November 3, 2007

Eastern Grinds Out Victory Over Bears

Nov. 3, 2007

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Known mostly for its productive passing game, Eastern Washington figured out how to grind out a win Saturday (Nov. 3) at Woodward Field.

Thanks to an unlikely 100-yard rushing performance from A.J. Jimerson and three crucial turnovers forced by the bend-but-don't-break Eagle defense, EWU kept alive its post-season playoff hopes with a 17-7 Big Sky Conference football victory over Northern Colorado.

Eastern is now 6-3 overall and 4-2 in the conference, and must win its final two games if the Eagles hope to advance to the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision Playoffs, which begin on Nov. 23. Eastern, which plays at Northern Arizona next week and hosts Weber State on Nov. 17, won 38-30 last week at Sacramento State.

Eastern is tied in the loss column for second in the Big Sky with Northern Arizona (5-2). Montana leads the way at 6-0. The Bears were coming off their first victory of the season after defeating Montana State 16-13 last week on a field goal with four seconds to play.

"It's been two weeks in a row we didn't play great, but we are still winning," said EWU head coach Paul Wulff. "Obviously that is a good sign. We were just flat and couldn't get ourselves going."

"We won the ballgame and that's good," he added. "If we want to make a run these last two games we are going to have to play really good football."

Eastern allowed UNC to gain 313 yards of total offense, but aside from a first quarter score, managed to keep the Bears out of the end zone. Northern Colorado converted 8-of-18 third downs and was 2-of-2 on fourth down, but EWU forced three important turnovers.

Fumble recoveries by Nicholas Ramos and Makai Borden were big plays, as well as an interception by Ryan Kelley. Kelley, a junior college transfer, was making the first start of his EWU career at cornerback.

"To give up as many yards as we did today and still only give up seven points is quite amazing," said Wulff. "My hat is off to our defense for making plays but we are going to have to get a lot better."

Eastern's offense struggled at times and finished with just 382 yards of offense. The Eagles entered the game ranked seventh in the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision in total offense (456.5 per game). Eastern was also fifth in passing offense (306.9) and 24th in scoring offense (31.4).

The Bears, meanwhile, were 116th out of 116 FCS teams in total defense, allowing 516.8 yards per game. Northern Colorado was last in passing defense (303.1) and 112th in scoring defense (38.6).

Quarterback Matt Nichols completed 14-of-23 passes for a season-low 172 yards with one touchdown and one interception. Aaron Boyce was the leading receiver with five catches for 87 yards and senior Shane Eller also had five grabs for 55 yards.

"Our whole football team was flat," said Wulff. "We just didn't play to our capability."

"Emotionally, we just didn't play with a lot of energy," he added. "At the same time, I thought Northern Colorado played hard and played as good of football that I've seen."

Jimerson, however, combined with Dale Morris to provide Eastern with a much-needed 186 yards on the ground -- EWU's third-best performance of the season. A 6-foot-1, 210-pound junior from Seattle (Garfield HS '04), he started the year deep on the depth chart, but earned his second-straight start at fullback. He also saw action as tailback and carried the ball just 11 times, averaging 9.1 yards per carry with a long of 24.

"He has taken advantage of his opportunities, and he's getting a lot better," said Wulff. "He can be a physical presence and he can be an outstanding football player when he is focused."

Morris added 65 yards on 17 carries, and had a 1-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter to close the scoring. Nichols was sacked three times, but still managed to finish with a net gain of 18 yards on the ground.

The Eagles fell behind 7-0, and UNC's Ryan Chesla was headed for a two-yard pass touchdown. But somehow, Eastern's Borden came up with a fumble recovery that stunningly stopped the 19-play, 72-yard drive that took 8:38 off the clock.

Eastern trailed 14-3 at halftime as Felipe Macias kicked a 37-yard field goal with 25 seconds left in the half. The score stayed that way until Eastern put together a nine-play, 87-yard drive in the third quarter. Eastern rushed the ball on the first six plays of the drive, which was capped by a 29-yard touchdown reception and run by Eller.

In the fourth quarter, Eastern forced back-to-back turnovers, the first an interception at the EWU 2-yard line by Kelley. That stopped a 12-play, 50-yard drive by the Bears.

Eastern punted on the ensuing possession, but the return was muffed by UNC's Cory Fauver and Ramos pounced on the ball. Nichols hit Boyce for a 29-yard completion on the next play, and Morris' touchdown run gave EWU a 10-point lead with 8:42 left in the game.

Northern Colorado had to punt on its next possession, then Eastern ran out the clock for the final 6:16. Early in that drive, Nichols was knocked out of the game with a slight concussion, and junior Alex Smart replaced him. Smart completed both of his passes for 24 yards and drove EWU to the Northern Colorado 27-yard line when the game ended.

It was EWU's 81st-annual Homecoming game as the Eagles are now 47-31-3 all-time in Homecoming games.

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