Hamlin’s pick-six, Lee’s fumble recoveries blunt North Dakota drives in 35-14 victory
In their Big Sky Conference opening game versus Weber State, the Eastern Washington defense conducted business with a lot of quiet surgical precision. That ended with the Eagles limiting the Wilcats to 249 total yards in a 41-19 victory.
Last Saturday inside the Alerus Center in Grand Forks, N.D. the now No. 4 ranked Eagles defense decided to challenge the offense for big play headlines in a 35-14 win.
Eastern’s defense turned two second-half UND turnovers into scores, including an acrobatic 77-yard interception return by linebacker Ronnie Hamlin, improving to 2-0 in Big Sky play, 4-2 overall. The Eagles return home to face Southern Utah Saturday in EWU’s 87th-annual Homecoming game. Kickoff at Roos Field is set for 5:05 p.m.
“Whenever you can score on defense and create the turnovers we did, you give yourself a better chance to win,” EWU head coach Beau Baldwin said.
Hamlin’s first career interception return for a touchdown came with 47 seconds remaining in the third quarter and Eastern clinging to a 21-14 lead. North Dakota was threatening and in Eastern territory at the 36 yard line when UND freshman quarterback Joe Molberg dropped back and threw towards the 20.
Hamlin dropped back in coverage, spied what appeared to be an underthrown ball and leaped high to grab the pass. He nearly stumbled and fell but steadied himself with his left hand and was gone, down the right sideline giving Eastern a 28-14 lead.
“It’s awesome when things go right on defense,” Hamlin said. “The D-line getting there and making him make a bad throw.”
North Dakota’s next possession went 69 yards down to Eastern’s 27 where Molberg threw a 17-yard pass to Kenny Golladay at the 10. In the gang tackle that tried to bring the receiver down, Eastern safety Tevin McDonald stripped the ball and T.J. Lee recovered. It was the first of two on the day for Lee with the second coming on the next UND possession. Will Katoa also recovered a first-quarter fumble for the Eagles.
Eastern would start an 8-play, 90-yard drive that ended in Mario Brown’s 3-yard touchdown run to end scoring with 7:49 remaining. While the Eagles just barely won the total offense battle 408-406, their real edge came in the turnover department where EWU came out on top 4-0.
Lee finished with six tackles, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. Evan Day also forced a fumble. Todd Raynes, making his first career start, led the Eagles with seven solo tackles.
“Those turnovers are the things you need to be able to win on the road,” Baldwin said. “If you want to be a great team – or even a good team – you have to win those turnover battles and make those plays.”
Quarterback Vernon Adams overcame a slow start and went 22-for-30 for 307 yards and a pair of touchdowns and no interceptions. His first scoring strike went for five yards to Shaquille Hill with 7:50 to play in the first half that gave the Eagles a 7-3 lead. His 1-yard pass to Cooper Kupp put Eastern up 21-6 with 10:42 remaining in the third.
Ashton Clark caught a team-high seven passes for 116 yards with Cory Mitchell contributing nine catches and 79 yards. Mario Brown rushed for 49 yards and Quincy Forte added 40 for an Eastern ground game that netted 101 yards.
UND (1-2 and 2-4), took the initial lead 3-0 with a 25-yard Zeb Miller field goal with 1:26 to play in the first quarter. After Hill’s touchdown, Miller connected again, this time from 44 yards out with 4:18 remaining in the half, closing it to a 7-6 ballgame.
Eastern would operate a time-consuming drive that ate up the rest of the clock and was culminated by Forte’s 1-yard run on fourth and goal as time ran out giving the Eagles a 14-6 lead as they headed to the locker room.
Adam Shaugabay scored the only UND touchdown with 5:38 to play in the third quarter to get his team to within 21-14 but Hamlin’s pick-six followed soon after.
The Eagle defense also kept close tabs on dangerous receiver and return man Greg Hardin, limiting him to just 50 yards on six catches and only 46 yards on three kickoff returns.
Paul Delaney can be reached at email@example.com.