For one game at least, Eastern Washington football was flung back to an earlier age, a time when 500-plus yards of offense was a surprise, not an expectation.
Instead, the Eagles earned a 26-18 Big Sky Conference win over Northern Colorado on Saturday by doing what they haven’t done lately: winning the turnover battle, stuffing the run and making the opposing quarterback run for his life.
In other words, Military Appreciation Day didn’t get nearly the offensive fireworks it deserved, but that’s not the point.
“We got the win, that’s the point,” quarterback Jordan West said after second-ranked EWU claimed a win that on closer inspection looks better than the final 8-point margin over one of the most downtrodden programs in the Big Sky.
For one thing, the Eagles (7-1 overall, 4-0 in the Big Sky) led throughout, most of the time by double digits. The defense allowed only a field goal on UNC’s first six possessions and held the Bears to 306 yards total.
At one time in the first half, EWU had a 162-6 advantage even while leading only 13-3.
“I love the way we started,” coach Beau Baldwin said. “Sometimes in the past we struggle with how we start. We kept getting some early three-and-outs and held them out of the end zone.”
And out of their comfort zone. The UNC running game was stuffed all afternoon, while Bears quarterback Sean Rubalcaba was sacked seven times. It could have been twice that many, but he persevered, scrambling and hitting Malcom Whye for a 30-yard touchdown that trimmed Eastern’s lead to 26-18 with 10:14 to play.
The Bears (2-5 overall, 1-3 Big Sky) got the ball back on downs at their own 21 with 7:07 left, and the sellout crowd of 10,046 tensed for another nailbiter.
The ensuing drive was feast or famine for both sides, first downs alternating with sacks, until the Bears faced fourth-and-5 at the Eastern 49. Rubalcaba fired a pass on a slant pattern to Sean Leslie, but cornerback Victor Gamboa read the play, stepped in front of Leslie and made the crucial interception.
“Two plays earlier, they ran the same formation. I just tried to stay on his hip and make a play,” said Gamboa, who had two picks a week earlier at Southern Utah.
Thanks to Gamboa, Eastern won the turnover battle 1-0 against a team that entered the game ranked second in FCS in turnover margin with a plus-12.
Meanwhile, the Eastern offense moved fitfully with West starting his second game in place of injured All-American Vernon Adams Jr.
Fighting a swirling wind, West was 19 for 33 for 237 yards, while running back Jalen Moore gained 97 yards on 25 carries. Eastern finished with 417 yards total offense, well below its average of 574.
“I knew they were a really good defense because they have done that against some other offenses,” Baldwin said. “We were not turning it over, and we were not doing dumb things. I was proud of our guys for that.”
“We have scored more points than that and played worse on offense,” Baldwin said.
After stalling on its opening possession, Eastern used a blend of power and speed on its second drive – the only touchdown march of the first half, as it turned out. Jalen Moore ran for two first downs before West hit a wide-open Shaq Hill down the sideline for a 40-yard score with 5:04 left in the first quarter.
Tyler McNannay hit two field goals in the first half, which ended with the Eagles leading 13-3. The lead jumped to 20-3 after the Eagles hit paydirt with a fake field goal – Conner Richardson hitting tight end Terry Jackson II for a 15-yard TD – but UNC answered with a 49-yard run from Brandon Cartagena.
Moore’s 1-yard plunge pushed the lead to 26-10, but McNanny missed the extra point to keep Bears within two scores.
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