Make no mistake: The Eagles will be back at Roos Field in a few weeks – presumably making fewer mistakes than they did Saturday night.
Eastern Washington committed four turnovers, but those were soon buried by a big-play offense that also buried Idaho State by the score of 48-17 in the final regular-season game of the year in Cheney.
However, the turnovers won’t be forgotten by coach Beau Baldwin and his staff, who are one win away from another Big Sky Conference title and run at the postseason.
“Every year I’ve ever coached – even the best of years – you go through moments where things aren’t perfect,” Baldwin said after the Eagles’ eighth consecutive win, which moved them to 9-1 overall and 7-0 in the conference.
If they win at Portland State on Friday night, the Eagles will host playoff games at least through the quarterfinals.
That was far from Baldwin’s mind after the game.
“Regardless of how the score ended up, we need to work on the little things so we can keep progressing as a team. I think over we’ve been doing that really well this year, but we just took a couple of steps back today,” Baldwin said.
Not that the Eagles didn’t have any excuses for another mediocre first half, which ended with Eastern up by 20-10 against an ISU team that ranks near the bottom of the league in every major offensive and defensive category.
There were plenty of distractions. It was Senior Day. It also was Cooper-Kupp-Breaks-the-Record Day.
There also was distraction of the scoreboard, which showed North Dakota rallying past Northern Arizona clinching a share of the Big Sky title.
And there was Idaho State, which is 2-8 overall and 1-7 in the Big Sky.
“When you play a team with not a great record, you definitely have to work on focusing and attacking it,” linebacker Alek Kacmarcik said.
“Early in the game, we were fighting to get in a rhythm … but we stuck with the game plan and it worked out,” said Kacmarcik, who finished with 11 tackles.
The offense finally found its way on a windy day, racking up 557 yards of total offense. However, quarterback Gage Gubrud fumbled twice in the first half, setting up one ISU touchdown and stopping another EWU drive deep in Bengal territory.
Senior Day produced some timely heroics from a pair of freshmen.
Midway through the second quarter, Eastern led only 7-3 and was forced to punt from its 40. Dascalo’s punt grazed the leg of ISU’s Brandon Monroe and Tysen Prunty pounced on the ball at the Bengals’ 32.
Four plays later, Gubrud hit Shaq Hill on a short curl route that Hill turned into a 9-yard touchdown that put EWU up 14-3.
After forcing another ISU punt, Eastern took over on its 17 with less than 3 minutes to play. True freshman running back Antoine Custer Jr. took the handoff, juked two would-be tacklers and followed Kupp’s blocks for an 83-yard touchdown run.
“I just wanted to make the first man miss and don’t get caught from behind,” said Custer, who finished with a game-high 141 yards.
That made it 20-3, but ISU made it a 10-point game just before halftime.
The three-score advantage was restored less than 2 minutes into the second half, as Kupp scored the first rushing touchdown of his career on a 3-yard sweep to make it 27-10.
The Bengals kept things interesting in the third quarter. They drove 65 yards in 13 plays, scoring on a fourth-down keeper by quarterback Trael Pilster, then recovered a fumble by EWU tight end Zach Wimberly on the ISU 30.
But Eastern’s defense forced a three-and-out and a punt, which Kupp returned 76 yards for a touchdown to put Eastern ahead 34-17.
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