Nov. 15, 2008
Eastern Washington University’s turnover woes took a turn for the better in the second half.
The Eagles capitalized on a fumble and a blocked field goal in the third quarter and went on to defeat Northern Arizona 28-13 Saturday (Nov. 15) in a Big Sky Conference football game on Senior Day at Woodward Field in Cheney, Wash.
Trailing 13-0, Eastern scored the final 28 points of the game as its defense held NAU to minus-one yard rushing and recorded five sacks in the contest. Senior Greg Peach had a pair of sacks as he increased his single season (18) and career school records (35 1/2). Senior Lance Witherspoon had a pair of sacks on the same NAU possession in the fourth quarter, as well as forcing and recovering the key fumble that helped give Eastern the lead for good in the third stanza.
Redshirt freshman Zach Johnson had a blocked field goal and a team-leading 13 tackles, and junior Matt Nichols passed for 345 yards and touchdowns to senior Shane Hoffman and junior Tony Davis. Junior Aaron Boyce caught five passes for 157 yards.
It was the fifth-straight game Eastern has held an opponent to less than 20 points -- something that has never been done since EWU became a member of the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision in 1984.
"I was really proud of those seniors and I was really proud of the team in general," said Eastern head coach Beau Baldwin. "We just stayed with it. We were down 13-0 and we're making mistakes, and probably everything that could have gone a little bit wrong was going wrong.
"But we came together both offensively and defensively and made some plays," he continued. "We got back into it in the first half and make a lot of plays in the second half."
For 18 seniors, including 11 four-year letter winners, the victory ended the home season on a high note after losing the last two home games -- a 19-3 loss to Montana on Oct. 11 and a 15-13 setback to Sacramento State on Nov. 1. The Eagles are now 5-5 overall and 4-3 in the league heading into their season finale.
Eastern closes its season at Weber State next Saturday (Nov. 22) at 11:05 a.m. Pacific time. The Wildcats are trying to wrap-up the first outright Big Sky title for a team other than Montana since EWU did it in 1997. An Eagle win next Saturday will open the door for Montana to possibly earn a share of the Big Sky title for the 11th-straight year.
Northern Arizona, meanwhile, ended its season with a four-game losing streak after winning six-straight games. The Lumberjacks, ranked as high as 15th nationally this season, finished 6-5 overall and 4-4 in the Big Sky.
Northern Arizona scored on a pair of field goals to take a 6-0 lead, then capitalized on one of three Eagle turnovers in the half. The Lumberjacks returned an Eastern fumble 21 yards to the Eastern 24-yard line to set-up their lone touchdown and take a 13-0 lead with 6:03 left in the second quarter.
But a 53-yard pass play from Nichols to Boyce on the next offensive play of the game set-up a touchdown run by senior Dale Morris and the Eagles only trailed 13-7 at halftime.
An Eastern fumble on the opening kickoff of the second half was near disaster, but Johnson saved the Eagles with his blocked field goal. The turnover was EWU’s fourth in the first 30:05 of the game, but in the last 29:55, the Eagles were flawless.
"Too many," Baldwin said of the four miscues by EWU, which has 23 giveaways this season and just 17 takeaways. "That's something that is going to be huge emphasis, and next year we have to be better in that area, no question. I think that has definitely hurt us in some ballgames.
"We were able to get away with it this week because we were able to come back and make plays," he added. "The defense did a great job even when they were put in tough situations."
Northern Arizona’s had only one drive in the second half of longer than 15 yards, and that 65-yard march that ended with a missed field goal late in the third quarter. Eastern, meanwhile, had three of at least 42 yards, scoring on a pair of them.
Eastern’s first score of the second half came with 8:26 left in the third quarter on Davis’ 5-yard pass from Nichols. That gave Eastern the lead for good at 14-13 and came after Witherspoon got into the backfield on an NAU rushing attempt and forced and recovered a fumble.
Later in the quarter, Eastern drove 73 yards on seven plays as Nichols found Hoffman in the end zone for a touchdown to give EWU a 21-13 advantage. Hoffman, a walk-on whose brother Jesse is a backup safety, finished with four catches for 75 yards after entering the game with no catches in his EWU career.
In the fourth quarter, with Eastern clinging to the eight-point lead, Eastern drove 91 yards on 11 plays and scored on a 2-yard run by senior A.J. Jimerson. The big plays in that drive were a third-down rush for 26 yards by Nichols and a 38-yard pass to Boyce, also on third down.
Nichols, in fact, finished as EWU’s leading rusher with 29 yards on three carries as Eastern’s next-best rush in the game was just 12 yards. Nichols completed 25-of-42 passes as he had his sixth 300-yard passing game of the season and 12th in his 34-game career. He had a pair of interceptions in the first half.
"I think Matt did a great job even despite a few balls not going his way in the first half," said Baldwin. "He kept fighting and came back and played solid football."
Nichols actually didn’t even start the game as senior Alex Smart was given the starting assignment, in addition to EWU’s four senior running backs that included Morris, Jimerson, Alexis Alexander and Toke Kefu.
"We were hoping to get a little more out of it," Baldwin said of the makeshift lineup. "Alex is a good quarterback and I have confidence in whatever plays we put in his hands."
When the season began, Eastern was hoping for its fourth berth in the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision Playoffs in the last five years. But next week at Weber State, Eastern will try to salvage its 11th winning season in the last 13 years. And past history in regular season finales is certainly on EWU’s side.
In 13 seasons since 1997, only twice has EWU failed to end the regular season with a victory (1998 and 2003). Eastern has ended the regular season with a victory the last four seasons -- as well as seven of the last eight -- including a 40-6 win over Idaho State to end the 2006 campaign. Eastern finished 3-8 that year before rebounding for a 9-4 finish in 2007.