Eagles Survive for 31-26 Win Over Lumberjacks

Eagles Survive for 31-26 Win Over Lumberjacks

Gage Gubrud and Nsimba Webster made plenty of plays on offense again, but it was a nail-biter right down to the finish with the nail in the coffin provided by Sam McPherson .

In a battle of nationally-ranked NCAA Football Championship Subdivision powerhouses, the Eastern Washington University football team edged Northern Arizona 31-26 Saturday (Sept. 8) in a non-conference game at the Walkup Skydome in Flagstaff, Ariz.

Gubrud passed for 322 yards and four touchdowns, and rushed for a career-high 80, and found Webster through the air seven times for 176 yards. Webster scored twice, and almost a third before his fumble was alertly recovered for a TD by Dre’ Sonte Dorton with 18 minutes left in the game.

Eastern used a six-minute scoring drive to open an 11-point lead with 6:10 to play, only to see NAU score with 1:51 to play. But the two-point pass conversion fell incomplete, thanks to a quarterback hurry on a blitz by Eagle rover Cole Karstetter .

With that slim five-point lead, Eastern ended up with the ball at its own 4-yard line on the ensuing kickoff, but a 94-yard rush by Sam McPherson – the third-longest in school history behind runs of 96 and 95 yards – gave EWU the ball at the NAU 2. After a pair of NAU timeouts, a knee-down ended the game for EWU as McPherson finished with 161 yards on the ground to help the Eagles out-gain NAU 570-411 in total offense.

“This was a game against a playoff team from last year, and we got a win on their home field, in a playoff-like atmosphere, all in a non-league game against a non-league opponent.” said Eastern head coach Aaron Best . “Our team did a great job stopping the two-point play late. We prepared for 7,000 feet and we had a 94-yard run by Sam McPherson to put the game on ice. We’re really proud that we played dogfight football against a great opponent. And the last two minutes we buckled down and made enough plays.”

The game was an intriguing match-up between a pair of teams which finished 6-2 in the league last season and 7-4 overall in the regular season, and had solid cases to receive berths in the NCAA Football Championship Playoffs. But the Lumberjacks were chosen and the Eagles were not, and NAU went on to lose at home 41-10 to San Diego in the first round.

The Eagles entered this week’s game ranked fifth in the American Football Coaches Association Top 25 poll for NCAA Football Championship Subdivision teams, while NAU was ranked 20th. Eastern was also sixth in the STATS poll of sportswriters, broadcasters and sports information directors, with the Lumberjacks coming in at No. 18.

Records . . .

* Now 2-0 in 2018, Eastern closed the 2017 season with a 7-4 record overall and was 6-2 in the Big Sky Conference in the first season under head coach Aaron Best . Last season was the 11th-straight season the Eagles have finished 5-3 or better in the Big Sky, with an 11th-straight winning season and 20th in the last 22 years. But winning a 10th Big Sky title and making a 13th appearance in the FCS Playoffs is the quest for the 2018 Eagles, who are hungry to make that happen.

* Northern Arizona is now 1-1. Both the Eagles and Lumberjacks are coming off resounding victories in their openers on Sept. 1 – Eastern 58-13 over NCAA Division II Central Washington, and NAU 30-10 over NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision member UTEP. The Eagles opened a 20-0 lead and had a 677-321 advantage in total offense, while NAU led 17-0 and out-gained the Miners 318-229.

What It Means . . .

* Although it was a non-conference meeting and won’t count in the league standings, Big Sky matchups such as this Eagles versus Lumberjacks showdown can actually be used in a tiebreaker situation at the end of the year. The first tiebreaker, head-to-head competition, applies to not only league games, but non-conference games played between conference members. The second tiebreaker is record against common conference opponents, then record against common non-conference opponents. Sagarin ratings will be used as the final tiebreaker, or, in the unlikely event of a tie, a coin toss.

What’s Next . . .

* Eastern travels to Pullman, Wash., next Saturday (Sept. 15) to play Pac-12 Conference member Washington State at Martin Stadium. Kickoff is 5:05 p.m. Pacific time in the fifth varsity meeting between the school schools, which are located less than 100 miles apart. The game will be televised live nationally via the Pac-12 Networks. The game versus the Cougars is a rematch of a 45-42 Eagle upset to open the 2016 season on Sept. 3, 2016. In the first start of his Eagle career, Gage Gubrud had what was then a school-record 551 yards of total offense, passing for 474 yards and five touchdowns, and rushing for another 77 and a game-clinching score.