PORTLAND – This was a moment 12 months in the making.
It began last November with a season-ending loss to Portland State. After that came the soul-searching and the winter grind that carried the Eagles through summer and a surprising fall.
The payoff came Friday night, with an uphill-all-the-way 35-28 win over those same Vikings that secured a Big Sky Conference title.
But this was less about payback than redemption and a return to the top of the conference heap for the fourth time in five years.
Now the Eagles can relax and wait for Sunday morning’s unveiling of the FCS bracket, which should leave them with a first-round bye and home games well into next month.
The extra time will come in handy, as All-American wide receiver Cooper Kupp injured his left shoulder in the third quarter and linebacker Miquiyah Zamora suffered a hamstring in the first half.
That was the least of Eastern’s problems in front of a mostly red-clad crowd of 5,669 at Providence Park. The Eagles trailed most of the night against the underdog Vikings, who fielded 22 players on Senior Day and played well above their 3-8 record.
Eastern fell into a 14-0 hole early, then played catch-up the rest of the way until the fourth quarter.
That’s when quarterback Gage Gubrud regained his form, directing a pair of 61-yard drives and gave the Eagles the lead for good with a 10-yard touchdown pass to Kendrick Bourne with 8 minutes left.
It was Bourne’s only catch of the night.
“Honestly, it was a relief,” said Bourne, a Portland native who had dozens of family and friends in the stands. “I’m at home in front of my whole family, and I was getting frustrated a little, but I was trying to stay patient.”
PSU mounted one lat bid for overtime, but Eastern defensive end Samson Ebukam – another Portlander – sacked quarterback Alex Kuresa on third down at the Eastern 23-yard-line.
That set up fourth-and-15 at the EWU 31, with Kuresa scrambling but falling 3 yards short. Eastern ran out the clock and the celebration began.
“It wasn’t looking good for us for a little bit, but we found a way,” said Gubrud, who was 24 for 41 for 304 yards, three touchdowns and one interception. “But winning the Big Sky, that feels pretty good.”
On this night, style points mattered less than the final result.
“That’s part of what I like about football and sports, the imperfections,” Eastern coach Beau Baldwin said. “I love the grind and going through moments that aren’t perfect, and how we respond as coaches and players.”
Portland State struck first, capping a 12-play, 84-yard drive with Kuresa’s 13-yard touchdown pass to Justin Calo. The Vikings picked up five first downs in the drive.
The Eagles almost caught a break on PSU’s second possession as EWU safety Mitch Fettig intercepted a second-down pass intended for Paris Penn at the EWU 30. Fettig was ruled out of bounds and PSU took the ball the rest of the way, taking a 14-0 lead on a 2-yard run by Maximo Espitia.
Eastern needed just five plays to answer, as Gubrud scrambled, then lofted a 46-yard pass that found Nic Sblendorio alone in the end zone.
Early in the second quarter, the Eagles escaped disaster on PSU’s first punt of the game, as the ball grazed the leg of Nzuzi Webster. As several Vikings stood nearby, Cooper Kupp alertly scooped up the ball and EWU took over at its 27.
The next Eastern possession went nowhere, but the Eagles got the ball back on cornerback Victor Gamboa’s interception of Kuresa’s third-down pass at the PSU 40.
Eastern dodged another bullet late in the second quarter. Kuresa hit tight end Charlie Taumoepeau for a 52-yard completion down the middle, but the Eagles’ defense stiffened. PSU settled for a 40-yard field-goal attempt that was blocked by Albert Havili.
The Eagles lost Kupp on the first series of the third quarter. Gubrud threw downfield and Kupp wrestled a 50-50 ball from PSU cornerback Darien Washington but came down hard on his left shoulder.
Eastern finished the drive, a 13-play, 65-yard affair capped by Pierce’s 2-yard plunge with 9:24 left in the third quarter. The Eagles converted two fourth downs along the way.
PSU regained the lead on Nate Tago’s 17-yard run, which was set up by Kuresa’s 40-yard keeper.
Eastern tied the game late in the third quarter on Gubrud’s 84-yard pass to Shaq Hill down the right sideline.
The Vikings went up 28-21 on Tago’s 1-yard run early in the fourth quarter, but Eastern tied the game for the fourth time on Pierce’s 6-yard run two minutes later.
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