FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. – Picking up the pieces? That will have to wait another day.
After their shocking 28-27 Big Sky Conference loss to Northern Arizona on Saturday afternoon, the Eastern Washington players and coaches could barely pick themselves off the turf.
In the surreal moments that followed at the Walkup Skydome, next week’s Homecoming game against North Dakota seemed as distant as next year, and the Eagles’ 14-game Big Sky winning streak from the past – which it certainly is now.
Now the Eagles don’t even own a share of first place in the Big Sky after falling to 4-1 in league and 7-2 overall with three games left.
Just as important, the second-ranked Eagles won’t be nearly that high next week, not after they had this one in their grasp with 51 seconds left, but lost the handle in stunning fashion on both sides of the ball.
Leading by five points, the Eagles lost the ball on downs at the NAU 23, then watched the Lumberjacks march – leap, rather – 77 yards in three plays to complete an epic upset.
“Moments such as this are rare in life,” said winning coach Jerome Souers. “The fans stayed until the very end when things didn’t look real good.
“We’re doing better at closing out games and finding a way to win,” said Souers, whose team did just that with a third-string quarterback who hadn’t played all year.
With no timeouts to work with, junior Jordan Perry was tackled for a 3-yard gain, but dusted himself off, stepped up in the pocket and delivered a wobbler downfield that seemed sure to be intercepted.
Except that the Eastern safeties froze, allowing Alex Holmes to get past them and pull in the pass for a 67-yard gain to the 10. On the next play, Perry found true freshman Dan Galindo for the game-winner with 12 seconds left.
“They earned it,” Baldwin said. “Even in our wins I give teams credit because they are fighting and scrapping. … I give tons of credit to NAU.”
Lost in the defeat was a career-high 219 yard rushing effort by Quincy Forte, who hadn’t played since suffering a shoulder injury at Montana State on Sept. 20.
When asked if the Eagles would rally from the loss, Forte quietly said, “We don’t really pay any mind to that right now.”
Northern Arizona outgained EWU 496 to 421, including 343 yards through the air for the Lumberjacks. Eastern was just 3 of 13 on third down, and 0 of 1 on fourth down.
Both offenses moved fitfully in the first half. Eagle cornerback Rashad Wadood forced a fumble recovered by safety Tevin McDonald at the EWU 48, but the Eastern offense couldn’t take advantage. Two punt exchanges later, NAU couldn’t get out of the shadow of its own goalposts, and Cooper Kupp returned the punt 41 yards to the NAU 5-yard line.
On the next play, West rolled left and found tight end Zach Wimberly along at the back of the end zone for the first score of the game with 6:31 left in the first quarter.
To that point, NAU had just 63 yards of total offense, but marched 82 yards in nine plays. Chase Cartwright found Beau Gardner for a 2-yard score, but Eastern’s Samson Ebukam blocked the extra point try to preserve a 7-6 lead.
Two punts later, Eastern embarked on its best drive of the half, a big-play affair that included a 12-yard scramble by West, a 25-yard completion from West to Kendrick Bourne and the Eagles’ biggest rushing play of the half, Forte’s 23-yard dash to the NAU 14 while he dragged half-a-dozen tacklers.
That set up West’s sideline pass to Kupp, who juked right and cut left – all the way to the end zone to give the Eagles a 14-6 lead with 5:30 left in the half.
As it turned out, that was the biggest lead of the game for either team.
NAU answered with a field goal three minutes later, and could have taken the lead into halftime. The Lumberjacks had first-and-goal at the 8 with 25 seconds left, but three incomplete passes forced another field goal.
Eastern regained the momentum early in the second half. True freshman Terence Grady turned a short slant pattern into a 49-yard game, and kicker Tyler McNannay’s 25-yard field goal pushed the lead to 17-12.
NAU took its first lead of the game, 19-17, on Cartwright’s 3-yard pass to Holmes, but Forte capped a six-play, 75-yard drive with a 1-yard plunge that put the Eagles back on top, 24-22.
Eastern extended the lead to 27-22 midway through the fourth quarter on a 29-yard field goal, then got the ball back for its final drive.
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