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Eastern Washington University Football

Eastern Washington can’t overcome defensive struggles, lose to Portland State 47-35

Eastern Washington receiver Efton Chism III finished with nine receptions for 130 yards Saturday against host Portland State.  (Courtesy EWU Athletics)
By Dan Thompson The Spokesman-Review

HILLSBORO, Ore. – All season, Eastern Washington’s improved play on offense and a neutral performance on special teams had been enough to cover for what has still been, for the second year in a row, one of the most porous defenses in the FCS.

On Saturday against Portland State, the Eagles tried to compensate for it in all sorts of ways. They tried onside kicks twice. They faked a punt. They ran the ball as well as they have all season.

But none of that was enough.

Led by Jobi Malary’s record-tying six-touchdown performance, the Portland State Vikings ran for 403 yards – gained at a clip of 7.8 yards per carry – and beat the Eagles 47-35 at Hillsboro Stadium in a game both teams had to have to keep their playoff hopes alive.

The Vikings were just the latest in a string of Eagles’ opponents to run the ball effectively. Malary led the way with a career-high 241 yards on 23 carries. He became the first Vikings player to score six rushing touchdowns since the record was set in 1976. In his career against Eastern, Malary has 482 rushing yards on 54 carries, setting personal season highs in each of three games.

“Really, I’d say we beat ourselves,” said EWU senior cornerback Marlon Jones Jr., who recorded his third interception of the season. “We weren’t assignment-sound. We didn’t execute as well as we should have. We saw the looks we expected in practice and we just weren’t making plays when the plays were presenting themselves.”

Four of Eastern’s eight opponents this season have rushed for at least 272 yards. Just one has rushed for less than 100, and that was only because Idaho State found plenty of space – 523 yards of space – through the air.

“(Our defense) couldn’t get off the field,” EWU head coach Aaron Best said. “You’re not going to win too many ball games giving up 47 points.”

The 47 points were the most Eastern has allowed this year, and the 35 its offense put up would have been enough to win all but two of its games. The Eagles are averaging 31.4 points this season, about a touchdown more than they did last year.

But 35 wasn’t enough – and it easily could have been a higher total. Four times Eastern’s offense stalled inside the Vikings’ 20-yard line and had to settle for field-goal attempts. The Eagles made three, a season high. They also weren’t called for a single penalty, the first time that’s happened during Best’s six-plus years as head coach.

“We had a bad first half,” EWU junior wide receiver Efton Chism III said. “As an offense, we’ve got to take it into our hands. Every time in the red zone we need to score. That’s got to be one of the things we hold ourselves to.”

Chism finished with a game-high nine receptions for 130 yards and a touchdown, his team-leading fifth of the season. Junior Justice Jackson also gave Eastern its first 100-yard rushing performance by a running back, carrying 15 times for 126 yards and a score.

The Eagles used junior quarterbacks Jared Taylor (four carries for 15 yards) and Michael Wortham (four for 12 and a touchdown) as rushing threats less frequently than in last week’s 31-23 win over Weber State, relying instead on the arm of redshirt sophomore Kekoa Visperas.

Visperas completed 26 of 41 passes for 285 yards and two touchdowns. He also threw an interception, his first in the past four games.

Eastern’s other turnover, a fumble by Chism on the opening drive, ended the Eagles’ streak of three straight games without committing one.

But neither turnover led to points for the Vikings, and of the Eagles’ 12 offensive drives, eight gained at least 47 yards and seven ended in points.

So desperate were the Eagles to keep the Vikings’ offense off the field that in the fourth quarter they tried two onside kicks – one succeeded – and faked a punt in their territory – Nick Kokich’s completed pass to Austin York didn’t gain enough yards – because freely giving the ball to the Vikings had so predictably led to PSU scoring points.

Down as many as 19 points, the Eagles drew within six after Nolan Ulm’s 22-yard touchdown with 4:48 to play. But the ensuing onside kick was recovered by the Vikings and Malary ran for a 44-yard touchdown on the next play.

“When you can’t get off the field, you might as well shorten the field,” Best said. “Do you risk the 10- or 12-play drive and all of a sudden they take 6 or 7 minutes off the clock, or do you get a short field? We’ve got to get a stop either way.”

Portland State improved to 4-4 overall and 3-2 in the Big Sky. The loss dropped Eastern to 3-5, 2-3, crushing their postseason hopes before November for the second year in a row.

From 2018 to 2021, Eastern Washington reached the playoffs three times – advancing as far as the FCS championship game – and went 34-13 overall. But since their second-round 57-41 playoff loss at Montana at the end of the 2021 season, the Eagles are 6-13.

“No matter who you are, your stripes shouldn’t change because of something that happened,” Chism said about where the team goes from here. “Try to keep going, keep the guys up.”