Head coach Beau Baldwin and the eighth-ranked Eastern Washington University football team were just playing the percentages.
The Eagles scored on a successful fake field goal with 43 seconds to play to rally past No. 10 Northern Iowa 34-30 in another NCAA Football Championship thriller Saturday (Sept. 17) at Roos Field in Cheney, Wash.
Eastern fell behind by 17 points at halftime, but then used a 93-yard kickoff return to open the second half by true freshman Antoine Custer Jr. as the spark to ignite EWU. Sophomore quarterback Reilly Hennessey – limited to holding for placekicks this season until the UNI game -- relieved starter Gage Gubrud in the third quarter and had three touchdown passes, including a game-winning 23-yard strike sophomore tight end Beau Byus.
"In my head I just tried to play the percentages, that's all it really is," said Baldwin of electing against a 40-yard field goal into the wind. "We thought that was a higher percentage to hit, and we did something a little different. We didn't run that for the first time out here. Like anything, you better be executing it in practice and working on it, then be willing to go for it when the moment arises."
Eastern survived its preseason schedule 2-1, including victories over Washington State of the Pacific-12 Conference and a 50-44 loss in overtime to top-ranked and five-time defending FCS champion North Dakota State in which the Eagles missed a 49-yarder that could have won it. Eastern opens Big Sky Conference play on Sept. 24 at 1-2 Northern Arizona, a 73-3 winner over New Mexico Highlands Saturday.
"It's a huge win – I'm not into moral victories, but through this schedule, to be 2-1 is an indication we've done a lot of good things," said Baldwin, whose team lost at UNI 38-35 last year in a game that featured four ties and four lead changes. "Now, we also have some things we have to continue to correct and find ways to grow as a team. We're going to keep grinding and fighting, and I'm happy with the fact we can learn off a win against a very good ball team."
Won-Lost Records . . .
* Eastern is now 2-1 while Northern Iowa fell to 1-2. The Panthers opened their season with a 25-20 victory over Iowa State before falling to Montana 20-14 on Sept. 10.
What It Means . . .
* The Eastern football program has become quite familiar with Northern Iowa in the past 30 years, but Eagle fans at "The Inferno" have not. In the seventh meeting overall – but the first at Roos Field in Cheney, Wash. – the game matched two of the premier programs in the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision. Although EWU now just 1-6 all-time versus the Panthers, the 34-30 win was the first-ever meeting between the two teams in Cheney, Wash.
What's Next . . .
* Eastern plays its third road game in four weeks on Sept. 24 when EWU plays at Big Sky Conference favorite Northern Arizona seeking to end a two-game losing skid versus the Lumberjacks. Kickoff at the Walkup Skydome is 4:05 p.m. Pacific time in a game televised regionally by SWX via a feed from Fox Sports Arizona and Fox Sports Pacific. Last year's 52-30 home loss to Northern Arizona ended EWU's six-game winning streak, and was just the second loss for the Eagles in their last 24 league games, with both losses coming at the hands of the Lumberjacks. In fact, the Eagles are an impressive 27-5 league mark in the last four years from 2012-15, and the only losses are to NAU (2014 and 2015), Montana (2015), Portland State (2015) and Southern Utah (2012).
Keys to Game . . .
* Eastern's defense allowed three touchdowns in the first half, but held the Panthers to just a pair of field goals in their final eight possessions of the game. Included was five-straight three-and-outs from the end of the second quarter through the end of the third quarter. Eastern's defense clinched the win when Samson Ebukam appeared to sack UNI's quarterback, only to have him pitch the ball to a lineman. Eastern's Jim Townsend then forced a fumble that was recovered by Ebukam.
Top Performers . . .
* Sophomore Reilly Hennessey came off the bench in the second half for his first action of the season at quarterback, and completed 21-of-28 passes for 226 yards and three touchdowns. A year ago, he and Jordan West combined for a school-record 526 yards passing versus the
* Sophomore Gage Gubrud, making just his third collegiate start and first at home, completed 13-of-26 passes for 114 yards, with a touchdown and an interception. He also rushed 10 times for a net gain of 15 yards.
* Sophomore Stu Stiles, making the first start of his career as an injury replacement for Cooper Kupp, caught seven passes for 54 yards and a score. One week earlier in an overtime loss at North Dakota State, Stiles had eight catches for 169 yards and a 7-yard touchdown catch from Hennessey.
* Senior Kendrick Bourne had his second-straight 100-yard receiving game and eighth of his career, finishing with a career-high 10 receptions for 152 yards and a 37-yard touchdown catch from Hennessey
* Senior Shaq Hill added seven catches for 79 yards, and also had a rush for 30 yards. He caught a 5-yard TD pass from Gubrud in the second quarter.
