As temperatures dropped at Roos Field on Saturday, fifth-ranked Eastern Washington turned up the heat.
The Eagles had 669 total yards and shut down one of the country’s most potent offenses in 59-20 rout of fourth-ranked UC Davis, returning to the top of the Big Sky Conference standings and likely cementing a return to the FCS playoffs.
EWU (8-2, 6-1), UC Davis (8-2, 6-1) and Weber State (8-2, 6-1) are in a three-way tie going into the final week of the regular season.
The Eagles can clinch at least a share of the conference title with a win at Portland State (4-6, 3-4) on Friday and potentially earn a first-round bye.
EWU coach Aaron Best’s voice was hoarse after the decisive win, which came in foggy, 30-degree conditions.
“You want to play the best to see if you can become the best, and we did that today,” Best said. “Everybody outside of Eagle Nation didn’t give us a chance, and we love it.
“We are a complete team and we’ve showed that for 10 weeks. I’m going to continue to beat our drum – this team is selfless and they showed today how well they can execute.”
Locking down quarterback Jake Maier and receiver Keelan Doss – both Walter Payton Award candidates – put EWU in a position to potentially hoist a trophy.
The Eagles’ relentless pressure disconcerted Maier, who completed 23 of 42 passes for 195 yards and two interceptions. He had just four interceptions going into the game.
Doss, who led the FCS in receiving yards last season and has the attention of several NFL scouts, was held to five catches for 70 yards.
UC Davis averaged a Big Sky-best 43 points a game heading in. Outside of 46- and 69-yard touchdown runs, the Aggies reached the red zone just once and settled for a field goal.
EWU surrendered 395 yards, 114 on UC Davis’ first two drives when it jumped to a 10-0 lead.
“We knew what we could do,” said EWU cornerback Nzuzi Webster, part of a defense that surrendered just 15.3 points in the Eagles’ previous conference games. “We didn’t think we had something to prove. We knew they were a high-scoring offense, but we came out and showed everybody.”
The Eagles, playing in front of a sellout crowd on Senior Day, swiftly erased the deficit with touchdown runs from running backs Antoine Custer, Sam McPherson and Tamarick Pierce.
The trio finished the day with two touchdowns apiece for a running game that totaled 372 yards.
Custer (104 yards) and McPherson (99 yards) led the way.
“The run game was huge today, very huge,” said receiver Nsimba Webster, who had three catches for 103 yards. “And it opened up the passing as well. It was just a great offensive game.”
UC Davis, which is 0-7 against EWU, had flashes of efficiency before the Eagles outscored the Aggies 24-0 in the fourth quarter.
Tehran Thomas’ 69-yard touchdown run made it 21-17 just before the half. The Eagles appeared they were going to answer on the first drive of third quarter, but receiver Terrence Grady fumbled in the red zone.
Instead of UC Davis driving and scoring a go-ahead touchdown, Nzuzi Webster made a game-changing play.
Webster jumped a underneath route while covering Doss, intercepted Maier and bolted 45 yards for the first touchdown of his college career.
“That was a great play and a real back-breaker,” UC Davis coach Dan Hawkins said. “And things really snowballed from there.”
EWU sophomore quarterback Eric Barriere completed 16 of 30 passes for 285 yards and a touchdown with no interceptions.
Barriere, who is 4-1 as a starter this season after replacing the injured Gage Gubrud, also had a couple of dazzling runs, including the hurdling of a defender in the fourth quarter.
Hawkins, the former Boise State and Colorado coach who is in his second year at Davis, tipped his cap to EWU, which has the country’s top-ranked offense.
“They outcoached us, they outplayed us, and they really took it to us,” Hawkins said. “Give them credit, they were better in all phases of the game.”
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