Eagles are out-gained 747-487, but win turnover battle 4-0 and now await playoff fate
The playoff fate for the Eagles is back in the hands of a NCAA Committee.
The Eastern Washington University football team let an 18-point lead slip through its grasp, but scored the winning touchdown with 3:30 left in the game to conclude the regular season with a 49-45 Big Sky Conference victory over Northern Arizona Saturday (Nov. 21) at the Walkup Skydome in Flagstaff, Ariz.
Eastern was out-gained in total yards 747-487, but won the important turnover battle 4-0. The Eagles led 28-10 and 35-17 in the first half, and 42-27 late in the game, however, NAU scored three-straight times to take a 45-42 lead with 5:20 left.
But Eastern scored on a five-play, 74-yard drive, with senior quarterback Matt Nichols passing 13 yards to Nathan Overbay for the winning score -- Overbay's 12th TD catch of the season. The defense did the rest, stopping NAU on a fourth-and-three play at the EWU 32-yard line with 34 seconds to play.
Nichols completed 22-of-33 passes for 408 yards, no interceptions five touchdowns as EWU wrapped-up a fourth-straight victory and a possible berth in the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision Playoffs. Nichols became only the second player in league history to pass for more than 12,000 career yards, and his current total of 12,155 is just 53 yards from the league record.
"It was a battle to the end," said Eagle head coach Beau Baldwin. "We were playing on a good surface and both offenses got on a roll. Sometimes you play them 16-0 and sometimes you get in shootouts, but I'm proud of our team for finding a way.
"In the second half it started getting away from us, but we kept fighting," he added. "But both sides of the ball won the game for us -- we went down and scored and then we got the final stop. Both were huge."
Northern Arizona finished with 574 yards through the air and 173 rushing, while the Eagles finished with 486 total yards. The Eagles, however, forced four turnovers, including an 85-yard interception return for a touchdown by Makai Borden.
Eastern is now 6-0 this season when it wins the turnover battle, with a 22-4 advantage in those six games. Since having a season-high five in a loss to Weber State on Oct. 10, Eastern has had just two turnovers -- both fumbles -- as Nichols now has a streak of 207 attempts without an interception.
Eastern finished the league season 6-2 in a second-place tie with Weber State, which is also hoping for a playoff berth with a 7-4 record and earlier 31-13 win over the Eagles. Northern Arizona lost its fourth-straight game and closed the year 5-6.
"As a team we figured out a way to win it," said Baldwin. "I'm proud of everybody. It wasn't perfect, and a lot of times it's not perfect when you play a good opponent. They were a much better opponent than 5-5 coming into this game."
The 16 teams for the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision Playoffs are announced Sunday (Nov. 22), and EWU is hoping that an 8-3 record would be good enough for one of eight at-large berths handed out. The pairings are set to be announced nationally at noon Pacific time on ESPNews -- at the same time the Eagles will be flying back to Spokane from Phoenix.
On Oct. 27, the NCAA Division I Infractions Appeals Committee overturned the 2009 postseason ban for Eastern's football program, allowing the Eagles to regain eligibility for the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision Playoffs. That penalty was appealed by EWU shortly after the NCAA released its penalties in February from findings from a two-year review of activities involving the EWU football team from 2003-07.
"We're practicing on Thanksgiving -- that's what we are planning to do," said Baldwin, before joining his team in celebrating the victory.
Nichols had plenty of help in leading the Eagles to the win. Running back Taiwan Jones finished with 274 all-purpose yards, including 115 rushing to go over the 1,000-yard mark for the season. He also caught a pair of passes for 82 yards and returned four kickoffs for 77 more.
Jones scored Eastern's first touchdown on an 80-yard catch-and-run from Nichols, then scored on a 71-yard run in the third quarter to give EWU a 42-27 lead.
Prior to that, Nichols had touchdown passes of 8, 10 and 18 yards to freshman redshirt Nicholas Edwards -- his first scores of the season. His third TD catch gave EWU a 35-17 lead with 54 seconds left in the second quarter.
Tony Davis led Eastern with seven catches for 132 yards, including a key 22-yard catch to start the game-winning drive.
True freshman Paul Ena, a defensive end until practice last week when he moved to middle linebacker as an injury replacement, had a game-high 16 tackles. Safety Matt Johnson and linebacker J.C. Sherritt -- the FCS leader in tackles with an average of 13.9 tackles per game -- each finished with 15. Sherritt has 154 tackles this season, breaking the previous single season record of 151 set by Greg Belzer in 2000.
Ranked 18th in this week's Sports Network FCS poll, Eastern won its last four games by a combined 172-107 margin. Now, Eastern is hoping that history repeats itself and the Eagles are rewarded an at-large bid.
In both 2004 and 2007, Eastern ended the season with an 8-3 record and received an at-large berth. Both times the Eagles ended the season with four-game winning streaks, then began the playoffs with impressive first-round victories.
In 2004, EWU won its final four regular season games before knocking off Southern Illinois 35-31 in the playoffs. Three years later, another four-game winning streak led to a 44-15 first-round win over McNeese State.
Since the Big Sky was given an automatic berth in the NCAA Playoffs in 1980, only Idaho (8-3 in 1983, 9-3 in 1994) has not been given an at-large berth in the playoffs with a record of 8-3 or better. That compares to 26 at-large berths that were given to league teams 8-3 or better, as well as EWU's 1992 team which was 7-3.
