A day later than first planned, Eastern Washington headed into “The Swamp” in Gainesville and acquitted itself offensively in a way it hadn’t earlier this season against another Football Bowl Subdivision team.
But defensively the Eagles simply were not up to the task of slowing a speedy Florida Gators offense.
Florida needed just 20 offensive plays to score touchdowns on each of its first five drives, and the Gators overwhelmed the Eagles 52-17 on Sunday as Eastern wrapped up its nonconference schedule.
“There was a lot of life outside of the fourth quarter,” EWU coach Aaron Best said after the game. “It just didn’t go our way against a really good football team.”
Eastern (1-3 overall, 0-1 Big Sky) possessed the football for almost 13 minutes more than Florida did, but that was a function of the Gators scoring quickly as much as it was the Eagles’ 411-yard offensive output. Florida (3-2, 0-2 SEC) gained 666 yards and did so over the course of just 50 plays, an average of 13.3 yards per play.
Playing a team from the Southeastern Conference for the first time in program history, the Eagles fielded a defense that was without three of its starters, one at each level : Tackle Josh Jerome, linebacker Jaren Banks and cornerback Demetrius Crosby Jr. all did not play.
The Gators never punted nor did they have a drive last longer than 4 minutes, 22 seconds.
Meanwhile, the Eagles found room against the Gators defense that they hadn’t against Oregon three weeks ago, when Eastern lost 70-14 in Eugene. In that game the Eagles mustered just 187 yards of offense and allowed the Ducks to gain 604.
On each of the Eagles’ first two drives against the Gators, quarterback Gunner Talkington drove Eastern into Florida’s red zone, running 24 plays across the two drives. But on the first they settled for a 44-yard Seth Harrison field goal that gave Eastern an early 3-0 lead, and on the next – which followed a one-play, 75-yard touchdown drive by the Gators – the Eagles failed to convert on a fourth-and-1 play from the Gators’ 18-yard line.
They punted the next two drives and fumbled on the next, and by halftime the Gators had built a 35-3 lead.
“I thought we controlled the ball and moved the sticks. On third down (8 for 18), we moved the sticks to get to a new set of chains,” Best said. “It was a different vibe and a different feeling overall even if the end result was the same (as against Oregon).
“We played way better ball today on a different sort of week.”
Trailing 52-3 in the fourth quarter, Eastern finally got into the end zone twice: first on a 28-yard pass from Talkington to Jakobie James, and then on a 25-yard run from backup quarterback Kekoa Visperas, his first career touchdown.
Talkington completed 24 of 37 passes for 250 yards and for the second time this season did not throw an interception. The Eagles also ran for 153 yards, led by redshirt freshman Tuna Altahir, who had 48 on 15 carries.
Junior Freddie Roberson led Florida receivers with 62 receiving yards on four catches, while sophomore Efton Chism III had five catches for 59 yards.
Eastern achieved a season-high 27 first downs and ran a season-high 85 plays while turning over the football just once, on a fumble by running back Justice Jackson.
“We held our own for pockets. We did some good things, and it was good to see some of those guys at the end make plays, and not just get into the game,” Best said. “Now it’s the challenge of doing that against Big Sky Conference play.”
The Eagles play at FCS No. 8 Weber State (4-0, 1-0) on Saturday, with their next home game coming the following week against No. 5 Sacramento State (4-0, 1-0).
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