In a defensive battle and a nearly turnover-less game, the little things count.
The 11th-ranked Eastern Washington University football team led 7-0 and 14-7 in the first half, but No. 19/14 Weber State scored 14 unanswered points and went on to beat the Eagles 28-20 in an important Big Sky Conference game at Roos Field on Saturday (Nov. 4) in EWU's 91st Homecoming Game.
After a pair of EWU field goals cut Weber State's lead to one with 7:01 to play, the Wildcats went on a time-consuming drive of 4:35 that was capped by a 24-yard touchdown run. Eastern turned the ball over on downs in its next possession, all but sealing EWU's second-straight setback after a five-game winning streak.
"An above good Weber State outfit came to town and we knew it was going to be a dogfight," said Eastern head coach Aaron Best of the evenly-matched contest. "We matched their energy and their effort, and it was a good old-fashioned defensive battle. We couldn't get off the field on defense in the first half – third and fourth down were kind of our nemesis. But we tightened the screws up in the second half."
Although the Eagles were 3-of-3 in scoring in the red zone, they had miscues that resulted in kicking field goals instead of scoring touchdowns, and even had one TD called back because of a penalty. The loss spoiled an impressive defensive performance in which the Eagles held Weber State to 414 yards of offense, with EWU managing only 383.
The Eagles and Wildcats are two of the handful of league teams fighting not only for the league title, but berths in the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision Playoffs which begin on Nov. 25.
"We'll keep building," Best vowed. "It's about getting the sixth win – that's our goal and our mission this next week."
Records . . .
* Now 5-4 for the season and 4-2 in the Big Sky Conference, the Eagles were coming off a bye week after losing 46-28 at Southern Utah on Oct. 21.
* Weber State is 7-2 overall and improved to 5-1 in the Big Sky. The Wildcats were coming off a 41-27 romp against Montana on Oct. 28. Two weeks before that, Southern Utah upset Weber State in Ogden 32-16.
What It Means . . .
* The Eagles will be doing lots of scoreboard watching the rest of today and in the final two weeks of the regular season. Entering Saturday's action, Eastern, Weber State and Southern Utah were all 4-1 in the league, while Northern Arizona led the way at 5-0. Montana State is 4-2, while Montana and Sacramento State entered the day 3-2. Northern Arizona has a tough road to the title, playing road games at Montana on Nov. 4 and at Southern Utah on Nov. 18.
What's Next . . .
* Eastern 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 . . .
* The Eagles had 383 yards of offense on a 33-degree day, but had several miscues in Weber State territory that came back to haunt them. A 34-yard touchdown pass from wide receiver Jayson Williams to quarterback Gage Gubrud was called back because an illegal player downfield penalty – a drive that ended with a punt. In the first quarter on cusp of scoring, a snap over the head of Gubrud also resulted in a punt. Untimely penalties, dropped passes and errant throws also hurt the Eagles from developing the rhythm on offense they've enjoyed much of the year. Twice in the last 12:19 of the game, Eastern had to settle for field goals after having first-and-goal situations from inside the Weber State 10-yard line.
Turning Point . . .
* Facing a third-and-one situation at the Weber State 1-yard with just over seven minutes left and trailing by four, the Eagles were stuffed for a 3-yard loss and were going to go for it on fourth down. But a procedure penalty resulted in EWU kicking a field goal instead, then Weber State milked 4:35 off the clock with a lead-extending 65-yard drive, taking an eight-point lead with a 24-yard touchdown run.
Top Performers . . .
* Junior quarterback Gage Gubrud is now 16-6 as a starter, and finished 22-of-42 for 239 yards and a touchdown. He entered the game ranked second in FCS in total offense per game (353.1), fifth in passing yards per game (332.3), third in FCS in points responsible for per game (19.8) and seventh in total passing touchdowns (21). A year ago he led FCS in both passing and total offense (368.6 and 411.0, respectively).
* Junior wide receiver Nsimba Webster caught a team-high seven passes for 94 yards, and for the fifth-straight game had a touchdown reception. He entered the game ranked 18th in FCS in receptions (6.1, total of 49) and 50th in yards (70.3, total of 562)
* Senior Nic Sblendorio added four catches for 52 yards, and had entered the game eighth in FCS with an average of 7.3 catches per game (58 total) and 47th in yards (72.0 per game, total of 576).
* Sophomore running back Antoine Custer Jr. led Eastern's rushing attack with 76 yards and a touchdown, and Sam McPherson chipped in 69 yards.
* Junior safety Mitch Fettig had eight tackles, having entered the game with a team-leading total of 76. His average of 9.5 tackles per game ranked 34th nationally and eighth in the Big Sky.
* Junior linebackers Kurt Calhoun and Ketner Kupp combined for 23 tackles, with Calhoun finishing with a career-high 13 and Kupp getting 10 with a pass broken up and a quarterback hurry. Calhoun had his third double figures tackle performance of his career and Kupp had his sixth.
* Senior kicker Roldan Alcobendas made field goals of 25 and 26 yards in the fourth quarter for the Eagles.
