CHENEY, Wash. - You don't need as much offense when your special teams create such great field position.
Or score points, as in the case of redshirt freshman Shaquille Hill, whose 99-yard kickoff return for a touchdown sparked Eastern Washington University to a 34-point first-half outburst in a 55-17 Big Sky Conference football victory over North Dakota Saturday (Oct. 6) at Roos Field in Cheney, Wash.
Eastern's 38-point winning margin was its best since a 52-13 win over Montana-Western on Aug. 31, 2007, and the largest versus a NCAA Football Championship Subdivision opponent since a 51-7 win over Weber State on Oct. 23, 2004. The 55 points the Eagles scored were their most since a 56-30 win at Sacramento State in 2009.
"That was obviously the most complete game we've played up to this point," said Eastern head coach Beau Baldwin. "You're talking about a North Dakota team coming in here with some good ball games under their belt. North Dakota is a good team. I'm just proud of our team in all areas. Every unit made a ton of plays."
Eastern won the total offense battle 458-325, but that didn't matter as much as EWU's short TD drives of 24 and 57 yards to open a 34-17 lead at halftime, despite having one yard less on offense than UND. Eastern had a 236-102 advantage in offense in the second half
The Eagles, ranked seventh in this week's Sports Network NCAA Football Championship Subdivision Top 25 poll, are 4-1 overall and 3-0 in the Big Sky Conference. North Dakota is 3-3 overall and 1-2 in its first season in the Big Sky Conference.
The victory sets up next week's showdown versus unbeaten and second-ranked Montana State on Oct. 13 in Bozeman, Mont. Kickoff is 12:40 p.m. Pacific time in a game televised live regionally by Root Sports. Montana State improved to 6-0 overall and 3-0 in the league with a 48-41 victory at UC Davis on Saturday.
The Eagles rushed for 290 yards, despite starter Jordan Talley missing the game with a concussion. Starter Quincy Forte finished with 72 yards and Demitrius Bronson came off the bench to register his first 100-yard outing as an Eagle with 118 yards and a touchdown on 13 carries.
The rushing output was Eastern's best since it had 307 versus Montana-Western in 2007, and the most versus an FCS opponent since running for 295 against Weber State in 2004.
Freshman redshirt quarterback Vernon Adams had an efficient and productive outing, completing 12-of-15 passes for 151 yards and four touchdowns in his third career start. His passing efficiency rating was an off-the-charts 252.6. Backup Kyle Padron relieved him and was 3-of-4 with a touchdown.
Receiver Brandon Kaufman fell short in his bid to record his sixth-straight 100-yard receiving outing, but he did finish with five catches for 47 yards and a pair of touchdowns. The first two catches of the day for Greg Herd were also touchdowns, as he finished with three grabs for 56 yards. Those were the first TDs of the season for the Eagle senior All-American.
"Greg Herd was someone who was going to explode at some point," said Baldwin. "Sometimes that's the nature of the receiver position. You can only control what you can control, and Coach (Junior) Adams always talks about how you have to always play a game within a game. Even if you are not getting balls thrown to you, how are you running your routes each week? What are you doing? It was a matter of time before he was able to come out and make some big plays, so it didn't surprise me. It's four or five games in a year sometimes before a guy explodes."
Defensively, redshirt freshman Jordan Tonani had a team-leading 11 tackles in his first start as an Eagle as an injury replacement for safety Jeff Minnerly (broken collarbone). Junior Allen Brown added 10 tackles and senior defensive end Jerry Ceja had 1 1/2 sacks.
The blowout win enabled Baldwin to clear his bench, something that made the game that much more fun for the Eagle regulars.
"They are all here for each other," said Baldwin. "They are close in the offseason, they are close in the summer, and they get excited. They get more excited seeing someone who doesn't get a lot of action out there getting some carries or making some plays than they do for themselves. That is part of what makes this group so special. It's part of being a great team. You have to have a group that is for each other and these guys are."
After UND scored on its first possession of the game, Eastern went on a 27-3 scoring run in a span of just over 15 minutes. Hill's touchdown return – Eastern's first since 2010 – sparked the Eagles to a 27-10 lead. After a North Dakota TD with 1:29 left in the half, Hill struck again with a 41-yard kickoff return to set-up an Adams-to-Herd TD pass with 13 ticks of the clock left.
Earlier in the quarter, a 26-yard punt return by Ashton Clark set-up a short 24-yard scoring drive.
In the second half, Eastern scored TDs on drives of 62, 41 and 56 yards to outscore UND 21-0 after halftime. The 41-yard drive was set-up by a UND fumble that was recovered by true freshman Jordan Pulu. The 56-yarder was also after a fumble that was forced by junior Allen Brown and recovered by senior Grant Williams.
Baldwin was impressed how the Eagles responded after UND's early score.
"Sometimes you are going to have that -- football is a long game," he said. "You can never get too high when you come out and jump on a team early because they'll make a run. And you can never get too low if they come down and get something on you. Coach (John) Graham and the staff did a great job after that first drive of making adjustments."