The carousel of kickers for the Eastern Washington football team took a new spin in the Eagles’ 19-9 first-round playoff victory over Northern Iowa on Saturday at Roos Field.
After Jackson Cleaver missed a 27-yard field-goal attempt and an extra point on the next drive, coach Aaron Best went with freshman Wyatt Hawkins the rest of the game. Seth Harrison, the starter each of the past two seasons, hasn’t kicked since missing an extra point at the end of the team’s 35-34 loss to Weber State in October. Best has said previously that Harrison has been hampered by an injury all season.
Hawkins steadied the kicking unit . He made both of his field-goal attempts, from 22 and 30 yards, the first of his EWU career, and hammered through an extra point in the second half that gave the Eagles a 16-7 lead.
“Wyatt Hawkins came through and gave us a shot in the arm of confidence in the kick game,” Best said. “And that’s what great teams do: They step up, even in the midst of a game.”
The Eagles have made 11 of 20 field-goal attempts this season. Their opponents have combined to make 9 of 13 against Eastern.
EWU punter Nick Kokich tied a season high with three punts of 50 yards or more , though he had one nearly blocked in the second half. Still, just one was returned, and that for no yards.
Kokich might have punted a sixth time, but ahead 19-7 with 3:51 left in the game, Best opted to have Kokich take a safety when the team lined up for a punt on fourth down from its 4-yard line.
The move worked out: Even though the ensuing free kick gave the Panthers the ball at the 50-yard line – their best starting field position of the game – they gained just 8 yards on four plays, and the Eagles got the ball back.
“Punting the ball (there) probably doesn’t bode well for us,” Best said of his decision-making process. “(They) probably (get) it on the plus side of the 50 with their offense, (and it) puts you in a potential 19-14 situation with them kicking off (if they score).
“We figured we’d put it at a 10-point game at 19-9 and be able to kick off rather than punt from the back of our end zone.”
EWU’s net punting average this season is 38.1 yards, seventh among the 13 Big Sky teams.
Crosby leads EWU’s secondary
A depleted Eagles secondary relied on its depth to produce big plays, namely junior Keshaun King – who had two interceptions – and sophomore Demetrius Crosby Jr.
As a team, the Eagles set a program playoff record with 12 pass breakups, including four by Crosby, which set an individual playoff record for the team as well.
“Demetrius plays grumpy. He plays best when he’s grumpy, and that’s how we like it,” Best said.
“That’s a confidence that’s building, and it builds over time.”
The Eagles faced two UNI quarterbacks. Starter Theo Day, a sophomore, was injured in the first half. He led the Panthers’ first two drives in the second half but gave way to freshman Matt Morrissey, who hadn’t attempted a pass all season.
Day finished 12 of 22 with a touchdown and an interception; Morrissey went 10 of 28 and threw two picks.
Both faced a variety of pressures from the Eagles, who didn’t veer much from their standard defensive Cover-1 system, UNI coach Mark Farley said.
“(Day) got hit and he’ll be fine. He was hurt,” Farley said. “He couldn’t run, but that wasn’t the difference in the football game.
“The difference in the football game was we moved the ball to the red zone and then we didn’t perform in the red zone.”
Eastern forced multiple turnovers for the eighth consecutive game and is 66-1 since 2010 when it forces more turnovers than it gives away.
They did so without safeties Ely Doyle, who didn’t play at all, and Anthany Smith, who left midgame and finished with five tackles.
“It works hand in hand: The rush helps the DBs, the DBs help the rush. It’s complementary that way,” Best said. “I think we got enough pressure at times with some of our stunts, some of our straight rushes, some of our pressures, to allow those guys on the back end to play a little more confidently.”
UNI’s nine points were the fewest scored by an EWU opponent this season and the fewest Eastern has allowed since a 48-5 victory over Idaho State in 2019.
Roberson finishes with big game
While senior receiver Talolo Limu-Jones was held without a first-half catch, sophomore Freddie Roberson asserted himself again in the passing game with a five-catch, 127-yard effort.
No catch was perhaps bigger than his 86-yard reception on a second-and-11 from the EWU 1-yard line in the first quarter. It was the team’s longest play from scrimmage this season.
Roberson has 46 receptions for 754 yards, third most on the team behind Limu-Jones (907) and senior Andrew Boston (828).
Barriere targeted Roberson a team-high nine times against UNI. Boston caught 4 of 8 targets for 37 yards, Limu-Jones 2 of 6 for a season-low 18 yards.
Redshirt freshman Efton Chism III caught all five targets for 32 yards. He has 709 yards this season.
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