Defense keys Eags' 35-24 FCS Quarterfinal win
Posted on December 14, 2013 at 9:10 PM
Try as they might, the offense couldn’t give the Eagles a two-score lead in the second half. But the defense did.
With true freshman Albert Havili providing the decisive blow with a 77-yard interception return for a touchdown, third-seeded and No. 3 ranked Eastern Washington University defeated Jacksonville State 35-24 Saturday in the quarterfinals of the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision Playoffs at Roos Field in Cheney, Wash.
The Eagles rolled up 545 yards of offense and gave up 528 against the Gamecocks from the Ohio Valley Conference. However, Eastern’s defense was dominating in the second half for the second-straight week -- EWU has not given up a second-half touchdown while out-scoring opponents 41-6 after intermission in those two playoff victories.
“I want to congratulate our players,” said Eastern head coach Beau Baldwin. “Every game, especially in December, is going to have a different feel to it. We talk about that a lot in team meetings. There might be games that are smooth and rhythmic. There might be other games that are defensive battles. We consistently are able to make adjustments and find ways to win in whatever ball game it is. To do that is tougher than you might think.”
The victory advances EWU to the semifinals against Towson, and will host the Tigers next Saturday (Dec. 21) at 11 a.m. Pacific time at Roos Field in a game televised by ESPNU. It is EWU’s second-straight year of advancing to the “Final Four,” and third in the last four years for the 2010 NCAA champions.
Towson upset second-seeded and No. 2 ranked Eastern Illinois 49-39 on Friday night. The seventh-seeded and fifth-ranked Tigers were led by Walter Payton Award finalist Terrance West, who rushed for a FCS playoff record 354 yards with five touchdowns. The Tigers are now 12-2 and finished 6-2 in the Colonial Conference. It will be EWU’s first-ever meeting with Towson, and EWU is 2-0 against the Colonial.
The semifinal winners advance to the NCAA Division I Championship Game on Saturday, Jan. 4 at 11 a.m. Pacific time at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas.
“I am really proud of our guys to keep fighting,” said Baldwin, whose team knocked off South Dakota State 41-17 last week in Cheney. “We found different ways to win this game than we did a week ago. Who knows what kind of game we will be in next week, but we know it will be against a very good opponent. We are happy to get one more shot at home with next week’s ball game.”
Eastern enjoyed another offensive explosion in the win over JSU, with the Eagles setting Big Sky Conference records for single season scoring (561) and passing offense (4,853), with Walter Payton Award finalist Vernon Adams breaking the league record for passing yards (4,600).
The Eagles only gave up just two sacks against a team that featured the sixth-best pass defense in FCS and ranked fourth in quarterback sacks with a total of 50. The Eagles average more than 500 yards of total offense per game with the nation’s fourth-best passing attack.
Eastern is now 12-2 and owns a 10-game winning streak, having not lost since Sept. 28. Jacksonville State ended its season at 11-4.
Adams finished 18-of-29 for 324 yards and had his 52nd and 53rd TD passes for the season, which are now tied for the third-most in FCS history.
Senior Ashton Clark had a career-high 181 yards receiving on 11 catches, which equal the 12th-most in school history. Freshman redshirt Cooper Kupp added four catches for 99 yards, as both he and Clark caught touchdown passes from Adams.
Kupp now has 21 TD catches to rank fourth in FCS history, and owns sole possession of the 45-year-old Big Sky record he tied a week ago (20, Ed Bell, Idaho State, 1969). He has now had a touchdown reception in all 14 of the games he has played in his EWU career, having broken the FCS record of 11 consecutive games.
Running back Quincy Forte, who had 202 yards in EWU’s second-round win over South Dakota State, had 190 on 24 carries with a pair of touchdowns versus JSU.
Linebacker Ronnie Hamlin, who injured his shoulder in the first half and wasn’t expected back, started the second half and finished with the second-most tackles in his career with 15. With 16 performances in his career with at least 10 tackles, he now has 350 tackles in his career to move into fourth in school history, and his 129 tackles this season is currently ninth.
Senior cornerback T.J. Lee III added 12 tackles, broke-up a pass and had a quarterback hurry. Linebacker Cody McCarthy was the third Eagle in double figure tackles with 11.
The first half resembled a track meet with the two teams combining for 649 yards of offense. Eastern had 337 yards on just 29 plays, but two turnovers in the JSU red zone cost the Eagles dearly. Jacksonville State had 312 yards on 50 plays.
The Gamecocks were 8-of-11 on third down, while the Eagles were so good on first and second down that they had just one third down conversion attempt, and they converted it.
Eastern scored first on a 29-yard touchdown pass from Adams to Kupp, but the Gamecocks countered with a pair of TDs to take a 14-7 lead early in the first half. Eastern tied the game at 14 on a 3-yard run by Forte to cap a six-play, 76-yard drive that took just 1:45.
After JSU scored again, Clark gathered in a 41-yard TD pass from Adams on a seven-play, 77-yard drive. The game was tied at 21 at intermission.
Eastern then scored the first time it had the ball in the second half to take a 28-21 lead, using just 2:58 and eight plays to drive 75 yards.
Eastern’s defense held Jacksonville State to field goal in the quarter, but the offense had an interception and gave the ball away on downs on opportunities to turn make it a two-score lead.
Early in the fourth quarter, Eastern was stopped again on fourth down, and the Gamecocks turned it into a drive to the EWU 27. But on the next play, true freshman linebacker Albert Havili intercepted a pass and returned it 77 yards for an EWU touchdown and 35-24 lead with 10:40 to play. It was the 10th-longest return in school history, equaling the 77-yarder Hamlin had earlier this season against North Dakota.
Eastern kept Jacksonville State from scoring in its last two possessions, one on downs and one on an interception by senior Bo Schuetzle.