Defense delivers Eagles' win over Gamecocks
Eastern hosts Towson Univ.Saturday with trip to Frisco at stake again
Eastern Washington's Ronnie Hamlin (39) and Evan Day (90) have just stopped Jacksonville State quarterback Eli Jenkins (7) in last Saturday's 35-24 FCS quarterfinal playoff game win at Roos Field. Jenkins later left the game with a knee injury. The Eagles host Towson University this Saturday at 11 a.m. in a semifinal round contest with the winner headed to the national championship game, Jan. 4 in Frisco, Texas.
Last Saturday's Football Championship Subdivision quarterfinal game at Roos Field was the tale of two halves.
And because of Eastern Washington's defense and big plays in the second half, the story had a happy ending with their 35-24 victory over Jacksonville State University that moved the Eagles into their third semifinal game in four years.
But the story got even better because of Friday's fairy tale story in Charleston, Illinois where the host and No. 2 seeded Eastern Ill. Panthers fell to the ground-pounding Towson Tigers 49-39, earning Eastern a home game this Saturday at 11 a.m. in Cheney. Towson hails from the Baltimore, Md. suburbs.
"It was a battle," EWU head coach Beau Baldwin said. "That game was going to come down to the wire one way or the other. "
A contest that was played at a furious pace with the teams scoring on six of seven possessions over a 17 minute span in the first half saw the teams tied 21-21 at the half, but its complexion changed drastically in the final 32 minutes.
As time wound down in the first half, a knee injury shelved JSU's shifty freshman quarterback Eli Jenkins and a thigh bruise benched big back DaMarcus James, who scored three times against McNeese State
Jenkins, had run for 118 net yards and passed for another 127 and a touchdown, but had to be helped off the field. He gave way to pocket passer Max Shortell, a battle-tested quarterback who just recently lost the starting job.
The combination of the change at QB, plus adjustments by the Eastern defense limited the Gamecock's to just three points and 218 yards in the final two quarters. For a second straight playoff game, Eastern has not given up a touchdown and has outscored their opponent 41-6 in the second half.
"I think there are certain aspects when you are facing a guy that you think is going to throw the ball primarily and maybe not run as much," Baldwin said. "You can do things differently."
Eastern opened the second half with touchdown number two from Quincy Forte with 12:02 to go in the third and led 28-21. JSU answered with a JSU field goal from Griffin Thomas, cutting the lead to 28-24.
In 26 minutes and some change the teams combined for 52 points, but the final 24, just one score, and that from the defense.
Both offenses sputtered over the next few series with Eastern quarterback Vernon Adams tossing his second interception. Jacksonville State's next two possessions ended in punts while Eastern's were stopped on failed fourth down conversions, which seemed to swing momentum back to the Gamecock's.
Starting at their own 29, Shortell guided his team downsfield where they faced a third and five at the EWU 27. That's where true freshman linebacker Albert Havili gave himself – and the 4,277 in attendance – a lasting memory when he stepped in front of the intended receiver, wrapped his arms tightly around the ball and angled his way 77 yards towards the north end zone, putting Eastern up by 11 at 35-24 with 10:40 to play.
"Honestly, I didn't know what happened until I crossed the line," Havili, from Federal Way, Wash. said. "Pre-snap, I looked at the quarterback's eyes, and he looked right at the No. 2 receiver so I knew something quick was coming. I just read it."
Shortell would drive the Gamecocks to the EWU 23 before surrendering the ball on an incomplete pass into the end zone to Josh Barge with 7:19 to play.
After the Eagles' Jake Miller punted for the first time in the game, giving JSU the ball on their own 20 with 3:07 remaining, Bo Schuetzle snuffed out the drive on the EWU 20 with his over-the-shoulder pick with 58 seconds on the clock.
Eastern has now won 10 straight games and is 12-2. Jacksonville State ended its season at 11-4.
Despite it's defensive finish, the first-half fireworks contributed to Eastern's 545-528 edge in offense, and provided another set of broken records.
Eastern set Big Sky Conference records for single season scoring with 561 points and passing offense – 4,853 yards – with Eagles' quarterback Vernon Adams breaking the league record for passing yards 4,600. Adams finished 18-of-29 for 324 yards, throwing touchdowns 52 and 53 the third-most in FCS history.
Cooper Kupp, Forte and Ashton Clark – who led the team Saturday with a career-high 181 yards – scored for the Eagles in the first half. Kupp had 99 yards receiving and Forte carried 24 times for 190 yards.
Linebacker Ronnie Hamlin, who injured his shoulder in the first half and wasn't expected to play after the break, played through the pain and finished with 15 total tackles to lead the Eagles. Cornerback T.J. Lee III added 12 tackles, broke-up a pass and had a quarterback hurry. Linebacker Cody McCarthy was the third Eagle in double figure tackles with 11.
Shortell finished 12 of 22 passing for 173 yards but tossed the two costly interceptions. Gavin Ellis, James and Anthony Johnson all scored for the Gamecocks with Ellis's score on a reverse and halfback pass from Telvin Brown.
Jacksonville State head coach Bill Clark said the loss of Jenkins was certainly a factor. "I think if you take anybody's starting quarterback, they're going to have some problems – that's just the nature of the business," he said. "Especially if you have a guy that's mobile, you're taking that risk."
But the bigger problem was Havili's interception.
"It was an option where we can throw the fade, and he has two choices there," Clark said. "He came back to the guy underneath, and we say that if you throw late to the middle bad things happen, and that's what happened."
Paul Delaney can be reached at email@example.com.