Cold reality set in with half a minute to go: Eastern Washington won’t be winning a Big Sky Conference football title this year.
For the second game in a row, the other guys made the clutch plays while the Eagles were left to ponder the lapses.
In a game in which the biggest play from scrimmage was only 35 yards, it was the little things that added up to a costly 28-20 loss to Weber State at snowy Roos Field.
There were many: 75 yards in penalties – two of them quite costly – dropped passes, poor third-down performance on both sides of the ball and an anemic pass rush.
“We’ll keep building,” EWU coach Aaron Best said. “It’s about getting the sixth win – that’s our goal and our mission this next week.”
That’s the new goal, anyway. The usual standard – a Big Sky title – is out of reach with two games to go. Now the Eagles (5-4 overall, 4-2 in the Big Sky) must beat North Dakota and Portland State to have any chance at an FCS playoff spot.
Even then, the Eagles would likely spend Thanksgiving weekend on the road for the first time since 2009.
Coincidentally, that was the last time Eastern lost to Weber State, a traditional basketball power but making a football resurgence under third-year coach Jay Hill.
“We knew it was going to be a dogfight,” Best said. “We matched their energy and their effort, and it was a good old-fashioned defensive battle.”
That much was expected, given both teams’ recent form and the weather conditions. It was 33 degrees and snowing lightly at kickoff as 9,451 fans huddled for homecoming.
“But that didn’t affect us at all,” said Eastern wide receiver Nsimba Webster, who had a game-high 94 yards on seven catches.
Something plagued the Eastern offense, which was held to 383 yards while quarterback Gage Gubrud was only 22 for 42 for 239 yards.
After playing mostly man-to-man coverage in the first half, Weber State “mixed it up more” in the second half, Best said.
More important, the Eagles have gone three straight games without cracking 35 points. The last time that happened was 2015, which also was Eastern’s most recent nonplayoff season.
“We’re used to scoring more than that on offense and we didn’t get that done,” Best said.
The Eagles started strongly again and jumped out to leads of 7-0 and 14-7. They opened the game with a seven-play, 78-yard scoring drive that saw Gubrud complete four straight passes. Three of those went to Webster, including a 34-yarder against press coverage that went to the Weber State 29-yard line.
Eastern escaped disaster on its second possession, as Gubrud’s down-the-middle pass was nearly picked off by linebacker LeGran Toia.
Meanwhile, the Wildcats’ offense slowly gained traction.
On offense, the Wildcats (6-2, 5-1) got a solid performance from quarterback Stefan Cantwell (21 for 31 for 230 yards and three touchdowns).
Running when the Eagles expected the pass and vice versa, Cantwell also made the Eagles pay on occasion for ignoring All-American tight end Andrew Vollert.
“That’s a good ball player, and at times were allowed him to dictate things,” Best said of Vollert, who finished with five catches for 87 yards.
Weber State’s balanced offense (230 passing and 184 on the ground) gained traction in the second half. The Wildcats took the lead for good at 21-14 after a seven-play, 65-yard drive late in the third quarter.
Eastern answered with two long drives in the fourth quarter but had to settle for field goals on both occasions.
The last one cut the Weber State lead to 21-20 with seven minutes left, but the Wildcats ball-controlled their way down the field for first downs before David Jones ran for a 24-yard touchdown with 2:26 left.
Eastern failed to muster any offense in its last two chances. Two incompletes and a pair of sacks set up Weber State for a game-clinching field goal with 44 seconds left. Trey Tuttle was wide right from 27 yards, giving the Eagles one last faint chance.
Gubrud was unable to earn a first down before being intercepted at midfield for the only turnover of the game.
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