Eastern follows right script in win over Sam Houston
Eagles start, finish strong on ESPN's national television stage
Roos Field was in mid-season rockin' form last Saturday at the "FCS Showcase" broadcast nationally on ESPN.
There was little evidence of stage fright in the No. 1-ranked Eastern Washington University Eagles last Saturday.
They, in fact, performed quite well on ESPN's national television spotlight where they collected a 56-35 win in their showdown against No. 17 Sam Houston State University in the "FCS Showcase" that brought the national curtain up on the 2014 college football season.
The third time indeed appeared to be the charm for Eastern in Cheney when it came to figuring out how to finally send the visitors from Huntsville, Texas home disappointed.
Those with distant memories might recall how they watched the Bearkats erase a 20-point Eagle lead in the opening moments of the fourth quarter to win their 2004 quarterfinal playoff game 35-34. That was the first-ever home postseason game played in Cheney, so forgive the jitters.
Not so erasable was the pratfall the Eagles did as they stumbled onto the stage in 2012's Football Championship Subdivision semifinal at Roos Field. Eastern shockingly fell behind 35-0 at the half but staged a rally for the ages, losing 45-42 in a game that had a return trip to Frisco, Texas and the national championship game riding on it.
It's hard to know what was more painful, losing the lead in 2004 or falling so tantalizing close two years ago?
This time, however, there was both a solid start, and finish in the Eastern football team.
Saturday's game was played in 40-plus degree warmer weather than either of the two previous December contests.
Instead of fans clad in parkas of all colors, shapes and sizes with hats covering their heads, this crowd, a full house of 10,300, was largely in EWU red.
There was a good-sized student contingent, complete with the guys with "EWU" painted across their bare chests. Isn't that something normally reserved for winter football around here?
The crowd was loud and played an important part in energizing the team.
"The atmosphere felt completely different," Eastern head coach Beau Baldwin said. "It was great and we feed off that stuff. We felt the ESPN feel to it."
So that was it, huh? Bringing on the national television crews was what helped seal the deal? But so is playing a full 60 minutes of football.
Whatever gets the job done made for festive postgame celebrations. For some, they needed to rest after a full four hours of football, or dance around in order to return blood flow to their backsides.
As in the past, the Eagles' start was strong, but their finish was certainly better.
It took a series to shake out the first-game bugs, but on their second time with the ball the Eagles got their initial points.
That's when 5-foot, 8-inch receiver Blair Bomber proved to be one too many people for the Bearkats defenders to watch - or find - as he crossed through the formation. But Eastern quarterback Vernon Adams easily spied Bomber all alone in the back of the end zone and it was 7-0. That was the first of four TDs on the day for Adams.
Sam Houston sent a bit of a scare into the hometown fans, scoring twice within 17 seconds to open the second quarter, the second on a 55-yard pick-6 by Trenier Orr that gave the Bearkats the 14-7 lead.
But Eastern never let Sam Houston build on that brief bit of momentum. After they got back even at 21-21 on the first of two Jalen Moore touchdowns, the foot of punter Jake Miller played a big part in keeping the Bearkats deep in their own territory.
His 64-yarder that got the perfect bounce and roll pinned Sam Houston on their own 3-yard line with 3 minutes, 5 seconds remaining in the half. Miller followed that with a 53-yard effort on his next kick and the Bearkats just ran out the clock.
That put Eastern right where they wanted to be with 30 minutes to fix and fine-tune at halftime.
"Our feeling is that no matter what has happened in the first two quarters, whether we are up or down, we are going to make those adjustments entering the third quarter and finish in the fourth," Baldwin said.
They did just that.
Bomber's second touchdown of the game, and Zach Wimberley's first, 5:22 apart spanning the end of the third and beginning of the fourth quarter, reestablished a two-score advantage for Eastern at 35-21 as the Eagles reeled off three straight scores.
It was just enough of a cushion to keep the Bearkats at bay until the Eagles finished with a pair of insurance touchdowns in the game's final 3:13.
About the only failing on the day came from the ESPN broadcast crew. First, the studio host at ESPN's home in Bristol, Conn. handed things off to the crew at Roos with his own kind of fumble: "And now out to Chaney..."
We knew the silent "e" in Spokane causes trouble for many a TV talking head, and so, apparently, do those who associate pronouncing Cheney's name the same as the former vice president. The play-by-play guys also had a hard time differentiating between the terms quarterfinal and semifinal.
Eastern, however, seemed to do a darned good job of following the script they had written for themselves.
Paul Delaney can be reached at email@example.com.