* Senior Miquiyah Zamora, who missed the North Dakota State game with a hamstring injury, finished with a game-high 14 tackles. It was his seventh career double-figures tackle performance, and was two from his career high.
* Senior safety Zach Bruce
Key Stats . . .
* Eastern finished with 403 yards of offense, but held Northern Iowa to 353. It was Eastern's best defensive performance since limited Montana to 347 in a 37-20 win over Montana in the FCS Playoffs on Dec. 6, 2014.
Turning Point . . .
* Trailing by 17 at halftime, true freshman Antoine Custer Jr. returned the second-half kickoff 93 yards for a touchdown. His TD return was the first by an Eagle since teammate Shaq Hill had a 90-yarder against Portland State on Nov. 21, 2014.
Team Highlights . . .
* The Eagles had a 231-96 advantage in total offense in the second half, including a 70-9 advantage in the third quarter. At one point in the game, the Eagles were outgained in total offense by UNI 152-12. Eastern had 147 yards at halftime, but 65 of them came during an 80-yard score for the team's only touchdown of the half. The Eagles trailed 24-7 at intermission.
Milestones & Records . . .
* Senior Kendrick Bourne moved into 12th in school history in career catches (157) and is 14th in receiving yards (2,301).
* Senior Miquiyah Zamora now has 269 career tackles, moving him into 12th in school history. He passed the 263 of T.J. Lee III (2010-13), who was at the game and currently plays for the B.C. Lions in the Canadian Football League. Lee is recovering from a ruptured Achilles injury.
Notables . . .
* Eastern played the Northern Iowa game without senior wide receiver Cooper Kupp (shoulder) and sophomore Alek Kacmarcik (concussion). Nose guard Matthew Sommer (knee) missed his third-straight game.
* As a result of the injury to Kupp, sophomore Stu Stiles made the first start of his career. Also making his starting debut was rover J.J. Njoku, who was replacing Cole Karstetter, out for the season with a ruptured Achilles.
* Following EWU's win over UNI and a loss to North Dakota State last week, the Eagles are 5-11 all-time versus current members of the Missouri Valley Football Conference, including a 4-5 record in the FCS Playoffs and a 1-6 record in non-conference games. Besides seven games against Northern Iowa (1-6), Eastern also has played three times against Illinois State (1-2), twice against North Dakota State (1-1), Southern Illinois (1-0), South Dakota State (1-0), Youngstown State (0-1), South Dakota (0-1).
* Last year's meeting in Cedar Falls, Iowa, was a thriller with four lead changes and four ties. In the end, the seventh-ranked Eagles rallied from a 21-14 deficit to take the lead, but 14th-ranked Northern Iowa scored 17 unanswered points in the fourth quarter to win 38-35. Eastern quarterbacks Jordan West and Reilly Hennessey combined to complete 37-of-47 passes (79 percent) for a school-record 526 passing yards and four touchdowns, helping the Eagles overcome a running game that managed just 26 yards on 25 carries. Wide receiver Cooper Kupp had nine catches for 179 yards and touchdown catches of 18 and 73 yards, however, he suffered a hip pointer and couldn't play in the second half. Sophomore Nic Sblendorio had career highs with 10 catches for 158 yards and junior Kendrick Bourne added eight grabs for 84 yards and two TDs.
Head Coach Beau Baldwin Comments . . .
On Second Half Performance: "We just all needed to fight – as coaches too. I challenged our coaches as much, if not more, than our players. We had to find a way to be better – I felt like we were getting beat in all facets of the game. When you are in a fight and you're getting beat up, you either keep getting beat up or you fight back. And our players fought back from the opening bell of the second half. You saw that with the kickoff return, you saw it from the defense continuing to get stops all the way to the end of the game and you saw it with the offense getting into a little bit of an offensive rhythm we sometimes lacked during this game. We are going to have windy days where sometimes there isn't a ton of rhythm, but there still isn't any excuse to not be fighting like crazy. I have to do a better job with how we start games. I love the way we finished, but we have to find a better way to start the game."
On Quarterbacks: "I believe in all of them – I believe in Gage, I believe in Reilly and I believe in Jordan. When we're in a game, just like at any position, when somebody might be struggling or not feeling it, you want to do what's best for the team. We felt like making a change and doing something a little bit different. Reilly has played a lot of good football here too. And so has Gage – I don't want to take anything away from that. He was in his third college start and just went on the road and played incredible against both Washington State and North Dakota State. He was struggling at times hitting and seeing some things today. When you have three quarterbacks that can win you games, that's a nice luxury to have."