CHENEY -- Once again, the Eagles found a way.
The eighth-ranked Eastern Washington University football team used a late defensive stop and a short touchdown drive to pull-out another victory by edging Sacramento State 28-24 Saturday (Oct. 23) in a Big Sky Conference game at Roos Field in Cheney, Wash.
Eastern led 21-0 early in the second quarter, but was out-scored 24-0 to fall behind mid-way through the fourth quarter. But the Eagles responded -- much like they have all season -- with a key defensive stop that was highlighted by a third down sack by sophomore defensive end Paul Ena followed by a 35-yard scoring drive that was capped by a Brandon Kaufman 6-yard touchdown catch from Bo Levi Mitchell with 33 seconds to play.
The victory followed a familiar pattern -- Eastern has won its six games this season by an average of just 6.8 points per game and has been out-scored by an average of 24 points in its two losses. The win kept Eastern at the top of the league standings at 5-1, tied with seventh-ranked Montana. Montana State, ranked 15th nationally, is right behind at 4-1.
"Our players are resilient and they never give up," said Eastern head coach Beau Baldwin. "It took two huge possessions at the end. The defense had to get a stop with a three-and-out, then the offense had to go down and score. We were huge down the stretch again. We've said it before -- we won't always get away with this, but we found a way against Sacramento State too."
Walter Payton Award candidate Taiwan Jones rushed for 145 yards, including a 77-yard touchdown run in which he broke five tackles on his way to his 10th career play of at least 70 yards. The junior had his 10th 100-yard rushing game in just 19 outings as an Eastern running back, and now has 879 yards and nine total touchdowns for the season.
Eastern's defense, which was on the field for 82 plays compared to 56 plays for EWU's offense, had three sacks, two interceptions and broke-up nine passes. Zach Johnson led the way with 12 tackles and a pair of passes broken up, and his twin brother Matt Johnson had nine tackles, an interception (the 14th of his career) and broke-up three passes.
With 11 tackles against the Hornets, Buck Buchanan Award candidate J.C. Sherritt moved into second in school history with 347 career tackles. He passed Derek Strey (346 from 1994-97) and is now tied with Jason Marsh (1991-93) for second. The senior strong-side inside linebacker needs 53 more tackles to break the school record of 399 held by Greg Belzer (1997-2000).
"Our defense was put in a lot of tough situations," said Baldwin. "We have a lot of seniors on defense and some of the juniors have been three-year starters. We lean on them and they have high expectations -- they don't mind that. I hate to say it, but the more we squeak out wins I think that's kind of who we are. I would like to try to find a way where we are better in the third quarter, but at the same time, if we're a team that finds a way to win in the fourth quarter, then so be it. We'll keep trying to find a way in the fourth quarter to get it done."
Eastern led 21-0, with Jones' run sandwiched between Mitchell's touchdown passes to Kaufman (17 yards) and Ashton Gant (25 yards). Eastern appeared to be on its way to a four-touchdown lead late in the first half with a first-and-10 at the Sac State 17-yard line, but Mitchell threw an interception.
At the time of the interception, Eastern had a 212-110 lead in total offense. But over the span of Sac State's 24-0 run, the Hornets out-gained Eastern 267-66. Sacramento State finished with 398 yards of offense and EWU had 323.
"They are a good team and I give them credit -- honestly, I did expect a battle," said Baldwin. "I just thought it would be a back-and-forth battle. I didn't necessarily expect it be 21-0 and then the next thing you know it's 24-21. But that's the way it goes sometimes and we just have to find a way."
The Eagles had only 46 yards of offense in the third quarter, a week after only getting 28 in the third stanza at Northern Colorado. Eastern eked that one out too, scoring twice in the last 3:08 -- and the game-winner with 41 seconds left -- to pull out a 35-28 triumph.
"I wish we could just skip the third quarter -- that's where I'm at right now," said Baldwin with a chuckle. "We need to get over some humps. We have certain drives and momentum where we are striking fast and things are going well. We just need to find a way to bottle that up for a whole game with some consistency."
Eastern's win at Roos Field was its third in as many tries on the new red turf at the "Inferno," but it was a rare home win in the series. In the previous 19th meetings between the Eagles and Hornets, the home team had won just four times. Eastern had lost four of the last five at home versus Sac State.
The Eagles continued their best start since winning the Big Sky Conference title in 1997 as the Eagles were the last team other than Montana to win the league title outright. Eastern's 5-1 league mark is its best five-game start since 2004. Eastern finished the 1997 regular season 10-1 overall and 7-1 in the league, and in 2004 EWU was 6-1 in the league and 8-3 in the regular season.
The Eagles were ranked eighth in this past week's Sports Network/Fathead.com top 25 NCAA Football Championship Subdivision poll, up four spots from the previous week. It equaled Eastern's highest ranking since finishing the 2007 season ranked eighth.