Sept. 6, 2008
The Eagles nearly shocked the country.
Eastern Washington University led the entire game, but Colorado scored twice in a 21-second span in the final 2:05 of the game to hand the Eagles a stinging 31-24 loss Saturday (Sept. 6) at Folsom Field in Boulder, Colo.
"It stings right now, but I’m very excited," said first-year head coach Beau Baldwin of EWU’s near upset. "I’m excited for our team and where we are going to go from here."
Behind the arm of junior quarterback Matt Nichols, The Eagles opened a 21-7 lead in the second quarter and led 24-17 with 3:52 to play. But the Buffaloes scored with 2:05 remaining to knot the game at 21, then Cha’pelle Brown returned an interception 27 yards for the winning score with 1:44 left.
Nichols drove Eastern to the Colorado 30 in the final seconds, but his desperation pass in the end zone with three seconds to play was intercepted by D.J. Dykes.
After having 206 yards and some big plays in the first half, the Eagles had just 36 yards in the second quarter and 109 in the fourth quarter. And the big plays didn’t go their way.
"We started moving it a little bit better in the fourth, but we were a play or two away again," said Baldwin. "When you play up against a team like this, you have to play close to perfect."
After opening the season with a 49-24 loss at 12th-ranked Texas Tech, Colorado was EWU’s second-straight NCAA Football Bowl Division foe and member of the Big 12 Conference.
"I’m proud of our players again," said Baldwin. "It’s frustrating because you want to win and we were in great position to win. But I have nothing but proud feelings toward our team. They competed until the end again."
Eastern, a member of the Big Sky Conference, entered the game ranked seventh in the NCAA Football Subdivision rankings. Colorado was coming off a season-opening 38-17 win over Colorado State.
Nichols completed 32-of-51 passes for 303 yards and a touchdown. It was the eighth 300-yard passing performance of his career and second-straight this season as he passed for 335 yards against Texas Tech.
Junior Tony Davis, who had 13 catches versus TTU, had nine for 73 yards against Colorado. Brynsen Brown and Aaron Boyce each had six catches for 90 and 42 yards, respectively. Dale Morris rushed for 36 yards, but Eastern had just 47 as a team as the Eagles were out-gained in total offense by the Buffaloes by just a single yard, 351-350.
"I give Colorado some credit," Baldwin said. "They made some adjustments and made some plays too. (In the second half) they played harder and they changed it up a little more. They got in our face outside and we just needed to make a play or two more -- especially in the third quarter when we got into a little funk."
Defensively, Eastern was led by the career-high 11 tackles of senior cornerback Ryan Kelley. Sophomore safety Kevin Hatch added 10, Kyle Wilkins had eight, Zach Johnson had eight and his twin brother Matt Johnson had seven. Defensive end Jason Belford had a pair of sacks.
Eastern is now 0-2 for the season heading into its Sept. 20 home game versus Western Washington, but the Eagles certainly have earned respect nationally after the two near misses. The Eagles are now 7-17 all-time against FBS members, but have come up empty the last seven games.
After falling behind 21-0 to TTU, the Eagles won the second quarter 17-7 and stayed within striking distance of the Red Raiders for most of the second half. It was a performance that gave Eastern confidence going into the CU game.
"We’ve left it out of the field for the last two weeks against some big-time opponents," added Baldwin. "It’s tough and it’s hard on their bodies and hard mentally. They are worn out a little bit. The bye comes at a good time for us. We just need to re-charge ourselves for Western Washington and then get ready for the league after that."
Eastern scored on the first possession of the game, going 84 yards on nine plays as Nichols completed all six of his passes for 88 yards. Brynsen Brown scored the touchdown on a 43-yard pass from Nichols, including the last 15 yards when Brown, a former wrestler, carried a Colorado defender on his back.
The Eagles maintained that lead through the end of the first quarter, and at one point had a 112-18 advantage in total offense. Nichols completed his first eight passes through the air.
After Colorado knotted the game at seven, Eastern took advantage of a fumbled punt return to go up 14-7. The fumble was forced by Adam Macomber and recovered by Boyce, with Toke Kefu scoring the go-ahead TD on a 1-yard run with 10:23 left in the quarter.
Three minutes later, Eastern sophomore linebacker J.C. Sherritt had his second career touchdown and returned it 48 yards for a score. The touchdown gave EWU a 21-7 advantage with 7:29 to play.
Eastern got the ball back again, but receiver Ashton Gant fumbled on a 24-yard catch that the Buffaloes recovered. However, Colorado couldn’t capitalize, missing a 35-yard field goal that preserved EWU’s two-touchdown advantage at halftime.
The Eagles had a 206-163 advantage in offense at halftime, with Nichols completing 17-of-24 passes for 179 yards. Davis caught five passes for 50 yards in the first half.
Both teams punted the first two times they had the ball in the third quarter, but Colorado made the biggest its biggest play of the game to that point with a 51-yard punt return that set-up a touchdown to cut the lead to 21-14 with 5:30 to play.
In the third quarter, Eastern has just 36 yards of offense compared to 44 for the Buffaloes, plus CU’s 51-yard punt return.
Colorado pulled to within four early in the fourth quarter, but failed on a fourth down attempt with 8:38 left. Eastern capitalized and Nichols completed passes for key first downs with 7:13 left (to Brown) and 6:20 (to Boyce). A 52-yard field goal by Felipe Macias -- equaling the ninth-longest in school history -- gave EWU a 24-17 lead with 3:57 to play.
But the Buffaloes responded, and on their most impressive drive of the day, scored with 2:05 to play to cap a quick five-play, 57-yard drive. Just 16 seconds later, the Buffaloes had the lead.
The Eagles were just the second NCAA Championship Subdivision (FCS) opponent for the Buffaloes, who were upset by Montana State 19-10 on Sept. 2, 2006, in the CU coaching debut for CU head coach Dan Hawkins. His son Cody Hawkins completed 28-of-38 passes for 261 yards and three touchdowns versus the Eagles.
Following Saturday’s game, Eastern has a week off before concluding its non-conference schedule with a Sept. 20 game versus NCAA Division II opponent Western Washington. The following week, Eastern opens Big Sky Conference play at home versus Idaho State. The Bengals are coached by John Zamberlin, who Baldwin served as an assistant coach under for six seasons (1997-2002) at Central Washington University.
Western Washington was 2-10 last year and 1-7 in the North Central Conference. The Vikings opened the 2007 season on Sept. 1 with a 28-21 win at UC Davis, a team Eastern defeated 41-31 two weeks later. Western lost eight of its final nine games, including a 63-42 loss at home to FCS powerhouse North Dakota.
Besides Idaho State, Eastern plays league home games in 2008 versus Montana (Oct. 11), Sacramento State (Nov. 1) and Northern Arizona (Nov. 15). Eastern’s four Big Sky opponents at home had a collective 23-22 record overall and 18-14 league mark in 2007, led by Montana’s 11-1 record overall and perfect 8-0 record in the BSC. Eastern’s 2008 road opponents were 15-30 overall and 12-20 in the conference.