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Defense lets down Eastern Washington again in season-ending loss to Northern Arizona

Eastern Washington's Efton Chism III runs against Northern Arizona on Saturday at Roos Field in Cheney.  (Courtesy of EWU Athletics)
By Dan Thompson The Spokesman-Review

CHENEY – Heading into this season, Eastern Washington hit the transfer portal more aggressively than ever, bringing in at least a handful of defensive players whose presence would, if all went well, return the unit to respectability just as the offense matured into a group that could match the scoring prowess of so many predecessors.

But what was apparent again on Saturday, even as some of those transferring seniors made the biggest impact of any game so far, is that only half that plan came to fruition.

The Eagles boast one of the most potent offenses in the Big Sky, but they lost yet another high-scoring affair in their season finale at Roos Field, a 49-42 loss to the Northern Arizona Lumberjacks.

“At the end of the day,” EWU head coach Aaron Best said, “we didn’t get enough stops on defense, and we didn’t score enough points on offense.”

That was Best’s refrain throughout a 4-7 season, the program’s second losing campaign in a row, a phenomenon last seen in Cheney during the 1994 and 1995 seasons, before the birth of any current Eagles players and even before the first time Best donned an EWU jersey as an offensive lineman during his playing days.

Not enough defense. Not enough offense.

“They went up 28 points, 35-7, in just a snap of a finger,” said sixth-year senior Jaren Banks, who made a season-high 10 tackles. “It was tough to come back from that.”

That the Eagles came back to tie it at 35 in the third quarter wasn’t because of any major adjustments, Banks said.

“I think we took it for granted at the start,” Banks said. “It’s an emotional day with senior day. But it just came down to more energy. You could feel it.”

It was Banks who started the comeback. With four minutes to go until halftime, Northern Arizona botched a handoff; Banks was there already, prepared to make a tackle.

But then he saw the ball on the turf.

“Usually it was one of those you want to fall on,” Banks said, “but I think it was the little senior in me saying, ‘I’m going to try to pick it up and score.’ “

That’s precisely what he did, giving the Eagles their first scoop-and-score since 2019.

“We were kind of dead to begin the game,” junior receiver Efton Chism III said. “We knew it on the sideline, and sometimes you just need that one play to get you going. Obviously, it would be better if we can come out already motivated, but sometimes it can happen in sports. You need a little extra. So when Jaren got that huge touchdown, it got us going.”

The Eagles’ defense followed with a stop, and redshirt sophomore Kekoa Visperas capped a six-play, 55-yard drive by lofting a pass to Chism for a 39-yard touchdown.

Just like that, the Eagles were back in it, down 35-21 at half.

After scoring touchdowns on five of their first six drives – the lone exception ending on an endzone interception by Eagles redshirt sophomore safety Zane Thornton – the Lumberjacks went their next seven drives without scoring points.

On one of those seven drives they got to the cusp of the end zone, but EWU junior Derek Tommasini popped the ball from redshirt freshman quarterback Angel Flores as he reached for the end zone. Thornton, a walk-on who was honored among the seniors in the pregame ceremony, fell on the ball for his second turnover of the game. Thornton came into the game with 11 tackles, but he added nine more in his final game with the Eagles.

Senior transfers Ben Allen and Da’Marcus Johnson finished with 11 and 10 tackles, respectively. The defensive end Johnson had two sacks and finished as the team’s season leader with 5.5.

Redshirt senior Trevion Shadrick-Harris, a transfer who still has one more year of eligibility, also had 11 tackles in his most significant time of the season, as the Eagles played without usual starting safeties Kentrell Williams Jr. and Derek Ganter Jr.

“Regardless of how long you’ve been here, those guys put their heart and soul into this logo,” Chism said of the seniors. “They never quit.”

As Eastern’s defense strung together stops, its offense – the fourth-highest scoring in the Big Sky – got going. Late in the third, redshirt sophomore Tuna Altahir rumbled for a 62-yard touchdown, the longest run of his career and the Eagles’ longest play from scrimmage this season.

Then, Chism scored on a 13-yard touchdown catch-and-run that included a wicked cutback five yards from the end zone. That tied the game at 35 with 10:34 to go.

But Northern Arizona retook the lead on its next drive with a 14-yard touchdown catch by Marcus Phillips Jr. and then forced the Eagles to go three-and-out.

Five plays later and facing third-and-13, Flores lofted a pass over two Eagles defenders into the arms of BJ Fleming, who ran the rest of the 76 yards to the end zone.

Chism scored again for the Eagles, the first three-score game of his career, to make it 49-42. But NAU recovered the ensuing onside kick and ran out the clock.

Chism finished with eight catches for 103 yards. Visperas completed 24 of 40 attempts for a season-high four touchdowns, but he also threw a season-high three interceptions, and an errant pitch to Altahir resulted in a lost fumble.

Eastern gave up a season-high 581 yards, which was 131 yards more than NAU’s offense had gained in any game this year.

The Eagles finished the season in 10th place in the 12-team Big Sky with a 3-5 league record, two games behind the Lumberjacks (5-6, 5-3).

“Obviously last year was not a great record, and this year was not a great record,” Chism said. “Yeah, one more win, but we want to be up in that top tier of the Big Sky again.”