Crunch Time - Bearkats devastated Eagles with stunning finish in 35-34 win
Dec. 5, 2004 is a date that has lived in infamy with many who follow Eastern Washington University football.
While of course it’s not remotely close to real-life infamous tragedies that are so etched in our collective memories – Dec. 7, 1941, Nov. 22, 1963 and 9/11 for instance – many cannot forget the last time the Sam Houston Bearkats visited Cheney on that icy-cold Saturday evening eight years, ago, winning 35-34 on the game’s final play.
Current Eagle players might know nothing or care little about the meltdown. Their coaches downplay it because the events of 12-5-04 have no bearing what-so-ever on this Saturday’s outcome.
“I don’t think anybody – their side or our side – is talking about that; I know we aren’t,” Eastern head coach Beau Baldwin said.
The players who hope to light up the Roos Field scoreboard and provide highlights on the video board were likely in grade or middle school the last time the teams met. And to today’s generation last week’s news is ancient enough history, let alone that of eight years ago.
So when philosopher/poet George Santayana famously wrote “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it,” he was not talking about the game this Saturday at Roos Field where the winner gets a return trip to Frisco, Texas, Jan 5.
The Bearkats would love another shot at North Dakota State after the Bison’s 17-6 win there a year ago. And Eastern could cement its legacy as a true national power by playing at Pizza Hut Park two of the last three years.
Lance Gardner’s point-after kick with no time left completed SHSU’s rally from 20 points down in the fourth quarter. It came moments after quarterback Dustin Long threw the last of his 61 passes, a 7-yard grab by Jason Mathenia that tied the score at 34-34 with 0:00 showing on the old Woodward Field clock.
While just a fraction of Long’s 483 passing yards that night, his short toss ruined the party Eastern fans had prematurely planned for the following week in Missoula.
Not only was everyone welcoming the opportunity to play in their second 1-AA semifinal game – the first came in 1997 hosting and losing to Youngstown State – but Eastern hoped for some payback following the Grizzlies’ 31-28 victory in Cheney in October.
“I would put it among the toughest losses EWU has had in my 22 years of football broadcasts,” Eastern play-by-play voice Larry Weir said. “It ranks up there with the 2005 loss at Northern Iowa in first round of playoffs, the 1997 loss to Youngstown in the semis and the 2001 and 2009 losses at Montana.”
Baldwin was the Eagles’ offensive coordinator at the time. While he’s naturally the first to say, “That game has no bearing on Saturday,” memory of it still lingers.
“Yeah, I remember it, obviously it was a tough loss, we all felt that,” Baldwin said. “We’ve been involved in games like that too, on the same side Sam Houston was in ’04, but unfortunately on that certain day they made a couple more plays at the end and we came up a point short.”
Baldwin’s game plan that day was certainly solid. It delivered a balanced attack where quarterback Erik Meyer completed 22 of 31 passes for 244 yards. Meyer, who went on to win the Walter Payton Award in 2005 and now is a member of the Spokane Shock of the Arena League, is serving in his first season as a student assistant receivers coach at Eastern.
Darius Washington had 35 carries for 156 yards and a trio of touchdowns for the Eagles. He paced Eastern to leads of 13-0 at halftime and 27-7 with 5:59 to play in the third and 34-14 just 6 seconds into the fourth.
Surely this was enough of a cushion right? Plenty big enough for fans to begin vacating the 30-degree night for the comfort of their cars – or the nearest bar – to beat the crowd of 7,633 to the certain celebration.
Long, a Texas A&M transfer, would throw for 220 fourth quarter yards and three TDs in the final 11 minutes. He converted a perfect 5 for 5 on fourth down – all in the final 13 minutes.
“We’ve had a lot of wins in the last minute of the game, the ball’s been bouncing in our favor for a while but this time, unfortunately, it didn’t work out for us,” Washington would say in post-game remarks.
The bounces certainly didn’t go Eastern’s way that day. Following Chris Cwik’s successful recovery of an onside kick with 3:34 to go and clinging to a 34-28 lead, Skyler Allen’s 37-yard field goal attempt with 43 seconds remaining was blocked.
Long then directed the winning 75-yard, 8-play drive that didn’t have a pass longer than 20 yards.
Last week a 2004 déjà vu’ moment surfaced when the Eagles raced to a 21-point, 38-17 lead over Illinois State, only to have the Redbirds close to within a field goal 1 minute, 5 seconds into the fourth.
But this time it was Eastern who responded with two touchdowns in the final 12 minutes.
Forgotten or not, 12-05-04 has left a lingering sour taste with the Eastern faithful. And somewhere a slice of revenge is on the plate, even if it is just something Eagle fans remember and care about.
Paul Delaney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.