You have to give it to Idaho coach Paul Petrino.
His team may not have been able to stop the Eastern Washington offense, but he certainly was right about the formula.
A desperate Weber State team came to Roos Field with its playoff hopes on the line and ran the ball, possessed it for more than 35 minutes and kept Eric Barriere on the sidelines.
And though the Eagles came to life in the fourth quarter, they missed an extra point that would have tied the game with 2:51 left, and No. 2 Eastern Washington lost for the first time this season on Saturday, 35-34 at Roos Field.
“Would have loved to kick the extra point,” Eagles coach Aaron Best said. “It’s something that, again, most teams take for granted … but there was a lot of stuff before that.”
On the same field last week against Idaho, Eastern Washington’s offense racked up more yards than it ever had in program history, and afterward Petrino said that the way a team could beat the Eagles is to sustain drives, get a couple stops and do enough on offense to outscore them.
Weber State ran 95 plays on Saturday afternoon – Eastern’s previous opponents this season had run, on average, 69 – and became the first team to outgain Eastern this year, 482 to 434, while sustaining six scoring drives of at least seven plays.
The Wildcats also forced the Eagles (7-1, 4-1 Big Sky) to punt six times after they didn’t punt at all in last week’s 71-21 victory over Idaho.
And by the end, the Wildcats had scored more than the Eagles.
So for coach Jay Hill’s squad: check, check, check.
Against the third-ranked passing defense in the Football Championship Subdivision, an Eastern Washington offense that had outclassed all of its peers suddenly – and specifically in the third quarter – just wasn’t itself anymore.
“We just couldn’t really, honestly, find a groove,” Best said.
Yet the Eagles were ahead most of the game. They scored first on a 13-yard Barriere touchdown run, and they quickly answered Kris Jackson’s touchdown early in the second quarter with a 13-play, 88-yard scoring drive capped by Dylan Ingram’s three-yard touchdown catch.
But there were also issues for the Eagles. They fumbled five times in the first quarter and lost two of them, providing Weber State with the extra opportunities that the Wildcats had been giving to other teams in their previous two losses.
Because it wasn’t as if the Wildcats (3-4, 2-2) hadn’t shown their potency this year: Their two victories this season, against FCS teams, were by more than 30 points.
But against good teams – and they had played three top-10 ranked FCS teams already – the Wildcats had lost the turnover battle.
They won it against the Eagles, though – they were plus-2 in the first half – and while Eastern led 14-13 at halftime, Best wasn’t settled about it.
“With the lead going into halftime, the feel wasn’t a lead,” he said.
Then came a third-quarter performance that doomed the Eagles. Their offense gained just nine yards in the frame and went three-and-out on four consecutive drives.
The bright spot for them actually came on Weber State’s opening drive of the third quarter, when Mitchell Johnson sacked quarterback Bronson Barron and forced a fumble. Caleb Davis picked it up and rumbled near the end zone, and two plays later Dennis Merritt scored from four yards out to make it 21-13.
But as Eastern’s offense went dormant, the Wildcats’ chugged along. They scored the next three touchdowns – plus two extra points, as well as a two-point conversion that proved crucial – to take a 35-21 lead with 8:42 left.
“We ran the ball at times, but it was choppy,” he said. “Really really choppy. Just no flow, no flow, especially on offense.”
After that, Barriere was finally able to find some space in the Weber State defense. He led a 10-play, 74-yard drive that lasted just 2:24, capped by Blake Gobel’s 30-yard touchdown – the team’s longest play of the game – to cut the lead to 35-28.
Three plays into Weber’s next drive, Joshua Jerome forced the ball out from Jackson’s arms, Criner recovered it, and the Eagles had possession again with 4:48 left.
Barriere scampered and hurdled his way for 24 yards on the first play, and five plays later Merritt scored again, twisting and stretching for a one-yard score – Merritt’s FCS-best 13th rushing touchdown – to pull the Eagles within a point.
But after the missed extra point, the Wildcats were able to get two first downs on the last drive to seal the victory.
It ended a 20-game home winning streak for the Eagles, a streak that started after Weber State’s victory at Roos Field in 2017. Weber State remains the only Big Sky team that Aaron Best has not defeated as Eastern’s head coach.
Eastern has a bye next week before playing its final regular-season home game of the season against eighth-ranked Montana State (7-1, 5-0), which defeated Idaho State (1-6, 1-4) on Saturday to remain unbeaten in Big Sky play.
“Every game is won Sunday through Friday, and everybody thought we had a good week of preparation, and it didn’t work out,” Jerome said. “(We will) go back, let this one go until the end of the night and get back to work tomorrow morning.”
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