Eastern Washington University intercepted three passes, had four sacks and won the all-important turnover battle to help EWU defeat Southern Utah Saturday (Oct. 19) in a Big Sky Conference football game in EWU's 87th Homecoming Game.
Leading just 14-3 at halftime, Eastern's offense got untracked in the second half and scored touchdowns on three-straight possessions in front of a sold-out crowd of 10,135. The win sets up next week's showdown versus 10th-ranked Montana in Missoula.
"To get going and score on three possessions in the second half, I was proud of how our players responded from the first half," said Eastern head coach Beau Baldwin.
"It is a very good feeling," he added. "I just love the energy our guys came out with. By no means was it perfect. There were a lot of little things, but I thought our energy, our attitude and our demeanor were awesome."
EWU out-gained SUU in total offense 486-368, including advantages of 161-28 in the first quarter and 175-102 in the decisive third period. Eastern is currently tied atop the Big Sky standings at 3-0 with Montana State, and EWU is now 5-2 overall. The Thunderbirds are 5-3 overall and 2-2 in the conference.
Eastern quarterback Vernon Adams completed 25-of-35 passes for 298 yards and three touchdowns in the win, and redshirt freshman Cooper Kupp had 11 catches for 168 yards and a score. Kupp's performance equaled the 12th-best in school history tied with 10 others, including teammate Ashton Clark with 11 grabs versus SUU a year ago.
Junior linebacker Cody McCarthy led the defense with eight tackles, and Buck Buchanan Award candidate Ronnie Hamlin, also a linebacker, added seven. Eastern won the turnover battle 3-2 against a team that entered the game ranked eighth in the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision with a plus nine margin for the season.
All three turnovers EWU forced were interceptions recorded by Tevin McDonald, Ronald Baines and Samson Ebukam, who returned his 21 yards for the first score of the day. Sacks were recorded by Andru Pulu, Matthew Sommer, Anthony Larry and Evan Day.
It was the first time EWU has had three interceptions since they had three in back-to-back games in October of 2010 against Northern Arizona and Weber State.
The victory was a measure of revenge against a SUU team that defeated Eastern 30-27 last season and knocked the Eagles out of the top spot in the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision rankings. It was also one of only three losses for Adams as an Eastern starting quarterback, with a current record of 13-3 in 16 career starts.
Eastern jumped out to a 14-0 lead in the first quarter, and scored on an interception return for the second-straight week. Ebukam returned an errant pass that was hurried by teammate Dylan Zylstra for 21 yards and a 7-0 EWU lead seven minutes into the contest.
The offense then put together a six-play, 84-yard drive to take a 14-0 lead. Clark caught a 12-yard TD pass from Adams, who also completed a pass for 43 yards to Kupp.
After a scoreless second quarter for Eastern, the Eagles led 14-3 at halftime. Early in the third quarter, EWU capitalized on an interception by Ronald Baines deep in EWU territory at the 15. The resulting eight-play, 85-yard drive was capped by a 31-yard TD pass from Adams to true freshman Kendrick Bourne.
After taking that 21-3 lead, Eastern scored the next two times it had the ball too. A 78-yard drive lasted just four plays, and was capped by a 52-yard touchdown pass from Adams to Kupp. Mario Brown then scored from 11 yards out to end a short 44-yard drive to give EWU a 34-3 lead with 13:18 to play.
"Sometimes you can't put your finger on it exactly," Baldwin said of the difference in halves. "Sometimes a guy makes a play. One time when we turned it over the ball was tipped up in the air. What are you going to do? The other time (we had a turnover) their defensive end did a great job of hitting our mesh point when we were running a little read zone type action.
"You have to give credit to the opponent too," he added. "They made plays. I don't think our players were ever unfocused. I just thought we needed to get over the hump and execute a little better."
Next Saturday, in a game televised regionally on ROOT Sports, the Eagles face 6-1 and 10th-ranked Montana. The Grizzlies improved to 3-1 in the Big Sky with a 21-14 victory over Cal Poly.
Eastern then takes on Idaho State, fifth-ranked MSU and Cal Poly in November. Eastern's resume this season has included a 49-46 victory at Pac-12 Conference member Oregon State, and narrow road losses to Toledo (33-21) and Sam Houston State (49-34).