Early in the third quarter of Eastern Washington’s football season finale Saturday, running back Tuna Altahir took a handoff and cut back, found the sideline, dashed the rest of the 51 yards from scrimmage and crossed the goal line.
In doing so, he gave the Eagles something they hadn’t had all season: a two-touchdown lead.
Less than a minute later, that lead became a three-score advantage when Tre Weed did something that also was a first: He gained yards on an interception – 40, to be precise – and scored a touchdown.
Not a ton went right for the Eagles this season, but Saturday did. For the first time, Eastern played the type of game it wanted to play, and it ended in the Eagles’ most resounding victory of the season, 45-21 over Northern Colorado at Roos Field.
“I think we’re going to look back and be like, ‘Man, I wish we would have done this a little earlier,’” senior defensive end Mitchell Johnson said after his 58th career game at Eastern, second most in program history. “But things clicked today, and we played really good football.”
Johnson, who had a game-high three tackles for loss, led an Eagles defense that allowed a season-low 233 yards of offense, just 79 through the air. For just the second time this year, an opponent failed to rush for 200 yards against the Eagles’ defense, which ranked among the most vulnerable in the FCS this season.
It was the sort of defensive performance that had eluded the Eagles, and it complemented an offense that rushed for a season-high 261 yards.
Redshirt freshman Altahir led the way, setting career bests in yards (153) and carries (23). In addition to his 51-yard rushing touchdown, he also scored on a 7-yard reception.
“When you’re efficient in the pass game, when you run the ball, and (when you are) 50% on third down, you’ve usually got a pretty good shot,” Eagles coach Aaron Best said.
There was some uncertainty through the week as to who would lead the Eagles at quarterback, and Best said he gave senior Gunner Talkington the week to see whether he would play.
But Talkington wore jeans and a boot on his left foot during pregame warmups, and so it was redshirt freshman Kekoa Visperas who started at quarterback for the first time with the Eagles. He acquitted himself well from the start, capping a nine-play, 75-yard scoring drive with a 6-yard touchdown run to give the Eagles a 7-0 lead.
He led the Eagles into the red zone on their next drive before the offense stalled on fourth-and-goal, and the next drive ended with a punt after five plays.
Visperas’ worst moment came on the next drive, when he was surrounded by two Bears defenders and heaved up a pass that was intercepted and returned for a touchdown. That gave UNC a 14-7 lead.
But after that, the Eagles scored touchdowns on three consecutive drives, first tying the game at 14 on a Silas Perreiah rushing touchdown and then building a 28-14 lead with Altahir’s back-to-back scores.
By the time he finally exited the game midway through the fourth quarter, Visperas had completed 17 of 21 attempts for 235 yards and two touchdowns, plus seven rushes for 33 yards and his opening score.
“Kekoa played very efficiently, very well, very confident, and the pick-six didn’t phase him,” Best said. “Sometimes with young guys either (a bad play) drives them into a bad spot, or it drives them into a good spot. … Gosh, it was fun to watch him.”
It was the most Visperas had played in a game all season after he played all of the second half last week in a 63-7 loss at Montana.
“Everything’s huge. Every opportunity is huge, and every play is huge,” Visperas said. “It teaches me something in itself (and) I can understand the pace of the game better each time.”
Visperas was throwing to a corps of receivers that for the first time all year did not include leading receivers Freddie Roberson, a junior, and Efton Chism III, a sophomore. Both were scratched late in the week, Best said.
That meant more snaps for sophomore Nolan Ulm and junior Athony Stell Jr., who scored his first career touchdown on a 42-yard pass play early in the fourth quarter, answering Northern Colorado’s touchdown late in the third.
Stell finished with a team-high 78 yards on four catches, and Ulm grabbed three for 41.
Northern Colorado, which finished the year 3-8 overall and 2-6 in the Big Sky just as Eastern Washington did, was led by senior Elijah Dotson, who had 116 rushing yards on 26 carries.
Bears senior quarterback Dylan McCaffrey completed 10 of 19 passes for 85 yards and two touchdowns along with two interceptions.
“It felt good,” Johnson said of the victory. “I mean, the season didn’t go how we wanted it to, but ending with a win definitely made it feel a lot better.
“We wanted to finish the season right, and I think we did that.”
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe to the sports newsletter
Get the day’s top sports headlines and breaking news delivered to your inbox by subscribing here.