Eagles slow down Mustangs’ running game to win critical non-league game
If there was any fear the taste of Eastern Washington University’s first Big Sky Conference football loss might linger and sour their effort in last Saturday’s non-conference game with Cal Poly, it was quickly washed away.
A 7-play, 81-yard drive on the game’s first possession, capped by Demitrius Bronson’s 1-yard run with just 2 minutes, 30 seconds gone in the first quarter started the Eagles on the way to a 34-17 win over the previously No. 16 Mustangs before 8,444 fans at Roos Field.
The now No. 5 Eagles, who never trailed, got a balanced offensive performance racking up 254 yards rushing, added the signature big air game – 288 more passing – for a total of 542 yards.
But it was their defense that also played huge, limiting the ground-pounding triple-option Mustangs to just 251 rushing yards and stopping Cal Poly on a crucial goal line stand in the third quarter that kept the Eagles comfortably ahead at the time.
Zach Johnson, returning to action for the first time since the WSU game Sept. 8, had one key stop on the Mustangs’ Andre Broadous on the 1 on third down and T.J. Lee had the primary tackle – with an assist from Johnson – on Broadous on the next play. Leading 31-10 at the time, the Eagles would march back to Cal Poly territory and get a 33-yard Jimmy Pavel field goal to push their lead to 34-10.
After a disappointing miss in the final few minutes of the loss to Southern Utah, Pavel responded not only with a pair of field goals but he also punted thre times for an average of 45.7 yards.
Cal Poly finished with 411 yards total, including 160 through the air and a late touchdown.
The Mustangs were at one point in the game 9-of-13 on third down, but converted just one of its last five attempts.
The victory during Military Appreciation Day improved Eastern’s overall record to 7-2 and went a long way in securing a possible playoff berth following the conclusion of Big Sky play. The Eagles host Cal Davis this Saturday at 1:35 p.m. in their final regular season home game and close out conference play at Portland State Nov. 17.
Eastern was coming off a brutally disappointing 30-27 last second loss Oct. 27 at Southern Utah, a game that knocked Eastern out of the Football Championship Subdivision’s No. 1 spot in the polls.
“We had a great week of preparation,” EWU receiver Brandon Kaufman said. “We really came together as a unit, everyone did their job, everyone did their part.” Kaufman caught a pair of touchdown passes - four catches overall - for 88 yards. Nicholas Edwards, recovering from injury, appeared to return to his old form with a team leading five catches.
Greg Herd had an acrobatic one-handed catch on a perfect pass from quarterback Vernon Adams for Eastern’s second touchdown that gave Eastern a 14-3 first quarter lead.
“You expect them to make those plays,” Eastern head coach Beau Baldwin said. “(It was a) great catch early in the game, it was huge.”
After Kristaan Harvey’s 4-yard run closed it to a 14-10 game with 10:25 to play in the half, the Eagles reeled off the next 20 straight points.
“This is by far the biggest game of the year, maybe the biggest game we’ve been in for a couple of years,” Kaufman said. “We haven’t had a game like this where it really had a huge impact on where we might be at the end of the year.”
Adams, Eastern’s freshman redshirt quarterback, led the Eagles with 288 yards passing and 68 on the ground. He completed 19-of-29 passes and had three touchdowns. Quincy Forte had 83 yards rushing with Bronson adding 82 more.
Senior defensive end Paul Ena had a team-high nine tackles, and redshirt freshman safety Jordan Tonani and junior linebacker Ronnie Hamlin 10 each.
With the Eagles leading 24-10 as time wound down in the first half, and Cal Poly driving into Eastern territory, Tonani collected his second career interception at the EWU 7. That ended a drive that certainly could have jump-started the Mustangs’ offense considering they were to get the ball to open the second half.
Eastern got another break with a whacky play in the second half. After Adams threw an interception to CP’s Jordan Williams off a tipped ball, Eastern’s Brandon Murphy forced a fumble on the return that was recovered by Ashton Miller.
Five plays later Kaufman somersaulted into the end zone for the Eagles’ final touchdown and 31-10 lead with 6:26 remaining in the third quarter.
“They did a great job,” Baldwin said of his defense. “They all just bought into what they had to do.”
Of Cal Poly’s punishing ground attack, “They’re still going to make plays, that’s a great team,” Baldwin said. “Our guys just kept banging; they’re going to be punched thrown back and forth just like a boxing match.”
Baldwin had huge praise for Johnson and was grateful for the sixth-year senior’s return. “Huge impact, I mean Zach Johnson’s an All-American caliber player,” he said. “He makes our team better, he makes our locker room better.”
Cal Poly scored on a 40-yard pass from Broadous to Brandon Michalkiewicz with 2:26 to play but Eastern’s recovery of the on-side kick ended any further scoring try for the 7-2 Mustangs.
Paul Delaney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.