The first quarter seemed to come easy for the No. 8 Eastern Washington University football team. But the last three were excruciating.
Southern Utah held the Eagles without offensive points for more than 35 minutes to rally from a 14-0 deficit, and scored twice in barely over a minute in the fourth quarter to knock off EWU 46-28 in an important Big Sky Conference game in Cedar City, Utah, on Saturday (Oct. 21).
After EWU took a 28-25 advantage with 11:32 left in the game, Southern Utah scored two touchdowns in a 1:15 span in the fourth quarter. The dagger was an Eagle interception at its own 13-yard line that enabled SUU to take a 39-28 lead with 6:24 left.
"The energy was good, I will say that," said Eastern head coach Aaron Best. "But credit that team across the way. They are a good ballclub."
The Eagles were held to an uncharacteristic 382 yards of offense, but had a dominating 173-39 advantage after their first three possessions of the game. But SUU caught fire, out-gaining EWU 416-209 from that point on in ending EWU's 12-game Big Sky Conference winning streak. It was SUU's second-straight victory – and third overall -- against a ranked opponent this season.
After coming up empty on its first five possessions – including three-straight three-and-outs for the Eagles – SUU scored on seven of its next nine. Eastern, meanwhile, had seven-consecutive empty possessions – a span of 35:40 -- with the lone score coming on a 96-yard kickoff return for a touchdown by Dre' Sonte Dorton.
"The penalties and turnovers caught up with us, on top of playing a physical outfit," added Best, whose team had four turnovers and 85 yards in penalties. "We couldn't match that physicality."
Records . . .
* Eastern is now 5-3 overall and 4-1 in the Big Sky Conference, and had its 12-game conference winning streak snapped.
* With a 3-0 record against ranked teams in the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision, Southern Utah is now 5-2 overall and 3-1 in the league. The Thunderbirds were coming off last week's convincing 32-16 road win at No. 16 Weber State. The Thunderbirds beat teams from the Southland (Stephen F. Austin, 51-14) and Missouri Valley (No. 18 Northern Iowa, 24-21) in the preseason, and opened Big Sky play with a loss to Sacramento State (54-27) and win over Cal Poly (20-14).
What It Means . . .
* The Eagles are still in first in the Big Sky Conference in the win column with a 4-1 record, but have company now at the top. Northern Arizona is now 4-0 after beating UC Davis on Saturday, with Southern Utah, Montana and Sacramento State all at 3-1, with Weber State at 2-1 heading into tonight's game against Cal Poly.
What's Next . . .
* After a bye week on Oct. 28, Eastern hosts Weber State for Homecoming on Nov. 4 and plays at fellow defending Big Sky champion North Dakota 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 lost the turnover battle 4-1, and SUU had a 10-0 advantage in points off turnovers. Eastern had early advantages of 170-48 and 204-63 in total offense en route to a 14-0 lead. But Southern Utah ended with a 455-382 advantage in the game.
Turning Point . . .
* Eastern Washington regained a 28-25 lead with a 75-yard drive in the fourth quarter, but the Thunderbirds scored twice within a 1:15 span. After an 80-yard TD drive by SUU, a holding penalty wiped out a 36-yard kickoff return by EWU's Dre' Sonte Dorton on the ensuing kickoff Two plays later, SUU intercepted EWU's Gage Gubrud for the third time in the game, and then scored itself two plays later. Eastern turned the ball over on downs on its next possession, helping SUU clinch it with a TD with 1:25 to play.
Top Performers . . .
* Junior quarterback Gage Gubrud is now 16-5 as a starter, and finished 24-of-44 for 246 yards and a touchdown. He also rushed for a team-leading 64 yards. Entering Saturday's game, Gubrud led FCS in touchdown passes (20) and points responsible for (152). He was also second in FCS in total passing yards (2,412), third in points responsible for per game (21.7), fourth in passing yards per game (344.6) and fourth in total offense per game (359.3). A year ago he led FCS in both passing and total offense (368.6 and 411.0, respectively).
* Senior Nic Sblendorio had a team-leading six catches for 71 yards, and had entered the game 10th in FCS in receptions with an average of 7.4 catches per game (52 total) and 48th in yards (72.1 per game).
* Junior wide receiver Nsimba Webster caught three passes for 28 yards, and for the fourth-straight game had a touchdown reception. He entered the game ranked 15th in FCS in receptions (6.6) and 39th in yards (76.3).
* Sophomore running back Antoine Custer Jr. rushed for 43 yards and had another 23 on four catches.
* Sophomore Tysen Prunty had a team-leading 13 tackles in just his second career start.
