The Eastern Washington University football team found a little history on the school's first ever venture to New York.
With EWU’s defense registering a school-record 10 sacks and the offense piling up 650 total yards, the No. 12 Eagles defeated Fordham of the Patriot League Saturday (Sept. 16) at Jack Coffey Field in the Bronx. Eastern scored 28 unanswered points to pull away from a 7-7 tie after the first quarter.
"I don't know if words describe how this team has come together and believed in themselves," said Eastern head coach Aaron Best. "They did a great job of coming across the country and playing well on both sides of the ball."
Junior All-America quarterback Gage Gubrud passed for 399 yards and three touchdowns, and also ran for two scores, in helping Best record his first victory as EWU's head coach. Eastern finished with its seventh-most yards in school history, compared to just 217 for the Rams.
The Eagles had a dominating 181 to minus-3 advantage in the second quarter. Because of the sacks, Fordham had just 26 net yards rushing.
"I don't care if it was six sacks or 10 sacks, that defensive front four was amazing," said Best. "And that was without Jay-Tee Tiuli, a player who has a lot of experience and success. Give Eti Ena, Jeff Schmedding and Brian Strandley a ton of credit. The linebackers filled the gaps like they need to and our backend wasn't too shabby themselves. If we play defense at that pace and with that passion, we have a chance in most ballgames. That's who we are – we are blue collar."
It was just EWU's eighth game ever east of the Mississippi River, and sixth in the Eastern time zone. It was the first-ever meeting for EWU against the Rams, a collegiate football power in the 1930's known for the "Seven Blocks of Granite" featuring the famous Vince Lombardi.
Saturday's game was the 200th in 16-plus years for Best as a coach at Eastern. He was 129-68 in 16 previous years as an assistant coach from 2000-2006 and 2008-16 until taking over as head coach this season.
The game was to feature a pair of players who finished in the top four in voting last year for the Walter Payton Award given to the top player in the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision, but only one of them played. Gubrud was third and Fordham running back Chase Edmonds – injured and unable to play versus the Eagles -- was fourth. While Gubrud passed for a FCS record 5,160 yards, Edmonds is chasing the FCS career rushing record. He has 5,400, needing 1,159 to equal the record of 6,559 set by Adrian Peterson of Georgia Southern. A year ago, Edmonds was first in the nation in rushing yards per game (163.5), and second in all-purpose yards per game (194.6) and points per game (10.9).
Records . . .
* Now 1-2, the Eagles were coming off losses that were closer early in the second half than the final score and statistics indicated. Eastern trailed by just six at 19-13 in the third quarter versus NDSU, but the Bison scored the final 21 points and out-gained EWU 532-204 in total offense. Texas Tech led 21-10 late in the first half, but scored 28 unanswered points after that and had a 626-301 advantage in offense. Texas Tech had 72 percent of its yards through the air (449) and NDSU had 70 percent of its yards on the ground (375).
* Fordham is now 1-2 this year, losing to Army 64-6 in its opener and then rallying to beat Central Connecticut 38-31 a week ago. The Rams closed the 2016 season with an 8-3 record overall and was the Patriot League runner-up with a 5-1 mark. Fordham was defeated by Lehigh 58-37 late in the 2016 season, costing the Rams their fourth-straight trip to the FCS Playoffs.
What It Means . . .
* Now with momentum, the Eagles enter league play 1-2, with their three non-conference foes in 2017 sporting a collective record of 4-1 entering Saturday's action, including a pair of victories over the Eagles. Those three foes combined to win 68 percent of their games overall in 2016 (25-12), 65 percent in league play (15-8) and 67 percent in the postseason (2-1). By contrast, Eastern's non-conference opponents in 2016 were 31-11 overall the year before for 74 percent, 18-7 in league play (72 percent) and 7-1 in the postseason (88 percent). The Eagles emerged from that gauntlet with a 2-1 record.
What's Next . . .
* Eastern opens Big Sky Conference play on the road at Montana (6-5/3-5 last season) on Sept. 23 before playing its home opener on Sept. 30 versus Sacramento State (2-9/2-6) on Hall of Fame Day at EWU. Eastern plays at UC Davis (3-8/2-6) on Oct. 7, then hosts rival Montana State (4-7/2-6) on Oct. 14. After finishing a perfect 8-0 in league play a year ago, Eastern's eight Big Sky Conference foes this coming season combined for a 40-50 record overall and 30-34 league mark in 2016. Two of the opponents – North Dakota and Weber State – advanced to the FCS Playoffs and were a collective 16-8 on the season and 14-2 in the Big Sky. An Oct. 21 game at Southern Utah (6-5/5-3) is the first of three-straight games against teams with winning records overall and in league play in 2016. After a bye week on Oct. 28, Eastern hosts Weber State (7-5/6-2) for Homecoming on Nov. 4 and plays at fellow defending Big Sky champion North Dakota (9-3/8-0) on Nov. 11. The regular season closes with Senior Day at Roos Field on Nov. 18 versus Portland State, with the FCS Playoffs beginning the following weekend on Nov. 25.
Keys to Game . . .
* Eastern dominated in the second quarter, gaining 181 yards of offense to minus-3 for the Rams. After a nine-play, 75-yard drive was EWU's lone score in the first quarter, EWU put together two long scoring drives to take a 21-7 lead at halftime. A 62-yard punt by Jordan Dascalo pinned Fordham deep, and EWU got the ball back after a punt and went on a two-play 34-yard drive. Gubrud scored his second touchdown of the game on a 9-yard run. Eastern then had a five-play, 57-yard drive that featured a 15-yard reception and 17-yard TD rush by Tamarick Pierce on back-to-back plays.
