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Antoine Custer, defense help Eastern Washington hold off North Dakota 35-20 in snowy Big Sky opener

UPDATED: Sat., Sept. 28, 2019, 9:19 p.m.

Eastern Washington University’s Antoine Custer Jr., center, scampers into the end zone for a touchdown against North Dakota Saturday, Sept. 28, 2019 at Roos Field in Cheney. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Eastern Washington University’s Antoine Custer Jr., center, scampers into the end zone for a touchdown against North Dakota Saturday, Sept. 28, 2019 at Roos Field in Cheney. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

September snowflakes are rare.

Eastern Washington’s 35-20 dispatching of North Dakota wasn’t.

The Eagles went to the ground often in soggy, winterlike conditions, totaling 284 rushing yards Saturday to hold off UND in their Big Sky Conference opener at Roos Field.

The Fighting Hawks, ranked No. 25 in Football Championship Subdivision coaches poll, have never beaten EWU, a five-game streak of futility.

An inspired EWU defense and offensive line – two groups that bucked their early season troubles – helped the No. 21 Eagles (2-3, 1-0 Big Sky) get back on track after back-to-back losses.

The duo of senior scatback Antoine Custer (134 yards, three touchdowns) and true freshman Silas Perreiah (129 yards, touchdown) ran hard behind the senior-laden line. Perrieah, a Northwest Christian product, helped seal the win with a touchdown run midway through the fourth quarter.

“We’re 1-0 in conference and that’s all that matters to us,” EWU safety Calin Criner said. “Now we have to go 1-0 each week.”

EWU forced six turnovers, totaled five sacks and limited UND to 124 first-half yards, helping the Eagles race out to a 28-7 halftime lead.

But when the Eagles’ offense experienced its latest second-half lull and UND cut EWU’s lead to 28-20 in the fourth quarter, a pair of big defensive plays helped EWU avoid the upset.

Criner’s second interception of UND quarterback Nate Ketteringham in EWU territory stopped a potential-game tying drive at the 11:36 mark of the fourth quarter.

UND (2-2) had another opportunity to knot the contest, but defensive tackle Keith Moore’s strip sack of Ketteringham was recovered by Jim Townsend on the Fighting Hawks’ 19, setting up Perreiah’s touchdown.

Dehonta Hayes’ late interception doomed UND’s final comeback attempt.

“The first half was really a struggle for us, and I give (EWU credit),” UND coach Bubba Schweigert said. “We had too many turnovers, short fields. “Too many negative plays that hurt our football team.”

EWU avoided throwing in the slick conditions. Quarterback Eric Barriere, the nation’s second-leading passer, completed 6 of 15 throws for 93 yards and had a rushing touchdown.

Ketteringham, in his first back for UND after a Week 1 injury, tried. The two-year starter completed 19 of 43 passes for 211 yards, a touchdown and three interceptions.

“I don’t think we’ve ever won a game here throwing the ball 15 times in 25 years,” said EWU head coach Aaron Best, whose team didn’t commit a turnover. “And I don’t know if we could have said that five or six years ago.

“We can win in different ways, and today it was on the ground and playing defense.”

Four UND turnovers resulted in four touchdowns for EWU, which ranked in the bottom third of the FCS in most statistical categories following road losses to Idaho (35-27) and Jacksonville State (49-45).

“Last year we flew around and had swagger. We’ve had this year at times,” Criner said. “You could tell after those first two drives that we were settling down and finding our identity.”

Both teams battled against strange, inclement weather. Days removed from the last day of summer, temperatures dropped to 35 degrees, the wind blew at 20 mph and it rained and snowed throughout the game.

It showed on offense. EWU was 4 of 17 on third-down conversions and UND was 4 of 16, leading to a combined 15 punts.

UND was led by running back James Johannesson, who totaled 107 rushing yards and a touchdown.

Two years after leaving the Big Sky Conference, UND is in its final year as an independent FCS member that will transition to the Missouri Valley Conference in 2020.

Due to the 13-team conference’s unbalanced scheduling and the 2018 addition of Idaho, UND’s Big Sky-heavy schedule counts in Big Sky standings for its opponents this season, but not for the Fighting Hawks.

UND, which beat traditional FCS power Sam Houston State 27-23 at home two weeks ago, was searching for another résumé-boosting win, since it can only get to the playoffs by way of an at-large berth because of its independent status.

Instead, EWU, a team that was off its worst start in eight years, kept its goal of another Big Sky title alive.

“It doesn’t matter how pretty, it’s still a win,” Best said. “It doesn’t matter how ugly it is, it’s still a win. It doesn’t matter what kind of weather it’s in, it’s still a win.”

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