* Senior punter Jordan Dascalo punted six times for a 36.5 average with two downed inside the Weber State 20-yard line.
Key Stats . . .
* Weber State had a slight edge in third-down conversions (7-of-15 to 5-of-16), resulting in a 414-383 advantage in total offense. The Wildcats rushed for 184 and passed for 230, while EWU had 144 on the ground and 239 through the air. The game was a battle of Weber State's highly-ranked defense against the high production of EWU's offense. The Wildcats entered the game allowing only 337.9 yards per game to rank 38th in FCS, including the 13th-best passing efficiency defense (109.37) and the second-best red zone defense (.571). Weber State was also 12th in scoring defense at 17.1 per game and had the seventh-most interceptions in FCS with 13. Eastern entered eighth in FCS in total offense (469.6), seventh in passing (339.2) and 20th in scoring (34.9). The Eagles are 19th in red zone offense (.875).
Other Team Highlights . . .
* Eastern took a 7-0 lead on the first possession of the game when the Eagles drove 78 yards on seven plays, capped by a 7-yard touchdown run by Antoine Custer Jr.. After WSU knotted the score, Eastern went 74 yards on seven plays in the second quarter to take a 14-7 lead. The drive was capped by a 23-yard touchdown pass from Gage Gubrud to Nsimba Webster, who gathered in a TD pass for the fifth-straight game.
* A crowd of 9,451 were on hand for EWU's game giving EWU 24-straight regular season sellouts (crowd of 8,600 or more) and 36 overall. Eastern is now 43-10 overall since the red turf was installed at Roos Field, and have lost just six regular season games at "The Inferno" – 33-6, plus are 10-4 in playoff games. The only regular season losses at home for EWU since then are to conference foes Montana State (2011), Portland State (2011 and 2015) and Northern Arizona (2015), as well as North Dakota State (2017) and Weber State (2017).
Notables . . .
* Eastern is now 54-34-3 in its previous 91 Homecoming contests, and last year defeated Northern Colorado 49-31.
* Weber State was the second ranked FCS foe Eastern has played this season, and the first in Big Sky Conference play. Earlier this season, Eastern lost 40-13 to second-ranked North Dakota State (the Eagles were ranked seventh). Weber State is ranked 19th in the STATS Top 25 poll, and is 14th by the coaches. Eastern is 11th in both. The Eagles have now played 122 games against ranked teams in the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision since becoming a member of that classification in 1983 (then known as I-AA). Eastern is 54-68 in those games, including a 17-42 mark versus top 10 foes. Since 2010, though, the Eagles are 25-14 overall and 8-7 versus top 10 teams).
* All eyes will were on the turnover battle when Weber State and Eastern Washington met, with both having results on opposite ends of the spectrum. The Wildcats entered ranked ninth in FCS with a plus 1.38 turnover margin per game, with 20 turnovers gained (9th in FCS) and just nine lost (21st). Eastern, meanwhile, was 115th out of 123 FCS schools with minus 1.38 margin per game. Eastern has gained 10 turnovers (95th) while losing 21 (112th). However, the game resulted in exactly zero turnovers by each team until an interception in the final seconds on EWU's final possession of the game.
Head Coach Aaron Best Comments . . .
On Game: "Our team played hard and they played very violently on defense. They played the game how we teach and coach the game. It's just unfortunate somebody has to lose in these situations, especially on your home field. We showed a lot of grit, toughness, dedication and commitment in that game, because everything is not always going to be perfect. We weathered a few storms. When you have two really good football teams it's not going to go as smooth as everybody would like it -- it's how can you smooth out those rough times. At times we did a good job of that and I'm proud of our players for taking the turnover piece to heart and to the field. They did a fabulous job against a team that gets the ball out on you."
On EWU's Defense: "I give a lot of credit to coach Jeff Schmedding and his defense. They gave up only 28 points at home, and given the conditions they allowed only a few big plays. We're used to scoring more than that on offense and we didn't get that done. It was a gritty game – there were a lot of plays between the 20's and it was a chess match inside the 20 going in. I was really, really proud of our defense because they made it tough-sledding for Weber State in the second half."
On Penalties and Turnovers: "It's obviously something we have to deal with, because they are happening. The focus this past week was the turnover piece, and we did a great job with that. On the only turnover we had, we had to force the ball downfield on the last play of the game. We have to look at the penalties and determine if they are intellectual or not intellectual – are they hustle penalties and we have to do something about it, or are they pre-snap or post-snap penalties. Our players play hard, so you don't want to take the edge off those guys. But we do want to play smarter. We have to take a look at the penalties like everything else. We have to be better, but we certainly did a good job in the turnover department. We didn't get any, but we didn't give any up until the last play of the game."
On Last Field Goal: "We just couldn't muster up a touchdown when we got it inside the five – we ended up getting three out of it. It's a testament to the guys in the red zone on defense -- they are a stout bunch. We didn't execute and part of that is due to Weber State's ability to do things very well in the red zone."
On Weber State: "Coach Jay Hill does a great job at Weber State – they play well home or away. They are a formidable opponent for a reason – they are a tough out. Today they just made a few more plays than we did."