The cardiac kids are back, and they are pre-maturely aging their head coach already.
The Eastern Washington University football team rallied from an 11-point deficit in the fourth quarter by scoring 21 points in the period and went on to spoil the upset hopes of UC Davis with a heart-stopping 41-38 victory over the Aggies Saturday (Oct. 7) at Davis, Calif. It was the third Big Sky Conference win in three tries this season for the Eagles, who have now won 11-straight league games.
Junior quarterback Gage Gubrud engineered scoring drives of 71, 55 and 75 yards in the final quarter, and finished with six touchdown passes and 452 yards passing. He passed 6 yards to Nic Sblendorio for a game-winning TD with 1:37 to play, followed by a missed 49-yard field goal by the Aggies that could have knotted the game.
Eastern has now won 23 games since 2010 when trailing or tied in the fourth quarter, including two this season, two in 2016 and 2015, one in 2014, two in 2013, six in 2012, two in 2011 and six during EWU's national championship season in 2010.
"I don't know if fun is the right word," said first-year head coach Aaron Best. "I'll tell you what, I'm 39 going on 69. But if I'm going to do it I'm going to do it with this bunch. We did it in 2010 over and over and over, and I'm ready and willing to do it again. This is a fun bunch and the coaches are phenomenal. There is just no quit, and a lot of belief in each other. We'll enjoy this one tonight in California and then we'll talk about our opponent tomorrow."
The Aggies finished with a 551-501 advantage in total offense, but Eastern had 205 in the fourth quarter alone. The Eagles managed only 13 points in the first 41 minutes of the game, having five three-and-outs in that span. Eastern, however, had a five touchdown drives of 73 yards or more, and another of 55.
While UC Davis quarterback Jake Maier passed for 367 yards, 15 of his 35 completions for 208 yards went to receiver Keelan Doss.
Records . . .
* Eastern is now 4-2 overall and 3-0 in the Big Sky Conference, winning its 11th-straight conference game. The Aggies fell to 3-3 and 1-2 in the league, and it is uncanny how their statistical numbers from last week and the season match-up. Eastern had a 52-31 shootout home win over Sacramento State, piling up 490 passing yards and 651 total in the process. Meanwhile, UC Davis evened its conference mark at 1-1 by doubling-up preseason favorite North Dakota 48-24. The Aggies matched EWU's 651 yards of offense and had 415 passing.
What It Means . . .
* The Eagles are now 3-0 in the Big Sky Conference standings, just ahead of Northern Arizona and Weber State at 2-0 each. The Eagles have won 43 of their last 49 Big Sky games since a 0-2 start in 2011. Eastern has won 33 of its last 37 league games, with the lone losses coming against Montana and Portland State in 2015 and Northern Arizona in both 2015 and 2014. An Oct. 25, 2014, loss at Northern Arizona snapped EWU's 14-game conference winning streak and a home loss against the Lumberjacks on Nov. 7, 2015, ended a streak of eight Big Sky wins in a row. Including non-conference victories (two versus MSU and one against Cal Poly) and a playoff win (Montana), the Eagles have won 37 of their last 41 versus conference foes, and are 47-6 since the 0-2 start in 2011.
What's Next . . .
* Eastern returns home to host rival Montana State on Oct. 14. The Bobcats improved to 2-3 overall and 2-1 in the Big Sky Conference by knocking off Portland State 30-22 on a windy day in Bozeman on Saturday. It was the first time in five games MSU did not play a team nationally-ranked in either FBS or FCS.
Keys to Game . . .
* They didn't come near the identical 651 yards of offense they had a week ago, but the Eagles and Aggies were in a dead-heat most of their game Saturday. Eastern overcame two interceptions and a 551-501 deficit in total offense to win the game. Eastern was out-gained on the ground 160-49, and had a slightly better third-down conversion rate (8-of-16 compared to 9-of-20 for the Aggies). Three missed field goals in four attempts by UC Davis were also a key to the Eagle win, including one blocked by EWU's Dylan Ledbetter.
Top Performers . . .
* Junior quarterback Gage Gubrud improved his record as Eastern's starter to 15-4. He completed 33-of-53 passes as he finished with 452 passing yards – his fourth-straight game with at least 399. He completed passes to 10 different receivers, and his six touchdown passes were one away from the school record. It was the 15th 300-yard performance of Gubrud's 23-game Eastern career and his ninth of at least 400. Entering Saturday's game, Gubrud was ranked fourth in FCS in passing yards (347.2), third in total offense (368.0), sixth in touchdown passes (13), and second in points responsible for (21.6 per game with a FCS-leading 108 total). A year ago he led FCS in both passing and total offense a year ago 368.6 and 411.0, respectively).
* Junior wide receiver Nsimba Webster caught six passes for 102 yards and a touchdown, recording his third 100-yard receiving performance of his career.