Top Performers . . .
* Junior quarterback Gage Gubrud completed 29-of-41 passes and had 471 yards of total offense to rank as the 18th-most in school history (eighth-most for Gubrud). He rushed for 72 and passed for 399.
* Sophomore wide receiver Dre' Sonte Dorton, helping fill-in for injured wide receiver Terence Grady, caught a pair of passes for 52 yards and had three kickoff returns for 99 yards. Thus, he averaged just over 30 yards per every time he touched the ball.
* Senior wide receiver Nic Sblendorio led the Eagles with eight catches for 67 yards and a touchdown.
* Junior wide receiver Nsimba Webster had five catches, good for a career-high 101 yards.
* Sophomore running back Antoine Custer Jr. had 102 all-purpose yards, finishing with 49 on the ground and 53 on a pair of catches, including a 43-yard TD catch.
* Sophomore defensive nose guard Dylan Ledbetter, making the first start of his career, had eight tackles and two of EWU's 10 sacks.
* Junior safety Mitch Fettig had seven tackles and had one of the six passes broken up by the Eagles.
Key Stats . . .
The Eagles had great balance on offense, finishing with 399 yards through the air and 251 on the ground. Sophomoe Dennis Merritt had an 80-yard touchdown run on his first carry of the season in the fourth quarter.
Turning Point . . .
* After taking a 21-7 leading at halftime, Eastern also wanted to make a statement in the second half – and they did. A 51-yard kickoff return by Dre' Sonte Dorton was followed by a 43-yard touchdown strike from Gage Gubrud to Antoine Custer Jr. to give EWU a three-touchdown lead just 17 seconds into the third quarter.
Other Team Highlights . . .
* Eastern's defense finished with a school-record 10 sacks, with 10 different players contributing toward them. The previous record was nine set on Oct. 24, 1992, against Northern Arizona and matched Oct. 23, 2004 versus Weber State.
The Eagles registered five quarterback sacks in the first half alone, with senior end Albert Havili having 2 1/2. Sophomore Dylan Ledbetter, starting in place of injured nose tackle Jay-Tee Tiuli, had two sacks. Junior Jonah Jordan finished with 1 1/2.
Milestones & Records . . .
* Kicker Roldan Alcobendas broke the school record for most extra points in a row, making all of seven of his against Fordham to extend his streak to 72. He broke the record of 66 set by Jason Cromer from 1988-90. Alcobendas made his last 63 in a row last season to shatter the previous season record of 47.
* Both the Eagles and Rams are among the winningest programs in the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision in the past five-plus seasons. Eastern entered Saturday's game 52-18 (.742) since 2012, while the Rams were 47-17 (.734). Fordham has been in the playoffs five times overall (2002-07-13-14-15) and are 3-5 all-time. Eastern, which has made 12 playoff appearances in its history and has a 16-11 record, hasn't played any current member of the Patriot League.
Notables . . .
* The game at Fordham on Sept. 16 was just the eighth occasion all-time that EWU has played east of the Mississippi River, The last time came in 2013 in Ohio when Eastern fell at Toledo 33-21. The Fordham game was also only EWU's sixth game ever in the Eastern time zone.
* In fact, Eastern traveled a day earlier than a normal road trip, and departed Cheney on Thursday (Sept. 14). Classes at EWU don't start until Sept. 20, so the extra day enabled the Eagles to acclimate themselves to the time difference and what will be a 6 a.m. Pacific time pre-game meal before the kickoff four hours later. Besides having a walk-through practice at Fordham on Friday, the Eagles also visited the 9/11 Memorial & Museum in Manhattan and walked around Times Square. The terrorist attacks in 2001 took place just after Eastern made another East Coast visit, having defeated Connecticut 35-17 on Sept. 8, 2001.
Eastern is now 3-5 in games played East of the Mississippi River, including in 2007 when the Eagles played at Appalachian State (Boone, N.C.) in the FCS Playoffs (L, 35-38). Eastern's other games in the East were West Virginia in 2006 (L, 3-52), Southern Illinois (Carbondale) in the FCS Playoffs in 2004 (W, 35-31), Connecticut in 2001 (W, 35-17), Eastern Illinois (Charleston) in 1991 (L, 12-30) and Fairmont State in Morgantown, W.Va., in the NAIA Championship Game in 1967 (L, 21-28).
Head Coach Aaron Best Comments . . .
On Long Trip: "Not once did the players or coaches mention it. We practiced at 10 a.m. and the team knew why we were practicing at that time, but nobody needed to go public with why. All the credit goes to the coaching staff and these student-athletes. I couldn't be prouder. I really, really love that locker room and it showed that we were together this whole week."
On Turnovers: "I knew there were a lot of turnovers, but I stopped counting after about three. A few of those were unfortunate and were just guys trying to make plays. We have to get better in that department. We aren't going to consistently be on the winning side of things if we continue to give the ball up to the opposing team, not matter if we're home or away. I don't this to be a trend or a situation where we feel it is okay to give them five possessions. Fortunately we ended up on the right side of things on the scoreboard, but that isn't going to happen too often."
On Montana: "We have a five-hour trip ahead of us, and I'm glad we all are going to go home with smiles on our faces. We're not going to talk about our trip to Missoula yet – we'll deal with that on Sunday. We'll enjoy the ride home. The first one is always the big one, so congratulations Eagle Nation."