In a city where the Eastern Washington football team has struggled in the past, and with a rivalry game looming next week, the Eagles suffered no demons or distractions on Saturday night.
For the third consecutive week their offense had its way with an opposing defense, this time racking up the 11th-best single-game yardage total in program history in a 50-21 victory over Southern Utah at Rice-Eccles Stadium in the Big Sky Conference opener for both teams.
The sixth-ranked Eagles, 4-0 for the first time in 24 years, had 673 yards of offense, gained at a rate of 8.2 per play. In its past three games, the Eastern offense has amassed 2,072 yards while committing no turnovers.
Saturday, senior Eric Barriere threw for 518 of those on 30 of 43 attempts. He threw four touchdowns, and running back Dennis Merritt ran for three more. Merritt has nine on the season, the most in the Big Sky.
The Eagles never punted – though they lined up to do so on the fourth play of the game – and they sustained five drives of at least 10 plays.
EWU redshirt freshman Efton Chism III scored two touchdowns, the first of the game as well as the last. He finished with a career-high 147 yards on eight receptions, including a 36-yarder on a fake punt that continued the Eagles’ opening drive.
Eastern has not played up to expectations in Cedar City, Utah. This was the fifth straight time they had played at Southern Utah as a ranked team, and two of the previous four times the Eagles had lost, including in 2012 as the top-ranked team in the FCS.
Last week, Eastern’s offense stalled after halftime, and the Eagles just barely withstood Western Illinois’ second-half comeback attempt, holding on for a 62-56 victory.
Add to that a looming contest against No. 4 Montana next week, and the circumstances of this contest against Southern Utah looked murky for the Eagles.
But the Eagles were mostly unfazed, leading the entire game. They didn’t let up in the second half, when they outgained the Thunderbirds 263-157 and outscored them 20-7.
Yet Southern Utah (1-3, 0-1) had its opportunities. It opened the second half with an eight-play, 75-yard touchdown drive that got the Thunderbirds within single digits at 30-21.
Then, EWU’s Seth Harrison missed a field-goal attempt. On the Eagles’ next drive with the score still the same, a penalty – one of 10 called against the Eagles – set Barriere and the offense against a third-and-23 from the Southern Utah 45-yard line.
The Thunderbirds dropped eight players into coverage on the play, but Barriere stepped into the clean pocket and threw over all those defenders to Talolo Limu-Jones in the end zone. That touchdown and extra point made the score 37-21.
From there, the Eastern defense forced a three-and-out and popped loose a fumble, which Brock Harrison recovered. The Eagles scored touchdowns on their next two drives, and their defense didn’t surrender any more points.
“At halftime, we talked as coaches and as a team about urgency,” Eagles coach Aaron Best said in his postgame radio interview. “We were playing OK (in the first half), but our lack of urgency allowed us to not play as well as we could. … We had more urgency in the last 30 minutes.”
Next up is a game against 3-0 Montana at Roos Field, a place the Eagles have played once this season.
“I don’t think we need to get fired up,” Chism said in his postgame radio interview. “We’re already fired up.”
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