The sixth-ranked Eastern Washington University football knew it wouldn’t be easy Saturday (Oct. 12) playing indoors at the Alerus Center in Grand Forks, N.D.
Quarterback Vernon Adams overcame a slow start and passed for 307 yards and a pair of touchdowns to help EWU to a 35-14 victory over North Dakota in a Big Sky Conference game. Eastern’s defense also turned two second-half UND turnovers into scores, including a 77-yard interception return by Buck Buchanan Award candidate Ronnie Hamlin.
“I’m proud of our players for hanging on in a real battle,” said Eastern head coach Beau Baldwin. “You are going to be in different kinds of ballgames – I tell them that all the time. Every year, no matter how good an offense or defense you have, you get into some battles.”
Eastern was playing in the state of North Dakota for the first time in school history (the 20th state Eastern has played in all-time) and indoors for the first time in the career of Adams. But the Eagles scored 14-straight points without North Dakota touching the ball to gain some distance over upset-minded UND.
Although the Eagles won the total offense battle 408-406, the real statistical battle was won in the turnover department where EWU won 4-0. Eastern was also 9-of-15 on third down compared to a 5-of-15 performance by UND.
“Whenever you can score on defense and create the turnovers we did, you give yourself a better chance to win,” said Baldwin. “Sooner or later it was going to pay off. We work on it all the time in practice, we stress it and we talk about it. We were able to force turnovers today that maybe have eluded us in the first few weeks.”
Eastern is now 2-0 in the league and 4-2 overall, and UND is now 1-2 in the Big Sky and 2-4 on the season after losing for the fourth time at home this season to a ranked FCS team. In those previous three losses to South Dakota State, Montana and Montana State, UND lost by a combined score of 153-65.
The Eagles return home to face Southern Utah on Oct. 19 in EWU’s 87th-annual Homecoming game. The seventh-largest crowd in Roos Field history – 9,734 – attended a 41-19 victory over Weber State on Oct. 5 in EWU’s first home appearance since Sept. 7.
But picking up a road win – Eastern’s second in four tries this season – was monumental to Baldwin. All-America cornerback T.J. Lee finished with six tackles, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. Tevin McDonald and Evan Day also forced fumbles.
“Those turnovers are the things you need to be able to win on the road,” he explained. If you want to be a great team – or even a good team – you have to win those turnover battles and make those plays. Those are effort type of plays, and our players showed tremendous effort on defense.”
Adams finished the game 22-of-30, with Ashton Clark catching a team-high seven passes for 116 yards. Mario Brown rushed for 49 yards and Quincy Forte added 40. Safety Todd Raynes, making thefirst start of his career, had a team-high seven tackles with a pass broken up.
Eastern had only 43 yards of offense in the 15 minutes and fell behind 3-0 with its first scoreless first quarter of the season. But the Eagles got untracked in the second quarter, and a 51-yard drive on eight plays yielded a 5-yard touchdown pass from Adams to Shaquille Hill.
After UND pulled to with 7-6 with another field goal, the Eagles used up the final 4:12 of the half and scored on a fourth-and-1 play on the final play of the first half on a dive into the end zone from Forte. A 58-yard pass from Adams to Cory Mitchell set-up the score.
Eastern had 144 yards in the second quarter and held UND to 54. That gave EWU a 187-162 advantage in the first half.
Eastern got the ball to start the second half, and marched 77 yards on nine plays to score on 1-yard TD pass from Adams to Cooper Kupp. It was Kupp’s eight TD catch of the season after entering the game ranked seventh in FCS in that category.
“This was a grudge match early on, and you have to weather those storms and find a way to get a lead,” said Baldwin. “And we were able to score to start the second half, which was big.”
After 8 1/2 minutes of watching EWU score twice, UND responded with a 12-play, 91-yard TD drive, also scoring on fourth down. Despite a bad snap on the conversion attempt, UND converted it into two points to pull within 21-14 with 5:38 left in the third quarter.
North Dakota seized momentum after a sack and 25-yard punt return gave UND the ball at the EWU 40. But Hamlin leaped high to snag the third interception of his career, then returned it 77 yards down the sideline for the first pick-six of his career.
Moments later, McDonald forced a fumble that was recovered by Lee deep in Eastern territory. Eastern turned that into a 91-yard touchdown drive that put the Eagles up 35-14 early in the fourth quarter. Brown scored on a 3-yard run – the fifth different Eagle to score a touchdown.
The game was Eastern’s 200th Big Sky Conference game since joining the league in 1987. As the Big Sky celebrates its 50th anniversary this season, the Eagles are in their 26th year as a member and have a current record of 115-85 (.577). Later this season, the Eagles could win their 500th game all-time. Now in its 105th year of football, Eastern is 496-401-23 (.552) in 920 games.
A year ago, in the first-ever meeting between the two schools, the Eagles handed the Big Sky newcomer a 55-17 pasting. The 38-point margin was Eastern’s best against a NCAA Football Championship Subdivision opponent in eight years, as the Eagles scored 34 first-half points en route to the rout.
North Dakota opened the 2013 season with a 59-point victory at home over Valparaiso (69-10), but also fell at home to a trio of nationally-ranked FCS opponents – South Dakota State (35-28), Montana (55-17) and Montana State (63-20).
This week, the Eagles remain sixth in The Sports Network FCS top-25 poll. The Eagles are seeking a seventh league title, with previous titles in 1992, 1997, 2004, 2005, 2010 and 2012.