DAVIS, California – This is why Nsimba Webster came to Cheney in the first place.
He and twin brother Nzuzi left Northern California to win football games like the one Eastern Washington conjured Saturday night, a 41-38 comeback over UC Davis that looks even more improbable with an extra day’s hindsight.
Surrounded by his relatives from the Bay Area on a warm California night, the junior wide receiver talked about the need for the Eagles to “compete during adversity.”
Eastern faced plenty of it against the Aggies, who rolled up 551 yards of offense, controlled the clock, won the turnover battle by two and made most of the highlight-reel plays on both sides of the ball.
Yet it wasn’t enough. No, this was another “program” win for the Eagles, who still need just one hand to tally their Big Sky losses over the past five-plus seasons.
That’s a 38-5 record, if you’re counting, and the rest of the conference certainly is keeping track. As Webster pointed out, everyone else is bringing their A game against Eastern, and the Eagles need to do the same.
The Eagles (4-2 overall, 3-0 in the Big Sky) earned perhaps a B-plus in this one, but with some extra credit for out-grinding the Aggies in the fourth quarter.
Trailing by 31-20 with 11 1/2 minutes left, the Eagles replicated their comeback at Montana two weeks earlier with a pair of touchdowns less than two minutes apart.
The quickest – and the biggest – came from Webster, who took a short first-down pass over the middle from Gage Gubrud and outraced several defenders for a 71-yard score.
“That kind of ignited things,” Eastern coach Aaron Best said.
After an Aggie three-and-out, quarterback Gubrud turned to a new hero. Redshirt freshman wideout Talolo Limu-Jones had a big drop early in the game, but Gubrud trusted him enough to go deep for a 46-yard completion on first down.
Three plays later, Limu-Jones put the Eagles ahead with a 6-yard TD catch.
And that was the difference Saturday night as the hare beat the tortoise.
Davis retook the lead with less than five minutes left, but Gubrud was unflappable on a 12-play, 75-yard drive and the eventual game-winner to Nic Sblendorio.
“We saw a lot of guts in that fourth quarter,” Best said. “I love walking into our locker room and looking into our team’s eyes,” Best said. “I know they’ll never quit on us or each other – no matter what the score is it doesn’t matter.
“They are a resilient bunch,” Best said.
That includes the defense, which gave up 551 yards but clamped down on the long completions in the second half. That may have induced UC Davis to get a bit too deliberate on its final drive, which ended in a missed 49-yard field goal with 15 seconds left.
But Gubrud is the engine, and he’s on quite a roll. He completed 33 of 53 passes for 452 passing yards and six touchdowns – his fourth-straight game with at least 399.
That should be good enough for a fourth-straight Big Sky Offensive Player of the Week award, although the conference might say enough is enough and give it to Northern Arizona quarterback Case Cookus after the Lumberjacks knocked off seventh-ranked Illinois State.
That’s called spreading the wealth – just what Gubrud did again Saturday night by connecting with 10 different receivers.
Even Gubrud’s worst play of the night didn’t hurt the Eagles. In the second quarter, his pass was batted down and returned to the Eastern 30, but the resulting field goal try was blocked.
That was the start of a 1-for-4 night for Davis kicker Max O’Rourke, and in that sense the Eagles dodged a few bullets.
However, this doesn’t feel like 2015, when the Eagles tight-roped their way through five straight Big Sky games before plummeting to three straight losses to the end of the season. The passing game is clicking, the defense is playing its best in the second half, and Eastern still has that something extra the rest of the conference lacks – confidence.
When it was over and Eastern had rallied for another won (for the 23rd time in the fourth quarter since 2010), Best was exhausted and exuberant at the same time.
“I’ll tell you what, I’m 39 going on 69. But if I’m going to do it I’m going to do it with this bunch,” Best said. “We did it in 2010 over and over and over, and I’m ready and willing to do it again.”
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