Comments from Senior Linebacker Makai Borden
On Final Drive: "Everyone on the field was saying to each other to just find whatever it was that they could hold onto to get us through the game. We needed to leave everything on the field and make the sacrifices that are appropriate to get a win like this. It wasn't a very pretty win, but we got the job done and ultimately all that matters is that W in the win column."
On High Altitude: "A lot of us were having a hard time catching our breath, me especially. It's hard alone playing with a broken rib, let alone playing at high altitude. We definitely were all feeling the effects of the high altitude, but at least we were able to get the job done."
On Interception Return for a Touchdown: "It was just unbelievable -- I honestly didn't think I had that speed in me. Somehow I hit some kind of afterburner I didn't know was there. I'm not used to having the ball in my hands anymore. It really felt good to do that, but at the end I just wanted to lay in the end zone and catch my breath for awhile. It was tough."
Comments from Senior Tight End Nathan Overbay
On Winning Fourth-Straight Game to Hopefully Secure Berth: "For the seniors this is what we are playing for -- we are playing for the playoffs to continue our careers. We just wanted to end the season the best we can and hope. Now that we did, if we can get into the playoffs we'll put ourselves in the driver's seat to do whatever we want. Hopefully we get the at-large bid -- we'll play anyone who wants to play us. It doesn't matter to me."
On Offense: "It was a great game offensively for both teams. We put up 49 points and they put up 45. We thought 49 would definitely be good enough, but we didn't think it would come down to this. It makes for a great game."
On Eastern Overcoming Season-Ending Injury to Aaron Boyce: "Somebody has to step up, and I wasn't the only player to do that. Matt is a great quarterback, and he's not just finding me -- he's finding anybody who is open. We have the best quarterback in the Big Sky and he's going to make plays. He spreads them out -- he's the best. When you lose a player like Aaron Boyce, it's unbelievable that we can still be as productive as this. He was the rock of our offense. We just have to keep going."
Comments from Senior Quarterback Matt Nichols
On Opening Big Lead: "The first half was really fun and we were taking it to them. We thought we might run away with it, but we knew they had an offense that could score some points. We stalled out for awhile, but we scored in the fourth quarter when we needed it."
On Game-Winning Drive: "It was one of the first times in my career where I've been on the field for our last drive and we had to score to win. It feels great to do that."
On First Catch of Game-Winning Drive: "Tony Davis making that catch was just unbelievable. He's a senior and that's a catch we've just come to expect him to make, but I don't think people know just how hard a catch that is and how big of a catch it was."
On NAU's Last Drive: "I sat over on the bench and had my head down -- I couldn't even watch that last drive until I heard us celebrating. Then all of the sudden I was taking a knee for the victory."
On Possibility of Playoffs: "We've talked about it all along -- we had to win eight games to give ourselves a chance at the playoffs. This team is showing a lot of heart, and we've had our ups and downs this season -- we've been through everything. I think we are very well prepared to go to the playoffs and hopefully we'll get the chance to get in."
Eagles in the Playoffs -- Eastern's 2007 appearance in the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision Playoffs was the school's sixth berth in school history. It was also the third in a three-year span as EWU's appearances in 2004 and 2005 were the first time the Eagles had ever made back-to-back appearances.
Eastern has now advanced past the first round four times (1985, 1997, 2004, 2007) and has a 5-6 record in six playoff appearances.
In 2007, the Eagles handed second-seeded and No. 3 ranked McNeese State its first loss of the year in a 44-15 first-round victory. Eastern then lost in the quarterfinals at two-time defending champion Appalachian State. In 2004, Eastern defeated No. 1 ranked and top-seeded Southern Illinois 35-31 in the first round and then lost 35-34 to Sam Houston State in the quarterfinal round in EWU's first-ever playoff game at Woodward Field in Cheney, Wash. In both 2004 and 2007, Eastern entered the playoffs ranked 14th nationally.
Until 2004, Eastern hadn't appeared in the FCS playoffs since 1997 when the Eagles advanced to the semifinals where it lost to Youngstown State 25-14 at Albi Stadium in Spokane, Wash. Eastern played two early-round games at Albi, defeating Northwestern State 40-10 and Western Kentucky 38-21.
Eastern also participated in the playoffs in 1985 (won at Idaho 42-38 and lost at Northern Iowa 17-14) and 1992 (lost at Northern Iowa 17-14). The school's only other post-season experience came in 1967 when Eastern advanced to the NAIA Championship game where it lost to Fairmont State 28-21.
Here is a complete list of EWU's playoff games:
2007 - at Appalachian State - L, 35-38 (Quarterfinals)
2007 - at McNeese State - W, 44-15 (First Round)
2005 - at Northern Iowa - L, 38-41 (First Round)
2004 - Sam Houston State - L, 34-35 (Quarterfinals/Cheney)
2004 - at Southern Illinois - W, 35-31 (First Round)
1997 - Youngstown State - L, 14-25 (Semifinals/Spokane)
1997 - Western Kentucky - W, 38-21 (Quarterfinals/Spokane)
1997 - Northwestern State - W, 40-10 (First Round/Spokane)
1992 - at Northern Iowa - L, 14-17 (First Round)
1985 - at Northern Iowa - L, 14-17 (Quarterfinals)
1985 - at Idaho - W, 42-38 (First Round)