Top-Ranked Eagles Upended by South Dakota 30-17

After rallying from 21-0 deficit, Coyotes make too many big plays to drop Eastern to 0-2 heading into league opener at Montana

It was another thrilling comeback by the Eastern Washington University football team. But for the second-straight week, it was only a comeback attempt.

Falling behind 21-0 but rallying late, top-ranked Eastern Washington came up short in the big play department and fell to un-ranked South Dakota 30-17 Saturday (Sept. 10) at the DakotaDome in Vermillion, S.D.

The Coyotes of the Great West Conference had three plays of 48 yards or longer – and many other key plays as well -- to hold-off the Eagles. A 66-yard interception return in the fourth quarter by South Dakota was the big blow against the Eagles, as was an interception with 29 seconds left during Eastern’s comeback attempt in a 30-27 loss at Washington on Sept. 3.

“It’s disappointing,” said Eastern head coach Beau Baldwin. “There is no question we are capable of a lot more. We all have to do a better job this week and respond from this loss. That’s where we are – we don’t like the situation we’re in, but we have to learn from this and step-up, including myself.”

Eastern, now  0-2 on the young season, opens its Big Sky Conference season at perennial FCS powerhouse Montana next Saturday (Sept. 17) in a game that begins at 12:05 p.m. Pacific time. The Eagles then play their home opener Sept. 24 against fellow defending league co-champion Montana State.

“I don’t know if you need to use this as motivation – no matter what our record is we better be motivated for Big Sky football,” said Baldwin. “The conference season starts next week and we will be motivated for the Montana Grizzlies. Everybody who is a competitor is going to want to fight back. This is a tough spot we’re in – it’s never easy to dig out of an 0-2 hole. But the only possible chance we have is to grind it out a practice at a time and a game at a time. All our energy needs to go toward playing Montana.”

Eastern is the defending NCAA Division I Champion, and, despite the season-opening loss to the Huskies, had retained its No. 1 ranking in The Sports Network/Fathead.com FCS Top 25 poll. Saturday’s loss was the first setback against a FCS foe for the Eagles since falling at Montana State 30-7 on Sept. 25 of last year.

South Dakota won for the 35th time in its last 40 meetings in the10,000-seat DakotaDome, where a crowd of 8,696 watched the Coyotes win in what was believed to be their first-ever meeting at home against a top-ranked team. It was the first-ever meeting between the two schools.

For the second-straight game, quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell had to throw more than 60 times to keep the Eagles in the game, as EWU rushed for just 11 yards. He finished the game 38-of-60 for 369 yards, two touchdowns and a pair of interceptions. He was sacked three times. Nicholas Edwards gathered in 13 passes for 138 yards and a TD, and Brandon Kaufman caught eight for 66.

“Some of it has to do with sacks and their pressure,” said Baldwin of EWU’s early deficit and struggles with consistency on offense. “But ultimately, we have to get ourselves into situations where we run the ball more. That’s what it comes down to. It allows you to get into a better flow when you can get the running game going. I’ve come out of games before where I’ve felt we’ve thrown the ball too much and I need to establish more of a running game. We’ll focus and concentrate on that, and that will give us a better chance to get into a better offensive flow.”

A week after out-gaining Washington 504-250 in total offense, Eastern had a 380-324 edge. However, the Coyotes rushed for 230 yards, with running back Chris Ganious finishing with 85. Quarterback Dante Warren finished with 59 yards on the ground and 126 through the air, and wide receiver Jeremy Blount had 119 all-purpose yards with a TD.

“They made some big plays, and that’s a credit to their offense too,” explained Baldwin. “At times, our defense was probably out there too much too. It’s a combination of both. If you don’t do a good job controlling the ball, their offense is going to have a better chance to make big plays. They definitely executed and made big plays when they had to, so give them credit for that.”

Defensively, Matt Johnson led the Eagles with an interception and seven tackles. His twin brother, Zach Johnson, added eight stops with a sack, and Grant Williams had seven tackles. Freshman redshirt Evan Day had EWU’s other sack.

Eastern dug themselves a large hole early, thanks to a pair of big plays by South Dakota. A 48-yard touchdown pass from Warren to Blount early in the second quarter was followed by a 67-yard interception return for a score by Jim Thompson, giving the Coyotes a three-touchdown lead.

A few minutes later, South Dakota had a 171-106 advantage in total offense as the Eagles couldn’t find enough consistency on offense to get into the end zone. In fact, Eastern’s longest drive in its first six possessions was 31 yards, and the deepest the Eagles were able to get was the 27-yard line of South Dakota.

But a Matt Johnson interception – Eastern’s first takeaway of the season – gave Eastern the ball back right before halftime. It was the 16th interception of Johnson’s career, good for fourth in school history and just two away from the school record of 18.

Mitchell then completed 9-of-12 passes for 72 yards in directing Eastern on a 14-play, 72-yard drive over the next 3:57, capped by a 2-yard touchdown pass to Edwards. The TD toss was the 35th pass of the half for Mitchell, who completed 21 of those attempts for 170 yards. Eastern, however, managed only eight net rushing yards in the first half on 13 attempts.

Eastern went on a 12-play, 59-yard drive to start the second half, but had to settle for a 21-yard field goal by Mike Jarrett. The Eagles got the ball back on their next possession, but a pair of sacks resulted in an Eagle punt.

On its next possession, South Dakota converted a third-and-20 with runs of 17 and 14 yards by quarterback Dante Warren. Eastern scored on a quick, four-play, 72-yard drive that cut the lead to 24-17 with a tick of the clock left in the third quarter. Mitchell passed 27 yards to Greg Herd for the TD.

After another USD field goal, Eastern drove deep into Coyote territory, only to have Marquis Butler make an impressive over-the-shoulder interception and return it 66 yards back into Eastern territory. Another field goal gave the Coyotes a 30-17 lead.

Eastern once again put together a drive, but a holding call on the Eagles resulted on a failed fourth-down attempt with 2:06 left and sealed Eastern’s fate.

A year ago, Eastern was no stranger to narrow victories. In nine of their wins, the Eagles trailed or were tied in the fourth quarter of six of them, in one they trailed in the third quarter and in the other two they were scoreless in the final stanza. Included was a 20-19 victory in the national championship game when the Eagles rallied from a 19-0 deficit to score three touchdowns in the final 16:48.

South Dakota is no stranger to the huge upset. The Coyotes defeated Minnesota 41-38 on Sept. 11 last year, but ended up finishing just 4-7 overall and 1-3 in the Great West Conference.

In its opener, Eastern out-gained Washington 504-250 in total offense, but lost the turnover battle 4-0 in front of 58,088 fans at Husky Stadium in Seattle, Wash. The Eagles had a chance to win the game, but Washington’s Desmond Trufant – the younger brother of former Eagle Isaiah Trufant – intercepted a pass in the end zone with 29 seconds left to ruin Eastern’s upset bid. The loss spoiled a remarkable performance by senior quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell, who had the second-most passing yards in school history with 473.

 
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