SACRAMENTO, Calif. – The Big Sky Conference football race will be a grind, Eastern coach Beau Baldwin predicted last week, a few days before his Eagles were almost ground up by Sacramento State.
Instead, the Eagles recovered to beat the Hornets 28-20 on Saturday night by making the same plays that earned them the last three conference titles: the big plays, the game-changers that have separated the Eagles from the pack for all of those years.
On this balmy evening, none was bigger than the one 11th-ranked Eastern unleashed early in the third quarter of its first conference game of the season. With the Eagles trailing by 13 points and backed up on their own 2-yard-line, things looked a bit shaky.
However, the Eastern coaches made “the right call,” according to wide receiver Kendrick Bourne, whose double move on a slant pattern helped him catch the ball near midield. Then Bourne stepped out of a tackle and outraced the pursuit for a 98-yard score.
“We knew it was going to work, because Kendrick catches that ball 99 out of a hundred times,” said West, who connected with Bourne seven times for 204 yards.
It was the second-longest scoring play in school history, one yard behind a 99-yard TD from Todd Bernett to Jason Anderson at Montana in 1994. More importantly, the Eagles had seized the momentum and Sac State never got it back.
The Eastern defense forced a three-and-out on the Hornets’ next possession, and the Eagles took advantage with a 13-play, 75-yard drive capped by Jabari Wilson’s fourth-down TD run.
That gave Eagles the lead for good, 21-20, and after an exchange of punts, they got a gift when Sac State (1-3) muffed a punt at its own 25 and Eastern linebacker Alek Kacmarcik recovered.
Three plays later, West threw a 22-yard rainbow that found Cooper Kupp on the right side of the end zone and a 28-20 lead.
“Our team did a great job of attacking that second half. But we can learn from going on the road and how we start. We need to stay more consistent throughout the game,” Baldwin said.
The Eagles (2-2) still had to endure some anxious moments in the fourth quarter, but the Eastern defense held Sac State to 68 yards in the second half to fend off any comeback threats.
As they did the week before against Montana State, the Eagles rode the arm of West, who threw for a school-record 491 yards while completing 29 of 47 passes for three TDs and one interception.
“It’s a tribute to coach (Zak) Hill and what he’s done to coach and develop those quarterbacks. It’s also a tribute to Jordan and what he’s done to work hard and take on this tough challenge,” Baldwin said.
Against the Hornets, the challenge stiffened in the first half. Eastern led 7-3 midway through the first quarter, but was dominated on both sides of the ball.
Taking over on its own 47 after an exchange of punts, Sac State needed just three plays to retake the lead on Daniel Kniffin’s 45-yard pass to Isiah Hennie, who overcame tight coverage and outraced two Eagle defenders to the end zone.
In the second quarter, the Hornets embarked on an epic, 18-play, 88-yard drive that consumed more than eight minutes and ended with Jordan Robinson’s 2-yard touchdown run.
That made it 17-7. The Hornets pushed the lead to 20-7 on a 26-yard field goal with 25 seconds left in the half.
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