,” said defensive tackle Matthew Sommer, an Oregon native who had dozens of family and friends in the stands. First things first: The Eagles are going home, perhaps for a long time. Friday’s win guarantees fifth-ranked Eastern (10-2, 7-1) a first-round bye and at least one home game in the upcoming FCS playoffs. They’ll learn their fate Sunday morning when seedings and brackets are unveiled by the NCAA. In the meantime, nothing meant more Friday night than the trifecta, a word the players used all season, mostly because it meant so much. “It means everything,” said Butorac, a fifth-year senior who along with his classmates has known nothing but winning: a 22-2 Big Sky record over three years and just six conference losses in half a decade. “Near the end of the year, all teams talk about injuries, the tough schedule they played and how many young guys that had to play. I really feel like our team checked all three of those boxes,” coach Beau Baldwin said. “But we still battled through them and found a way to win the league title. That said a lot about their mental toughness and character.” It certainly did on this night, when the Eagles worked for almost the entire first half to build a two-touchdown lead, then gave it all away in less than a minute. Tied 14-all at intermission, they came out of the locker room and dominated all over again against the Vikings. The Eagles needed just three plays to put the second-quarter meltdown in their rearview mirror: Quarterback Vernon Adams Jr. rolled left and sprinted down the left sideline for 31 yards, hit tight end Zach Wimberly for 34 more, then ran for a 3-yard score to give Eastern the lead for good, 21-14. The momentum didn’t last long as Eastern gave up a 91-yard kickoff return on the next play. Shaq Richard scored on a 4-yard run, but the extra-point attempt failed after a bobbled snap and Eastern still led 21-20. Four minutes later, PSU got the ball back with a chance to take the lead, but Eastern linebacker Ronnie Hamlin forced Richard to fumble at the 25 and safety Tevin McDonald recovered. Running back Jabari Wilson took it from there, getting the ball on four straight carries and scoring on a 1-yard plunge with 7:18 left in the third. “It was just right in front of me and I fell on it,” said McDonald, who later clinched the game with a 73-yard interception return for a touchdown with 1:56 to play that turned out to be the final score. Wilson’s plunge made it 28-20, but McDonald stripped the ball from receiver Roston Tatum and Miquiyah Zamora recovered. Three plays later, Adams hit Cooper Kupp on a 46-yard pass; Wilson scored from 6 yards on the next play. That was Wilson’s third score, capping a 24-carry, 132-yard night that didn’t seem possible during an injury-plagued sophomore season. But with Quincy Forte out with an ankle injury, Wilson got his big chance. “The line blocked well and the holes were wide open,” said Wilson, who in one night more than tripled his season’s rushing total; it now stands at 179 yards. “Coach (Kiel) McDonald told me to just ready my keys, just transform them from practice into the game – and it worked.” Meanwhile, Adams had a solid night, completing 21 of 33 passes for 309 yards, two touchdowns and one pick. Kupp led all receivers with nine catches for 147 yards. The Eagles defense forced five turnovers, a season high. The Vikings (3-9, 2-6) pulled within 35-27 on their next possession, but Eastern all but wrapped up the game when Kupp dived and came up with the ball for a 40-yard TD with 11:18 left. PSU made it an eight-point game with 6:22 left, but Shaq Hill returned the favor with a 90-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, the Eagles’ first kickoff return for a score in almost two years.
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