* Redshirt freshman tight end Talolo Limu-Jones had three catches for 66 yards and scored a pair of touchdowns.
* Senior wide receiver Nic Sblendorio led the Eagles with seven catches, good for 82 yards and a score.
* Six Eagles had nine or more tackles, led by junior defensive end Keenan Williams with a career-high 12 tackles, a week after finishing with his previous career high of 10 versus Sacramento State.
* Junior cornerback Josh Lewis had a career-high 11 tackles, as did junior linebacker Ketner Kupp. Junior linebacker Kurt Calhoun and junior safety Mitch Fettig each had nine. Fettig entered the game with a team-leading total of 48.
Key Stats . . .
* Eastern had minus-1 rushing yards at halftime, and closed the game with only 49. Finishing with 452 through the arid 501 total, EWU entered the game fourth in FCS in passing (347.2 per game) and seventh in total offense (484.6), and was also 16th in scoring (35.8).
Turning Point . . .
* The Eagles fell behind 31-20 with 11:38 to play, but Eastern scored two touchdowns within a 1:57 span to take a 34-31 advantage with 9:23 to play. The first score was a 71-yard TD pass from Gage Gubrud to Nsimba Webster. After a rare three-and-out by the Aggies, Eastern struck again on a four-play, 55-yard drive. Gubrud hit Talolo Limu-Jones for a 46-yard gain, then they hooked up for a 6-yard TD. Webster capped the scoring spurt with a two-point conversion pass from Gubrud. After UC Davis regained the lead, EWU went on a game-winning 12-play, 75-yard drive, capped by a 6-yard TD pass from Gubrud to Nic Sblendorio.
* Eastern punted the first two times it had the ball in of the second half, leading to a six-play, 62-yard scoring drive by the Aggies to give them a 21-13 lead with 6:21 left in the third quarter. Eastern scored on a 75-yard drive, but then had an interception on its next possession that the Aggies turned into a field goal and a two-score lead at 31-20 with 11:38 to play.
Other Team Highlights . . .
* Two Eagles made starting debuts against UC Davis -- true freshman Anfernee Gurley at rover and running back Sam McPherson at running back. In his first series as a starter, McPherson gathered in a 40-yard touchdown pass. Gurley finished with nine tackles.
Milestones & Records . . .
* Saturday was the 250th game for Aaron Best associated with the Eastern football program. Now in his 21st year as either a player or a coach, those 250 games have yielded a 163-87 record for 65 percent.
* Kicker Roldan Alcobendas missed his first extra point in nearly a year, ending his school record for most extra points in a row at 85. Earlier this season he broke the career 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.
Notables . . .
* A year ago, Eastern erupted for 35 points in the third quarter and rolled past UC Davis 63-30 on Oct. 1, 2016, at Roos Field. The Eagles scored all of their points in the first 49:44 of the game en route to EWU's highest-scoring game against a member of FCS and in a Big Sky game. Gubrud had 254 passing yards in the third quarter alone, and finished with 486. Eastern had 627 yards of total offense. UC Davis would go on to finish the year 3-8 overall and 2-6 in the league.
* Eastern is 6-0 all-time against UC Davis, but was 0-1 against Dan Hawkins prior to the 2017 meeting. Although he coached at nearby Willamette (1993-97) and Boise State (2001-05), Eastern didn't face him until they played Colorado in 2008 in Boulder. Eastern was ahead 24-17 with 3:52 to play, but Colorado scored on a five-play drive to knot the game with 2:05 left. The Buffaloes then went ahead on a 27-yard interception return for a touchdown with 1:44 remaining. Another interception at the CU 30-yard line with three seconds left ended EWU's upset hopes.
Head Coach Aaron Best Comments . . .
On Rally: "We are a team that responds and we handle adversity really well. UC Davis played a heckuva game and they are a heckuva team. Doss and Maier are a deadly combination – they mix is up really well. We just happened to make one more play than they did."
On Guts of Team: "At the end of the day (we won with) guts. There were a lot of legitimate guts we played with today. We played a few men down during the game, but nobody batted an eye. That's who we are and that's who we will continue to be. We'll be a resilient bunch, and we respond well on the road where it's hard. It's hard no matter who you play, but especially a formidable opponent like UC Davis. Our hat is off to Coach Hawkins because they have a lot of good things ahead in their future."
On Momentum-Changing 71-yarder to Webster: "That kind of ignited things after we were stagnate in the first half. Davis had more energy in the first half than we did, and we weren't executing very well. We just kind of fizzled. We re-charged our batteries at halftime, and then in the fourth quarter we got a quick-strike to Nsimba. We saw a lot of guts in that fourth quarter – I love walking into our lockerroom and looking into our team's eyes. I know they'll never quit on us or each other – no matter what the score is it doesn't matter. They are a resilient bunch."