Despite five turnovers, Eastern makes the most of a 354-317 advantage in total offense
A win is a win.
Capping a stretch of playing the top four picks in the league's preseason predictions besides itself, the 13th-ranked Eastern Washington University football team overcame five turnovers to hold off Northern Arizona 21-14 in a Big Sky Conference game Saturday (Oct. 9) at Roos Field in Cheney, Wash.
Eastern out-gained NAU 354-317 in total offense, but lost the turnover battle 5-3 as NAU had 30 more offensive plays than the Eagles and had a nearly 10 minute advantage in possession time.
"I am always happy to get a win," said a relieved Eastern head coach Beau Baldwin. "To be 3-1 at this point is a pretty solid thing after going through the stretch we've gone through. Yes, it was ugly -- as ugly as it could be -- and we definitely have a lot of work to do. Both sides of the ball have pride in the way they play."
Senior linebacker J.C. Sherritt led Eastern's defense with 16 tackles -- the10th time his career he has had at least 15 tackles. The Buck Buchanan Award candidate also had an interception, a sack and a quarterback hurry.
Despite two interceptions, Eastern junior quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell was extremely accurate by completing 20-of-26 passes for 288 yards and touchdown passes to Nicholas Edwards, Brandon Kaufman and Ryan Seto.
"We found a way to win and that's huge," said Baldwin. "We'll improve and learn from this because a lot of times you can't win doing the things we did today."
Eastern, which plays at Northern Colorado on Oct. 16, is now 4-2 overall and 3-1 in the Big Sky Conference, with losses to Nevada (49-24) and Montana State (30-7). The Eagles were ranked 13th in last week's Sports Network/Fathead.com top 25 NCAA Football Championship Subdivision poll, up three spots from the previous week.
The Lumberjacks are 3-2 overall and 1-1 in the league, with their lone loss prior to the EWU loss came to Arizona State (41-20). Northern Arizona received enough votes in The Sports Network poll to rank 26th nationally, and was ranked 24th in the FCS coaches poll (EWU was 14th).
Eastern's defense stepped up big in the second half, stopping NAU on downs in its last three possessions. On the last NAU possession of the game, Eastern's Zach Johnson and Tyler Washburn made a stop on a fourth-and-12 play at the EWU 38-yard line.
Johnson also had 11 tackles and a pair of tackles for loss, and his twin brother Matt Johnson added nine tackles and a pass broken up. Paul Ena had a sack and Artise Gauldin and Jeff Minnerly each had interceptions. Minnerly's pick turned into an EWU touchdown.
"I'm proud of the defense for stepping up," said Baldwin. "I'm still proud of the entire team for staying together and finding a way to win. But our defense was put in a tough spot a number of times and they found a way to get stops. That was great."
Eastern lost three fumbles, including a pair by Walter Payton Award candidate Taiwan Jones. One of those was recovered for a touchdown in the fourth quarter by NAU.
"Turnovers are such a pet peeve of mine," said Baldwin. "I harp on it and stress it, and we work on it in practice. So when we have a game like this where we are turning it over, it frustrates me. There were moments where we moved the ball well, but overall we didn't pay the type of football we need to in order to win a championship."
Jones played for the first time since suffering a pelvic contusion two weeks ago, and finished with just 48 rushing yards on 16 carries. He entered as the sixth-best rusher in FCS (129.5 per game), but NAU's rush defense entered sixth nationally (84.0) and held EWU to a net total of 66 yards.
However, Jones showed flashes of brilliance that has Baldwin excited for the day when Jones is fully healthy again.
"He definitely wasn't where he can be when he's fully healthy," said Baldwin. "He's an impact player and gives us a lot of things. You can tell he was just finding himself again, and on some runs he was just trying to do too much -- and that's natural sometimes. But anytime we can get that No. 22 back it's a good thing."
Eastern was picked to finish second in the league behind Montana, a team the Eagles knocked off 36-27 on Sept. 18 in the debut of Eastern's new red Sprinturf surface at Roos Field . Eastern followed that with the loss to Montana State, a school picked to finish third in the league standings. On Oct. 2, Eastern scored 21-straight points in the second half to defeat a Weber State team picked to finish fourth, and finished the tough stretch with a home game against the No. 5 pick, Northern Arizona.
This year's meeting was a far cry from last year's 49-45 shootout won by the Eagles. Eastern was out-gained in total yards 747-487, but won the important turnover battle 4-0. Jones finished with 274 all-purpose yards, including 115 rushing. He scored Eastern's first touchdown on an 80-yard catch-and-run, then scored on a 71-yard run in the third quarter to give EWU a 42-27 lead.