After a first-half burst demonstrated just how dominant Eastern Washington’s offense can be, a second-half stall showed that even a five-touchdown lead isn’t always safe.
In the end, it barely was.
Senior quarterback Eric Barriere struggled through the Eagles’ final five drives of the game, even missing one of them entirely. But he scrambled for a key first down in the game’s final minutes to deny Western Illinois the chance at a go-ahead drive and to instead secure a 62-56 victory for Eastern on Saturday.
The seventh-ranked Eagles escaped Macomb, Illinois, with a perfect 3-0 record, one they haven’t had since 2007.
Barriere finished with a career-high 542 passing yards on 31 of 45 attempts, leading an offense that racked up 754 yards of offense, the most Eastern has ever recorded against another Division I team. Barriere’s six touchdowns tied him with Gage Gubrud at 87 career touchdowns, third on the Eagles’ all-time list.
The Eagles also scored 55 first-half points, topping the record 46 they scored a week ago against Division II Central Washington.
That was when everything was looking quite good for the Eagles, who broke a 21-21 tie by scoring 34 straight points, capped by a 51-yard touchdown catch by senior Johnny Edwards IV just before halftime.
They rolled into the second half, too, when Dennis Merritt scampered 73 yards for a touchdown that made the score 62-28.
By then, Barriere had thrown touchdowns to Efton Chism III, Merritt, Edwards (for 76 yards), Talolo Limu-Jones and Freddie Roberson. He also had 487 passing yards, the most ever thrown in a half by an FCS quarterback.
On the Eagles’ next drive, though, Merritt was stuffed on a 4th-and-1 play at the Western Illinois 21-yard line. At that point, they had 718 yards of offense.
On their next five drives they added just 36 more yards. Three times, they went three-and-out. Four times, they punted.
“We (both teams) played in the heat. That’s the go-to for most people, but we both played in it,” Eagles coach Aaron Best said in a postgame radio interview. “We scored 55 points in the first half on offense in the same heat, and it actually got cooler in the second half. I’m not interested in justifications as to why there wasn’t as much explosion in the second half.”
Meanwhile, the Leathernecks (0-3) just kept scoring.
They scored the game’s final 28 points, including touchdowns on their last three drives. Throughout the game, the Leathernecks were more methodical on offense, possessing the ball for more than 35 minutes. They also converted on all three fourth-down attempts and scored touchdowns on all six of their red-zone visits.
They also made all their extra-point attempts – Eastern’s Seth Harrison had one blocked – and that looked like it might prove crucial after WIU senior wide receiver Dennis Houston scored his third touchdown of the game on an 8-yard reception with 2:02 left, cutting Eastern’s lead to six points.
Calin Criner recovered the subsequent onside kick, but the Leathernecks still had three timeouts, and two plays later the Eagles faced third-and-7 at the WIU 42. That’s when Barriere scrambled for 10 yards and a first down, and from there the Eagles were able to extinguish what remained on the clock.
The game featured only one turnover, an interception by Eastern’s Demetrius Crosby Jr. in the third quarter, and the teams combined for just three sacks.
Houston led the Leathernecks, catching 11 passes for 175 yards while also carrying three times for another 50. Senior quarterback Connor Sampson threw for 425 yards on 31 of 46 attempts and tossed four touchdowns.
For Merritt, Eastern’s senior starting running back, the game marked his second 100-yard effort in a row. He carried 12 times for a career-high 148 yards and two scores and also added 63 yards on four receptions.
This was the first time Eastern had played Western Illinois, a member of the Missouri Valley Conference, which is scheduled for a rematch in Cheney in 2025.
Eastern opens Big Sky Conference play next Saturday at Southern Utah.
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