It was nail-biting time late in the first half for the Eastern Washington University football team in an old-fashioned Big Sky Conference shootout at Holt Arena.
But in the end, the third-ranked Eagles survived an offensive explosion by Idaho State with its own school-record 743-yard onslaught for a 55-34 victory Saturday (Nov. 2) in Pocatello, Idaho. The two teams combined for 1,309 yards of offense, including 873 through the air, as the Eagles and Bengals had a combined 108 pass attempts.
“Our players found a way and got into maybe more of a shootout than we thought we would,” said Eastern head coach Beau Baldwin. “We still found a way to respond, and that’s what I said to the players. We responded when guys went down and we responded in the first half when we were behind.”
Eastern’s 743 yards of offense, with 432 through the air and 311 on the ground, broke the previous record of 740 set in 1997 against Rocky Mountain. The coach for EWU in that game was Mike Kramer, now the head coach at ISU.
“We were certainly explosive and our players made plays,” Baldwin said. “We got more out of our running game, which was huge. We just have to come back and correct things from this game. Wins or losses, you have to find a way to get better the next week.”
“But any time you go on the road in this conference and find a way to get a win, it’s huge,” he added.
Sophomore quarterback Vernon Adams passed for 432 yards and five touchdowns in the win, bringing his TD total to 35 for the season. Redshirt freshman wide receiver Cooper Kupp had eight catches for 205 yards and a pair of scores as he had the eighth-most receiving yards in school history. Junior running back Quincy Forte added three scores and 119 rushing yards as EWU overcame a 24-17 deficit to out-score ISU 31-3 mid-way through the game.
Eastern is currently tied atop the Big Sky standings at 5-0 with fifth-ranked Montana State, setting up next week’s showdown with the Bobcats. The Eagles and Bobcats, who edged Northern Colorado 35-28 Saturday, will tangle next Saturday (Nov. 9) at sold-out Roos Field in Cheney, Wash., in a game with huge league and national implications. In addition, EWU will be trying for its 500th victory all-time on the gridiron.
The Eagles won for the fifth-straight week as they avoided the upset bid by the Bengals. Eastern is now 7-2 this season while ISU fell to 3-6 overall and 1-5 in the league.
Idaho State finished with 566 yards of offense, including 387 in the first half alone. The Bengals completed 44-of-64 passes for 441 yards against an Eagle defense playing without a pair of starters and two key backups because of injuries. In addition, EWU lost starting safety Tevin McDonald with a broken left fibula in the third quarter.
“It saddens me to see that happen,” said Baldwin. “He’s a tough-minded young man and he’ll fight back from it. I still expect him to play for us at some point this year.”
Adams finished 26-of-44 for 432 yards – the eighth 300-yard performance of his career and third with at least 400. His passing performance was the 12th-most in school history, with his 457 last week at Montana ranking fifth. He moved from seventh to second on EWU’s single season leaders list for TD passes, with his 35 ranking just two behind the school record of 37 set in 2010 by Bo Levi Mitchell
Kupp already has 13 TD catches for the season to rank fifth all-time at EWU. He entered the game ranked third in FCS with 11 TD grabs.
Tight end Zack Gehring more than doubled his previous career high for catches with seven for 63 yards. Ashton Clark added six for 86 yards.
Defensively, Boise, Idaho, native Cody McCarthy led the Eagles with 11 tackles, and Buck Buchanan Award candidate Ronnie Hamlin had 10 and a key third-quarter interception that led to an Eagle TD. Senior cornerback T.J. Lee had a pair of passes broken up, giving him 20 in his career and moving into eighth in school history.
The Eagles played the game without three starters – safety Allen Brown (hamstring), nose tackle Will Katoa (knee) and offensive tackle Clay Debord (ankle) – who have a collective 65 starts in their careers. They were replaced by a trio of players with a combined two starts entering the ISU game.
Brown, in fact, had started 34 games for the Eagles and had played in 47 of a possible 47 games in his career until Saturday. In addition, EWU played the game without a pair of key defensive backups – safety Todd Raynes (hamstring) and linebacker J.C. Agen (quad).
Eastern looked dominating early in opening up a 10-0 lead on the scoreboard and a 116-12 advantage in yards. A 60-yard pass from Adams to Kupp set-up a 1-yard touchdown run by Forte just 3:09 into the game. Eastern drove 44 yards on its next possession and had to settle for a 26-yard field goal by Kevin Miller.
But ISU turned the tables after that and scored 10-straight points on a pair of 75-yard drives to knot the score. By the end of the first quarter, the Bengals had a 152-133 advantage in offense.
Eastern scored on a 28-yard TD pass from Adams to Clark to take a 17-10 lead, but ISU wiped that out with a nine-play, 87-yard TD drive, then took a 24-17 lead with an 86-yard drive.
Shaq Hill returned the ensuing kickoff 80 yards to set-up EWU’s game-tying 4-yard touchdown pass from Adams to Forte. A 30-yard punt return by Clark led to another EWU score, as Adams found Kupp for a 35-yard TD.
Eastern led 31-24 at halftime as the two teams combined for 723 yards of total offense, including 596 through the air.
“I give Idaho State credit -- they went up 24-17 and we were reeling a little bit,” said Baldwin. “We found a way to get a couple of stops and get it to 31-24 at halftime. In the second half we were able to get on a roll, and play a better fourth quarter. But there are definitely things to work on.”
Idaho State kicked a field goal to open the second half, but EWU responded with a 75-yard drive and scored on a 44-yard pass from Adams to Shaquille Hill. Hamlin followed with an Eagle interception, and on the first play after that, Forte scored on an 83-yard TD romp. It was the ninth-longest rush in school history, and the longest since Taiwan Jones had a school-record 96-yarder at Idaho State on Oct. 3, 2009.
That 45-27 Eastern lead ballooned to 48-27 with Miller’s second field goal late in the third quarter. Kupp closed out the scoring with a sensational catch and run for a 54-yard TD pass with 9:37 left in the game.