Top-ranked Eagles hang on to beat Sacramento State, 31-28

CHENEY, Wash. - The top-ranked Eagles had just enough answers.

Responding with touchdowns the first three times Sacramento State scored, the Eastern Washington University football team also used three Jimmy Pavel field goals to escape for a 31-28 victory Saturday (Oct. 20) in a Big Sky Conference game at Roos Field in Cheney, Wash.

The game ended with Sacramento State at the Eastern 45-yard line, but the Eagles did enough up to that point to pull out a win in EWU's 86th Annual Homecoming Game, with EWU now owning a 51-32-3 record in those contests.

"Our guys do such a good job of responding," said Eastern head coach Beau Baldwin, whose team had a 454-288 advantage in total offense. "Things are not always going to be perfect, but we are always finding ways to respond. I can't think of one moment right now in this one (when the tide turned). We thankfully made enough plays to win."

The victory improved on Eastern's best-ever Big Sky start as the Eagles are now 5-0 in the league and 6-1 overall. Eastern survived in its first outing since reaching the top spot in the Sports Network NCAA Football Championship Subdivision Top 25 poll.

Pavel made field goals of 24, 40 and 47 yards for the Eagles, as he remained perfect for the season (11-of-11). Quarterbacks Vernon Adams and Kyle Padron combined to complete 26-of-37 passes for 342 yards and three touchdowns. They also combined to rush for 62 yards.

Senior Greg Herd caught nine passes for 109 yards and a pair of scores, and junior Brandon Kaufman added six grabs for 102 yards and a TD.

Linebacker Grant Williams, filling in for the fourth-straight game for the injured Zach Johnson (hamstring), had a team-leading 12 tackles. Defensive end Jerry Ceja had a sack for the Eagles as he increased his season total to eight. He entered the game ranked fourth in FCS and second in the league with an average of 1.17 sacks per game. Ronnie Hamlin, who entered the game with a team-leading 61 tackles, chipped in eight stops.

"We've played a lot of games like that," said Baldwin, whose team has won its last two Big Sky games by three points, and two other league outings by six. "You have to credit Sac State. They are a team that came in here 5-2 and had beaten Colorado. They were 3-1 in the conference, so we knew it would be a battle.

"We still have to go back and look at some things we can do to try to put ourselves in a better spot, but any time you have games like that against a great opponent, it is going to come down to the wire," he added.

Adams started the game, and finished 17-of-21 for 169 yards, two touchdowns and an interception, and also rushed for a team-leading 38 yards. Padron played some in the first half and most of the second half, and completed 9-of-16 for 173 yards and a score, and added 24 yards on the ground. Adams is a redshirt freshman, and Padron is a junior after transferring from SMU.

"I went into the game (wanting to play both quarterbacks)," explained Baldwin. "Padron has been making incredible strides in practice and has been doing some of the things that I didn't think he did quite as well in the beginning of the season. He has been doing incredibly well behind the scenes but no one else sees it. I went into the game knowing that. Those two young men are there for each other, and I said we are going to find a way to go win and both of you guys are going to be a part of it. We're going to be that much better for it."

Eastern has now won its last five games, with the lone loss for the Eagles this season coming in a narrow 24-20 setback at Washington State on Sept. 8.

The Hornets, who earlier this season knocked off a Pac-12 Conference foe for the second-straight year with a 30-28 victory at Colorado, entered the game with its best start in two decades, matching the 5-2 start of the 1992 squad.

Pavel made a field goal on EWU's first possession of the game, but Sac State followed with a touchdown drive. Responding for the first of three times, Eastern took a 10-7 lead on a 10-yard TD pass from Adams to Herd. Eastern took a 13-7 lead at halftime with Pavel's 40-yarder with 15 seconds left in the second quarter.

The Hornets regained a 14-13 lead early in the third quarter, but Eastern responded once again. After a 30-yard kickoff return by Shaquille Hill, Eastern drove 52 yards on four plays to take the lead for good. Eastern scored on a 26-yard pass from Adams to Herd.

Pavel's 47-yard field goal gave EWU a 10-point cushion, but Sac State scored to cut the lead to 24-21. But Padron then led the Eagles on a five-play, 84-yard drive, completing a 52-yard TD pass to Brandon Kaufman to put the Eagles ahead 31-21 with 11:22 to play.

Sac State scored to cut the lead to three with 3:05 left, and although the Eagles didn't respond with a touchdown, they did pick up a key third down conversion on the ensuing possession. On a third-and-five from their own 24, Herd had a 26-yard catch-and-run for a first down that ate up the more time and forced Sac State to use its final two timeouts.

The Hornets got the ball back with 21 seconds to play and used a 15-yard penalty and a 30-yard pass play to get into Eastern territory, but EWU's Allen Brown batted down Sac State's Hail-Mary pass on the game's final play.

"They are a team that gets in your face and they hit you," added Baldwin. "They are a physical outfit and they are coached really well. We always have battles with them. Almost every year we have to battle with them so it didn't surprise me at all."

Eastern next plays at Southern Utah (Oct. 27), before returning home for games versus Cal Poly (Nov. 3) and UC Davis (Nov. 10). Eastern closes the regular season at Portland State (Nov. 17).