* Senior defensive end Albert Havili had 10 tackles, a pass broken up and a quarterback hurry.
* Junior safety Mitch Fettig had nine tackles, having entered the game with a team-leading total of 67. His average of 9.6 tackles per game ranked 25th nationally and seventh in the Big Sky.
* Junior linebacker Kurt Calhoun finished with eight tackles, including a sack.
* Sophomore Dre' Sonte Dorton had a 96-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, and finished with three returns for 153 yards. He had entered the game ranked 26.6 per return to rank 19th in FCS.
Key Stats . . .
* Eastern's defense was stellar early, holding SUU scoreless for the first 24:37 with three-straight three-and-outs and an interception as part of the first five possessions for the Thunderbirds. Coupled with 9:32 minutes against MSU, the Eagle defense had gone 34:09 – more than two quarters – without surrendering points.
*. Averaging 574 yards of offense in its last five outings, Eastern's offense finished with 382 yards --- 246 passing and 136 rushing. The Eagles had entered the game ranked fourth in FCS in passing (352.6 per game), ninth in total offense (482.1), and 16th in scoring (35.9).
Other Team Highlights . . .
* Trailing 25-21 entering the fourth quarter, Eastern went on a 10-play, 75-yard drive to pull back ahead 28-25. A 31-yard pass play from Gage Gubrud to Nic Sblendorio ignited the drive, then a pair of important third down conversions on passes of 13 yards to Nsimba Webster and 20 to Zach Eagle led to a 2-yard touchdown run by Antoine Custer Jr.
* The Eagles scored two touchdowns in the first quarter to take a 14-0 lead, out-gaining SUU 173-39 in total offense in the process. Eastern had a nine-play, 75-yard drive to open the game, capped by a 17-yard TD pass from Gage Gubrud to Nsimba Webster, the fourth-straight game he has had a TD reception. Late in the quarter, Eastern had a seven-play, 60-yard drive, with Sam McPherson providing the TD on a 3-yard run.
* In the second quarter, Dre' Sonte Dorton dropped a long TD pass, and that led to EWU turning the ball over on downs and Southern Utah's first TD of the day to cut EWU's lead to 14-8. But on the ensuing kickoff, Dorton faked a reverse and then ran down the sideline for a 96-yard kickoff return to help EWU regain a two-possession lead at 21-8.
Notables . . .
* Eastern has gone into Cedar City with lofty national rankings before, but have had a difficult time pulling out wins. In the most recent meeting, back in 2014, Eastern was ranked second in FCS and trailed 14-7 before pulling away late for a 42-30 win. Two years earlier, Eastern was No. 1 in the nation but fell 30-27. During EWU's season-ending 11-game winning streak en route to the 2010 FCS title, Eastern scored the winning points with 3:39 to play to barely edge the Thunderbirds 31-24 at home. Eastern is 6-3 overall in the short series dating back to 1998, and is just 3-3 in Cedar City.
Prior to the loss in Cedar City, the Eagles had won its previous road game versus all 13 other league members, as well a 2012 road victory at Idaho, which will join the league next year.
Head Coach Aaron Best Comments . . .
On Offensive Struggles: "We put our defense into a little bit of back-against-the-wall mindset a few too many times. They bailed us out a little bit. In the second half we just couldn't get the oil in the engine, so to speak, on offense. It was a choppy game. We never matched what the defense was doing."
On SUU Offense: "They're creative in how they use their personnel, so you can't get a bead on what they do in certain groupings they are in. Their quarterback played a magnificent game and moved the sticks. Give credit to their offense. In the second half they looked like they converted on a lot of third downs and a fourth down late."
On Moving Forward: "We'll get back into our team meeting and talk about some things to gather ourselves. We will work during our bye week – that was something we were going to do anyway regardless of this outcome. We'll continue to fine-tune the things we need to fine-tune, and get better. We'll get back who we get back, but we'll never talk about the players we don't have – we only play with the players we do have."
On Confidence of Team: "It's a confident bunch and we'll continue to stay confident. It's not the first loss we've endured, and for a lot of those younger players it won't be the last loss they will probably have. We'll continue to work on the things we need to work on, but a few of our players in our locker room have never lost a Big Sky game. It was a game we didn't play as well as we would have liked, and felt we could have played better. But the team we played was a pretty darn good outfit. Coach (DeMario) Warren got them going and they executed well in a lot of different areas. We'll get better."
Gage Gubrud on Offensive Struggles: "They were causing it. They were getting pressure on us and they were covering us down. By the time we made adjustments they kind of had our number and had momentum. Credit them – they played a great game and are a great team, and we wish them good luck in the future."