Eastern Washington lost twice on its famous red home turf a year ago and in those games were two constants: a third-quarter drought from the Eagles’ offense and an onslaught of rushing yards from their opponent.
Both factors were again at play in Eastern’s season opener Saturday at Roos Field when Tennessee State – doubtless having drawn from those losses to Montana State and Weber State – gained 290 yards rushing, and the Eagles mustered just 29 yards on 11 plays in the third quarter.
Right on script for an upset.
But in the fourth quarter of a tied game, quarterback Gunner Talkington led an 11-play, 75-yard touchdown drive to give the Eagles a lead, and on the ensuing series, backup cornerback Tre Weed picked off a long pass from Draylen Ellis with 44 seconds left to secure a 36-29 nonconference victory for 13th-ranked Eastern.
“You guys saw who you guys saw: Gunner Talkington,” EWU senior receiver Freddie Roberson said. “That’s just what he does. And that’s something we anticipated going into this season.”
Talkington entered the game with five career touchdown passes, a total he had cobbled together mostly while mopping up blowouts that Eric Barriere, his predecessor, had so often led.
But in playing for the first time as the clear No. 1 quarterback, Talkington stood out. He matched that total, throwing for five touchdowns and 348 yards on 29-of-46 attempts. He threw no interceptions and was sacked just once for an 8-yard loss.
And if that wasn’t enough, he led the team in rushing – something Barriere did just once last season – dashing for 68 yards on eight carries.
“I’m just super proud of him,” said defensive end Mitchell Johnson, one of Talkington’s roommates. “He’s a guy who’s been patient the last six years … He never doubted himself. He never took the doubt from other people as criticism; he took it as motivation.”
Talkington spread the ball around to 11 receivers, led by Roberson (six catches, 91 yards) and sophomore Efton Chism III, who caught six passes for two touchdowns, including what proved to be the winner. On second-and-goal from the 13-yard line, Talkington lofted a pass to the left side of the end zone, and Chism III caught it on a dive.
“Efton got behind the defender, (and) the ball was put in a really really good spot,” Eagles coach Aaron Best said.
“Efton’s not the largest individual, (but) he just gets football. He understands leverage.”
For as methodical as the Eagles’ offense was at times, especially during a first quarter in which the lead changed four times, Tennessee State’s was the one that produced most of the big plays.
It started with a shovel pass on the Tigers’ first play from scrimmage that Zack Dobson took for a 67-yard touchdown. Cam Wyche caught a 57-yard touchdown on the sixth play of the Tigers’ next possession, and then, with 51 seconds left in the first quarter, Devon Starling beat the Eagles’ defense for a 43-yard rushing score that gave Tennessee State a 19-15 lead.
In the first quarter, the Tigers had 255 yards of offense on just 20 plays.
But in the second quarter, the Eagles’ defense tightened and gave up just 30 more yards, holding the Tigers scoreless as Talkington led two more touchdown drives – capped by receptions by Blake Gobel and Chism – to give Eastern a 29-19 lead.
“It’s easy to get upset off an explosive play, but we’ve worked so hard together, all spring and all summer,” said Johnson, who led the team with 11 tackles and two sacks. “If one big play shoots out, all right, we’ll line up for the next one.”
Neither team scored in the third quarter, which was elongated by a 55-minute lightning delay.
After that, the Tigers mounted a comeback by returning to the running game. Early in the fourth quarter, they capped a 78-yard drive with a 32-yard field goal that made the score 29-22.
After inducing a three-and-out the Tigers sustained another long drive, which ended with a fourth-and-goal scramble by Ellis that tied the game with 6:32 left.
But the Eagles answered, converting on a key third-and-5 at the TSU 36-yard line to extend their final scoring drive.
Weed’s interception on the Tigers’ last drive was the third turnover forced by the defense, which gave up 547 total yards, the most they’d given up since allowing 643 in a 62-56 victory over Western Illinois on Sept. 18.
Only three times last season did the Eagles allow more than 200 rushing yards, and they lost each time.
But unlike those losses, on Saturday they converted in the red zone – scoring touchdowns on 4-of-5 trips – and Talkington didn’t make any costly mistakes.
“He played a pretty flawless game today,” Best said. “I was excited for him. It’s not easy when you’re taking over for Eric Barriere. I think he handled it extremely well.
“Now the first one’s behind him. We go forward from here.”
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