CHENEY, Wash. - Whew, that was a close call.
With quarterback Vernon Adams and wide receiver Cooper Kupp combining for a quartet of records, the Eastern Washington University football team scored the game-winning touchdown with 31 seconds remaining on a Adams-to-Kupp connection to defeat Portland State 42-41 Saturday (Nov. 23 at Roos Field in Cheney, Wash.
The victory preserved Eastern's unbeaten Big Sky Conference season and helped the third-ranked Eagles win the league's outright title. The game featured four ties and a pair of lead changes, and EWU did not have a lead in the final three quarters until the game-winning TD.
Eastern has now won 13 games since 2010 when trailing or tied in the fourth quarter. The Eagles were aided by a missed PSU extra point on a touchdown with a minute left that gave PSU a short-lived 41-34 lead.
"This was obviously a wild game, but going into the game I did think it would be a tough one," said Eastern head coach Beau Baldwin. "We played a tough game against them last year (41-34 EWU win) and they came here and beat us in 2011.
"It was one of those games where it didn't surprise me it was a battle, but the way it happened was nuts," he continued. "Our guys found a way to make plays, but give credit to them -- they found ways to bounce back. It was back and forth."
Adams had five touchdown passes, including the game-winner to Kupp to cap a frantic four-play, 74-yard drive with that started with a minute to play. Besides breaking school records for season passing yards and total offense, Adams broke the Big Sky Conference record for single season touchdown passes (now with 46). Kupp broke the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision record for most consecutive games with a TD catch (12) with an 18-yarder earlier in the game.
The Eagles went into the game having already clinched the league's automatic berth in the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision Playoffs. Pairings will be announced on Sunday (Nov. 24) at 8:30 a.m. Pacific time on ESPNU, with the top four seeds announced at 8 a.m. via ncca.com.
The Eagles became the first team other than Montana to win the outright league title in the last 16 years. The last time that was accomplished was by the Eagles in 1997 on their way to the semifinals of the FCS Playoffs. Eastern became the first league team to finish unbeaten since Montana finished 8-0 in 2009, and the first non-Montana school to do it since 1991 when Nevada was 8-0.
"It feels really good to finish Big Sky play unbeaten," Baldwin said. "Obviously, it is going to be tough (in the postseason). It became really tough today. It is tough to do to come back like that."
The Eagles are 10-2 overall and a perfect 8-0 in Big Sky Conference play for the first time in school history. Eastern is ranked third in The Sports Network FCS Top-25 Poll for the fifth-straight week.
"I give credit to all the players for battling -- especially the seniors," Baldwin said. "They battled the whole year to get to this point. It is not easy to win the conference championship. To do it and finish it like this is fun."
Adams completed 34-of-56 passes for 457 yards, setting career highs for attempts and completions and equaling his career-high of 457 yards, which ranks fifth in school history.
His 25-yard pass to Kupp on the game-winning drive broke the school record of 4,009 yards set by Bo Levi Mitchell in 2011. Adams now has 4,059 passing yards this season to rank fifth in BSC history and 19th all-time in FCS.
With 481 total yards against the Vikings, Adams now has 4,550 yards of total offense this season and broke the school record of 4,224 yards set by Erik Meyer in 2005. Adams is third in Big Sky history and 15th all-time in FCS.
He alsobroke the Big Sky single season record of 42 TD passes set by Brian Ah Yat of Montana in 1996. His 46 are fourth all-time in FCS. Jimmy Garoppolo of Eastern Illinois leads the nation in 2013 and is third in FCS history with 48 (he had six Saturday in a 70-22 win over Tennessee-Martin. The record of 56 shared by Willie Totten (Mississippi Valley 1984) and Bruce Eugene (Grambling 2005).
Kupp, who finished with nine catches for 147 yards and two TD, broke the record of 11 consecutive games with a TD catch previously held by Randy Moss from Marshall in 1996 and Cal Poly's Ramses Barden in 2008 (EWU's Brandon Kaufman was incorrectly listed in the NCAA record book). Currently second in school history with 18 TD catches for the season, Kupp is now one from the school record (19 shared by Nicholas Edwards, 2011, and Eric Kimble, 2004). The FCS record for most touchdowns by a freshman is held by Moss with 19 in 1996.
Kupp now has 77 catches (tied for sixth in school history) for 1,378 yards (fourth).
Linebacker Ronnie Hamlin – a senior but hopeful to receive a sixth year in 2014 – had 14 tackles for his 14th performance of 10 or more tackles. He moved into eighth in school history with a current total of 322, passing Dion Alexander (313, 1992-95). The next player to catch is Zach Johnson (324 in 2008, 2010-12). The school record is 432 (J.C. Sherritt, 2007-10), which is third in Big Sky history and ranks 15th in FCS history.
Eastern had already won at least a share of their seventh Big Sky Conference title in school history with the victory. The Eagles shared the title with Cal Poly and Montana State last year, and have also won league titles in 1992, 1997, 2004, 2005 and 2010. It was Eastern's third in the last four years (2010, 2012, 2013). Winning three titles in the last four years is unprecedented in school history.
Moreover, the Eagles will make their 10th playoff appearance, including seven in the last 10 seasons (1985, 1992, 1997, 2004, 2005, 2007, 2009, 2010, 2012, 2013).
The EWU-PSU game featured 1,131 yards of total offense, with Portland State finishing with 603 and Eastern ending with 528. It was a match-up of the top two offenses in FCS, with EWU ranking fourth in FCS in total offense (531.4 per game) and seventh in scoring (40.3), while PSU was just ahead of the Eagles in third in offense (league-leading 534.8 average per game) and 24th in scoring (34.4).
Eastern is now just three points from the school record of 488 set in 2004. During its seven-game winning streak entering the game – all against Big Sky foes -- Eastern had outscored its opponents by a 296-165 margin – a 42-23 average score. The last loss for EWU was 49-34 at Sam Houston State on Sept. 28, and its other loss was 33-21 to NCAA Football Championship Subdivision foe Toledo.
A total of 22 EWU seniors were honored versus PSU, not including Ronnie Hamlin (will appeal for a sixth year) and McKenzie Murphy (who went through senior introductions last year). There was one player not on EWU's roster who has been injured pretty much his entire career and has played in only one game in 2011 -- Shane Stagg/Achilles -- and he was also be honored.
Several seniors not listed as starters in the depth chart started versus PSU. The result was eight seniors starting on defense (not counting Ronnie Hamlin) and eight on offense, plus kicker.