DAVIS, Calif. – It didn’t take a stirring halftime speech to get the Eagle Express out of the station Saturday night.
All Eastern Washington needed was the ball, which after 30 minutes of keepaway was finally pried away from UC Davis in a 37-14 Eagles win in a Big Sky Conference opener for both teams.
By the time their third straight road game was over, the second-ranked Eagles found some new heroes on offense, renewed confidence on defense and a sense they can handle almost any adversity.
On this occasion, it came in the form of a ball-hogging Aggies offense that ran the play clock to the nubbins and threw the ball far more than the Eagles expected. That meant the Eagles offense couldn’t find its rhythm because it couldn’t get on the field.
“This felt a lot like certain games in the playoffs we’ve had,” Eastern coach Beau Baldwin said. “Davis can do that to any high-powered or fast offense – they’ll frustrate you by the way they play.”
Indeed, the Eagles (4-1) had only three possessions in the first half, which ended with Eastern leading 9-7 despite quarterback Vernon Adams completing all 17 of his pass attempts.
But the engine came to life on the first series after haltime, when Adams threw a quick pass to Cooper Kupp on the right sideline. Three broken tackles later, Kupp dashed into the end zone to complete a 61-yard play that finally pushed momentum Eastern’s way.
With the Aggies (1-3) playing a soft zone and denying the long pass, Kupp made the most a tiny opening. “I’m not quite sure how it happened, but any time you can turn a small play into a big play, it’s huge,” said Kupp, who finished with seven catches for 91 yards.
The train became a runaway after the defense forced another three-and-out and the offense got another magical fourth-down play from Adams and receiver Shaq Hill.
Facing fourth-and-13 at the Aggies’ 29, Adams threw a floater that looked impossible to catch, but the 5-foot-10 Hill contorted his body while reaching high to pull down the ball at the Davis 3-yard line. Two plays later, Adams dashed around the left end for a TD that pushed the lead to 23-7 with 7:09 left in the third quarter.
Adams finished 23 for 28 for 303 yards and two TDs.
Seven minutes later, running back Mario Brown all but sealed the deal with a 6-yard run that made it 30-7. Getting the start after Quincy Forte was sidelined with a shoulder injury, Brown gained 84 yards on 12 carries; Jabari Wilson, another backup scored his first collegiate TD on a 5-yard run in the first quarter and had 36 yards total.
Tight end Zach Wimberly, another seldom-used player, had two short runs plus a pair of catches.
Meanwhile, the Eastern defense faced 23 plays and gave up 147 yards in its first two series, but dominated the middle two quarters, not conceding a point until a 70-yard bomb on the final play of the third quarter.
End Samsom Ebukam killed one Aggie drive with a sack of quarterback London Lacy, and repeated the feat as Davis was driving just before halftime.
“This just shows that our defense is getting better,” Ebukam said.
For the first time in three games, the Eagles won the turnover battle, 2-1, and all but clinched the game early in the fourth quarter when Ronnie Hamlin forced a fumble by Colton Silveria that was recovered by Zackary Johnson.
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