When you live life so close to the edge, sooner or later you are bound to fall off.
In an old-fashioned Big Sky Conference shootout, Southern Utah scored the final 10 points of the game to upset Eastern Washington University in a league football clash Saturday (Sept. 27) at Eccles Coliseum in Cedar City, Utah.
In a game that featured five lead changes and no lead of more than seven points, both teams finished with nearly 500 yards of offense. But a missed Eastern field goal with 2:51 left and a made SUU field goal with three seconds remaining was the difference as the Eagles fell from their perch as the No. 1 team in the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision.
Southern Utah improved to 4-5 overall and 3-3 in the Big Sky, while EWU’s five-game winning streak came to an end. The Eagles are now 6-2 overall and 5-1 in the league.
“A lot of things happen during the course of the game and that’s just football,” Eastern head coach Beau Baldwin said after EWU lost a 27-20 lead it held deep into the fourth quarter. “You have to find a way to regroup and come back. We have to clean-up some of the little things that got us today.”
Eastern had been no stranger to close wins in the last three games, but that didn’t happen against the Thunderbirds. Entering the game, the Eagles had won their last two Big Sky games by three points, and two other league outings by six. Eastern has won 10 games the last three seasons when trailing or tied in the fourth quarter, including a 31-24 home win victory over Sorensen and SUU in 2010.
Eastern returns home to face No. 11 Cal Poly (Nov. 3) and UC Davis (Nov. 10), then ends the regular season at Portland State (Nov. 17).
“Everybody in the Big Sky has been playing close games all year – it’s a tough conference,” said Baldwin. “Every team has 63 scholarships and it is hard to win every week. If you are a little off and the other team makes a few more plays, you can be in trouble.”
On a day when Eastern managed only 91 rushing yards, quarterbacks Kyle Padron and Vernon Adams combined to pass for 404 yards. However, Sorensen was up to the task, passing for 392 yards on 33-of-43 passing with one interception and one touchdown.
Adams started both halves and finished 11-of-15 for 181 yards and a score, and Padron relieved him and was 24-of-35 for 223 yards. Both quarterbacks were sacked twice.
Junior receiver Brandon Kaufman finished with a career-high 10 catches for a career-high 192 yards. He has gone over the 100-yard mark five times this season and 13 times in his career. The 2010 All-American entered the game ranked second in the Big Sky and 10th in FCS in receiving yards per game (101.6).
Junior Ashton Clark had a career-high 11 catches for 86 yards and a touchdown, with his catch total ranking 12th in school history. Junior Ronnie Hamlin had 13 tackles to lead the Eagle defense, and T.J. Lee added nine with a sack. Senior Jerry Ceja had his ninth sack of the season.
Eastern got off to a sluggish start, and the Thunderbirds scored their first touchdown in the first quarter all season with a blocked punt that was returned 41 yards for a touchdown.
Finally, on EWU’s fourth possession of the quarter, the Eagle offense got untracked with a six-play, 80-yard TD drive. Padron passed 14 yards for the score to Nicholas Edwards, who scored his first touchdown of the season after finishing 2011 with a school-record 19 touchdown receptions.
After a SUU field goal, Eastern’s Jimmy Pavel made a 45-yarder to make him a perfect 12-of-12 for the season. Padron had two incompletions on the last two plays of the 11-play, 47-yard scoring drive after starting the game 8-of-9 for 116 yards.
Another trade of field goals – including a 23-yarder by Pavel – knotted the score at halftime 13-13. Eastern had a 239-189 advantage in the first half, but the Eagles had only 16 rushing yards and 223 through the air.
The third quarter started with a trade of scores too, with Eastern taking a short-lived 20-13 lead on a four-play, 53-yard drive led by Adams. Demitrius Bronson scored on a 4-yard TD run, but a 46-yard pass play by SUU led to a score which tied the game at 20.
The Eagles followed with a four-play, 73-yard drive, taking just 1:00 off the clock. After a 35-yard pass play from Adams to Kaufman, Adams passed 18 yards to Clark for the TD.
McKenzie Murphy, playing with a padded cast on his left arm, intercepted Sorensen deep in Eastern territory to stall a SUU drive. Murphy broke his thumb against North Dakota and subsequently had surgery, and played against SUU after missing the Montana State and Sacramento State games.
But EWU had a turnover on its next possession, as Bronson coughed up the ball at the SUU 10 on the second play of the fourth quarter. Bronson had 44 yards on that drive after having only six up to that point. In the third quarter alone, Eastern had a 201-88 offensive advantage in the third quarter.
“A few times we made some mistakes, especially going in to score,” said Baldwin. “But you have to hand it to them too. Sometimes teams will force you into some mistakes as well. It was just a good hard-fought battle and they made a few more plays than we did.”
Southern Utah came back to knot the score at 27, and then Pavel missed his first field goal of the season – a 37-yarder with 2:51 to play that may have been partially deflected by SUU. That ended an Eastern drive of 55 yards that was directed by Padron.
Sorensen then marched the Thunderbirds on a 10-play, 61-yard drive, capped by Colton Cook’s third field goal of the game – a 36-yarder.
Two years ago, during Eastern’s march to the NCAA Division I title, Sorensen completed 34-of-53 passes for 434 yards and two touchdowns, and he had his team primed for an upset against the then fifth-ranked Eagles. In the third quarter alone, Eastern was out-gained 161-4 and the game was tied at 24 in the fourth quarter.
But thanks to a pair of interceptions by Eastern’s Jesse Hoffman on SUU’s final two possessions, the Eagles were able to prevail 31-24. Eastern won the turnover battle 4-1 against a team that had only had eight turnovers in its first 10 games of the season. And Eastern recorded six sacks and had 11 passes broken up.