Redshirt freshman quarterback Vernon Adams was always expected to make an impact for the Eastern Washington University football team.
He did just that with his arm and with his feet, leading the ninth-ranked Eagles to a 20-3 halftime lead and helping EWU open the 50th season of Big Sky Conference football with a 32-26 squeaker over Weber State Saturday (Sept. 22) at Elizabeth Dee Shaw Stewart Stadium in Ogden, Utah.
Adams led Eastern to scores on four of five drives in the first half as the Eagles took a 20-3 lead. He finished the game 7-of-12 for 75 yards, and ran five times for 62 yards, but missed most of the second half with cramping.
Sophomore running back Jordan Talley scored twice and Jimmy Pavel kicked four field goals for the Eagles, who out-gained Weber State 447-422 in total offense. However, the Eagles needed a sack and forced fumble by Jerry Ceja and fumble recovery by Will Katoa at the 50-yard line to clinch the win with 34 seconds remaining.
“It was a total team effort and Weber State is a very good football team that we defeated,” said Eastern head coach Beau Baldwin. “Any time you find a way to win on the road and get it done, it’s huge.”
Talley finished with 60 rushing yards and Quincy Forte had a team-leading 65 as EWU had 206 as a team. It was Eastern’s best rushing performance since the 2010 season -- a year ago, Eastern ranked 112th out of 120 FCS teams with an average of 79.0 per game.
Junior wide receiver Brandon Kaufman, who caught 10 passes for 290 yards and a pair of touchdowns in his first two games of the season, added six catches for 126 yards and a TD against WSU. Quarterback Kyle Padron came off the bench to complete 11-of-17 passes for 149 yards and a TD, and led Eastern to three second-half scoring drives.
Junior linebacker Ronnie Hamlin led the Eagles with 11 tackles and senior linebacker Grant Williams added eight. Junior cornerback T.J. Lee also had eight tackles, a pass broken up and had a forced fumble on a sack that he also recovered, which led to Pavel’s first field goal of the game.
Padron, a transfer from Southern Methodist, started EWU’s first two games of the season, but the continued improvement in practices by Adams earned him the starting nod versus the Wildcats. He led Eastern on a nine-play, 75-yard drive on his first possession, including a tackle-breaking, 14-yard scramble on third down for a first down.
“This has been more of a battle than people think,” said Baldwin. “I was proud of both quarterbacks tonight. Vernon was doing some great things in the first half and then he was fighting cramps in the second half. Kyle stepped in and made a lot of huge throws.”
Adams followed that with scoring drives of 59, 55 and 43 yards in the first half, helping EWU to a 218-181 advantage in total offense.
“I liked the fact we started fast, got a lead and got up on them,” explained Baldwin. “That was something we wanted to improve on based on the beginning of last year when we weren’t doing that.”
Padron started the second half, but threw an interception that led to a Weber State touchdown and two-point conversion, pulling the Wildcats to with 20-11. However, Eastern scored the next two times it had the ball, with Pavel making his third field goal of the game and Padron throwing a 23-yard touchdown pass to Brandon Kaufman to give EWU a 29-11 advantage. That TD came after the fifth interception in the career of senior safety Jeff Minnerly, who also completed a pass on a fake field goal attempt earlier in the game.
The Wildcats used a 71-yard catch and run to pull within 29-19 at the end of the third quarter. The Eagles, however, responded with a 13-play, 85-yard drive that took 8:35 off the clock, capped by the fourth field goal of the game by Pavel.
But Weber State scored again to pull within six, then got the ball back with 1:49 left at their own 14 yard line. They drove 36 yards before Ceja came up with the third fourth quarter sack and forced fumble in his Eastern career. The fumble was recovered by Katoa, who graduated in 2009 from Judge Memorial High School in Salt Lake City.
“It’s always neat when you get to play in front of your family,” said Baldwin. “When he got the fumble recovery to ice it, that was beautiful. And with Ceja, you are almost kind of waiting for that to happen. Ever since he got here, he seems to find a way get a strip and force a fumble – there he was again.”
“Ultimately, we need the ability to finish,” Baldwin added. “We were close finishing but we would make a mistake or have a penalty, and the next thing you know it’s a lot closer than we want. We just have to find a way to finish on both sides of the ball in order to get and keep leads of two or three scores. We’ve done that to ourselves in the past – we’ve found ways to get ourselves in close games. The thing I like about this team is that when they are in these situations, players step up and make plays. We have a lot of guys doing that in crunch time at the end.”
The game was a matchup of former coordinators at EWU, as Beau Baldwin and Jody Sears matched wits against one another on the football field for four seasons from 2003-06. Baldwin and Sears spent four seasons together at EWU working as coordinators under former Eastern head coach Paul Wulff. The Eagles were a collective 25-22 in those four seasons, including Big Sky titles and FCS Playoff berths in 2004 and 2005.
The Eagles, coached by Baldwin were ranked ninth in this week’s Sports Network NCAA Football Championship Subdivision Top 25 poll, are now 2-1. The Wildcats, in their first season under Sears, are 0-4.
The Eagles now play their first home of the year on Sept. 29 versus Montana, marking the latest home start for Eastern since 1981 when EWU hosted British Columbia on Oct. 3.