Crazy rally delivers Big Sky's top spot to Eagles
Eastern scores twice in final 1:44 to rally past Portland State 42-41
It was a game where one team had everything to gain, and the other nothing to lose.
In the end the script played out in almost unimaginable fashion for both.
In the span of the final 1 minute, 44 seconds, Eastern Washington had to score twice, watch a Portland State extra point fail and then survive the game's final play where the Vikings got the ball to the EWU 23 with a pass play and series of laterals with no time remaining in order to claim a 42-41 Big Sky Conference football victory.
With the win, third-ranked Eastern Washington delivered the school its first undefeated league finish at 8-0 and 10-2 overall. Eastern earned a No. 3 seed in the FCS playoffs, an opening round bye and a second-round home game at Roos Field, Saturday, Dec. 7 against the winner of a game this weekend between Northern Arizona and South Dakota State.
The victory, in front of 9,522 fans on a clear but cool afternoon for Senior Day, was truly surreal considering the teams sputtered and struggled to score 21 points apiece through three quarters, yet exploded to light things up for 41 in the final 15 minutes, with four touchdowns coming in the last 5:36.
"It is not easy to win the conference championship," Eastern head coach Beau Baldwin said. "To do it and finish it like this is fun."
It was the final Eastern score that was, perhaps, the most remarkable, considering the Eagles, too, had exhausted their final timeout and stood 74 yards away from a tie. But three plays and just 29 second later Kevin Miller was awaiting the snap to holder Vernon Adams for the biggest kick of his EWU career.
An Adams pass to Cooper Kupp for 25 took the ball to the PSU 49, then two plays later he found true freshman Kendrick Bourne for 34 yards down the right sideline to the Viking 15. Then it was back to Kupp once again, this one over the middle and the freshman leaped high to sure-hand the catch in his midsection.
Eastern has now won 13 games since 2010 when trailing or tied in the fourth quarter.
Adams had five touchdown passes, giving him 46, and broke both school and conference records for passing yards and total offense.
Kupp broke the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision record for most consecutive games with a touchdown catch with 12 with his grab in the north end zone that tied the game at 28-28 with 9:16 remaining. Kupp broke the record of 11 previously held by Marshall's Randy Moss and Cal Poly's Ramses Barden.
Limited to just one catch for a measly five yards in the first half, but finishing 9-for-147 and a pair of scores, Kupp was also hoping to make up for having the ball stripped from his grip for a fumble which was recovered by PSU at their own 11 with 3:17 to play.
"I was just hoping for another chance to make a play," Kupp said.
And he did when Adams found him for the touchdown that tied it at 41-41 after PSU's Marcus Kinsella missed his extra-point just a half minute earlier. "Vern made a great throw, he said he really couldn't see, he put it right over the linebacker's fingers," Kupp said.
"I'm just glad we got this win, God is so good," a noticeably relieved Adams said.
Addressing a first half that saw him struggle, but adjust to catch fire and finish with 457 yards passing completing 34 of a record 56 attempts, "I just went in at halftime and knew I just needed to take my easy ones and let my playmakers make plays for me," Adams said.
The high-gear finish included Quincy Forte's third touchdown, a 13-yard pass that briefly tied the game at 35 with 1:44 remaining, concluding a four-play, 48-yard drive that took just 31 seconds. Portland State countered with an 84-yard, six-play effort that finished with lanky 6-foot-5-inch Victor Dean just being able to grab the ball away from the high-leaping 5-9 T.J. Lee III who just missed swatting it away.
If the final quarter was a blur of scoring, the opening half seemed stuck in the mud by comparison with short drives, turnovers – two by Eastern – and missed opportunities for PSU.
After an EWU turnover by Cory Mitchell on the kickoff after tying the game 7-7, a Kieran McDonagh fumble on the 5 blunted a scoring opportunity. Earlier, Kinsella saw a 45-yard field goal miss just to the right.
Portland State was opportunistic as the first quarter finished with McDonagh, lining up as a wide receiver and being in the right place at the right time to recover a fumble that led to the Viks' first touchdown, a 2-yard McDonagh run. They also took advantage of Adams' first interception, turning that into a 4-yard Kasey Closs TD with 5:56 to go in the half. Closs upped the lead to 21-7 with 15 seconds to go with the third of four scores.
The Eagles turned that disappointing late TD into resolve during the halftime break. "We came in at halftime, no one's heads were down," Kupp said. "We came out energized and dug ourselves out of the hole."
Forte scored on Eastern's opening drive to cut it to 21-14 and then the first of two Ronald Baines' interceptions set up an Ashton Clark TD that tied it at 21-21 with 2:26 to go before the frantic fourth quarter.
Lost amidst the offensive fireworks was the 14-tackle day for linebacker Ronnie Hamlin who also recovered the McDonagh fumble.
The Eagles became the first team other than Montana to have sole possession a Big Sky title in the last 16 years. The last was by Eastern in 1997.
PSU outgained Eastern 603-528 in total yards but for a second straight week saw victory vanish in the last minute after losing to Sac State 43-42 the previous week.
Paul Delaney can be reached at email@example.com.