Sophomore from Tumwater, Wash., ties Big Sky Record with four interceptions as Eagles jump back to No. 21 in the national rankings with impressive victory
Sophomore strong safety Matt Johnson intercepted four passes on Oct. 31 versus Portland State, tying the Big Sky Conference record shared by two other players. As a result, he was selected as the Sports Network National Defensive Player of the Week and won the same honor for the league after leading Eastern to a commanding 33-4 halftime lead in the 47-10 victory.
Three other Eagles have been honored nationally this season -- quarterback Matt Nichols, linebacker J.C. Sherritt and running back Taiwan Jones.
"His interceptions were what sparked us," said Eagle head coach Beau Baldwin of the 2007graduate of Tumwater (Wash.) High School. "Sometimes you are just looking for that spark to get you going and he provided it with his three interceptions in the first half. A year ago they were throwing it all over the field against us and we weren't able to make those plays. But Matt made them and he made them early, and that was huge."
The four picks were the most interceptions in a game by a Big Sky player in 20 years and the most by an Eagle in 23. But Johnson's performance wasn't a school record as he came one pick short of EWU's school record of five set in 1986 by Mark Cordes against Boise State -- a year before Eastern became a league member. Cordes is a graduate of Spokane's Shadle Park High School.
Johnson helped Eastern's defense hold PSU without a touchdown as Eastern had a 545-278 advantage in total offense. Last season in a 47-36 Portland State win, the Vikings passed for 623 yards and five touchdowns.
"The biggest thing is that we didn't give up the big play and we kept things in front of us," said Baldwin. "We were able to rally to the football and make tackles for a 5-yard gain instead of a missed tackle that leads to a big gain. When you make an offense work for everything and don't give up the big plays, it's going to be tough on offenses to put up a lot of points."
The win kept alive Eastern's hopes of a berth in the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision Playoffs, and this week the Eagles are back in the Sports Network FCS poll at No. 21. Eastern enters its bye week 6-3 overall and 5-2 in the Big Sky Conference. The Eagles play a non-conference game at Southern Utah on Nov. 14 before concluding the regular season with a league game at Northern Arizona on Nov. 21.
"It's a great time for a bye -- our schedule couldn't have worked out any better I think," added Baldwin. "We'll get some guys healthy during the bye, then we'll see where that puts us with two games left. We want to stay fundamentally sound this week and avoid a lull during the bye week when you then feel like you are out of sync coming back the next week. So we want to do that but still stay away from the banging -- then put all of our energy into Southern Utah."
Johnson now has six interceptions this season to rank seventh in the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision with an average of .67 per game. His total ranks sixth on EWU's single season leaders list, and coupled with four interceptions as a freshman, he already ranks eighth on the career list. Eastern's career record is 18 set by Mike Richter (1971-75).
He also had a productive day against Montana State on Oct. 24, although EWU surrendered 592 yards of total offense. He had 14 tackles (10 unassisted), including a sack, an interception and a fumble recovery he returned 14 yards. He was a huge factor in the first half, with his sack early in the game helping lead to a MSU turnover on downs. His interception came at EWU's 8-yard line in the first quarter to squelch a MSU threat. Late in the half, he recovered a MSU fumble to set-up a 15-yard touchdown pass with 32 seconds left.
He is wearing the No. 10 jersey in honor of his twin brother Zach Johnson, who is out for the season because of a blood clot that developed before the start of preseason practices in August.