Senior Dre' Sonte Dorton and junior Eric Barriere once again had fast starts, and senior Antoine Custer Jr. got rolling too, but the Eagles couldn't close the deal in faraway Alabama.
Despite jumping out to a quick 28-7 lead in the first quarter, the No. 4/5 Eastern Washington University football team was outscored 21-0 in the final quarter and fell to No. 17/16 Jacksonville State 49-45 Saturday (Sept. 15) in a NCAA Football Championship Subdivision showdown in Jacksonville, Ala.
Eastern won the total offense battle and held the lead for all but 1:12 of the game – including leading for at least 10 points for 48:34. But the Gamecocks scored 21 points in the final 14:49 to overcome a 45-28 Eagle lead late in the third quarter.
"We grew up tonight immensely, even though the score doesn't indicate that," said Eastern head coach Aaron Best. "There are were a lot of tough times and there are a lot of tough kids in that locker room. There are a lot of guys limping, a lot of them shaken and lot of them have grown from this game – there are a lot of guts in there. We just didn't score enough points tonight."
Dorton returned the opening kickoff for a 90-yard kickoff return – a week after opening the Lindenwood game with a 78-yard TD catch – but the Eagles came up just short in ending what is now as 30-game regular season home winning streak for the Gamecocks of the Ohio Valley Conference. Eastern led by at least 10 points for the middle 48:34 of the game (9:29 left in the first quarter to 5:55 left in the game).
Barriere had three of his five touchdown passes in the first quarter as EWU led 28-7, and he finished 24-of-43 for 294 yards. He completed 11 of his first 12 passes for 156 yards in the first quarter alone.
Senior receiver Jayson Williams matched his career total with a pair of TD passes, while finishing with a career-high seven catches for 54 yards. Also catching TD passes were Andrew Boston, Jayce Gilder and Talolo Limu-Jones, with the 51-yard TD catch and run by Jones giving EWU a 45-28 lead with 3:04 left in the third quarter.
Custer finished with a career-high 184-yards on 28 carries, giving him seven 100-yard performances in his career. Boston also finished with seven catches for 68 yards, and senior linebacker Jack Sendelbach led the Eagles with 12 tackles.
In a battle of two of the top NCAA Football Championship Subdivision programs in this decade, Eastern had a 185-79 advantage in the first quarter and finished the game with 469 yards compared to 366 for the Gamecocks. Jacksonville, however, had a 109-12 advantage in the fourth quarter. Eastern had a 175-117 edge in rushing, and a 294-249 advantage passing.
The kickoff was delayed by 30 minutes because of lightning in the Jacksonville area, and featured teams who entered with a combined 177 victories in this decade since 2010. It was just the ninth game East of the Mississippi River for the Eastern, which will play its 1000th game in history – 111 seasons worth – later this month.
Records & Rankings . . .
* Both teams entered the game 1-1 on the season and have a long tradition of success in FCS, particularly in this decade. Entering 2019, Jacksonville State had the fourth-best winning percentage in FCS since 2010 (.7522, 85-28) and Eastern was right behind (.750, 90-3). For victories, EWU's 90 ranked third and JSU was fourth with 85, and included a 2013 meeting in the quarterfinals of the FCS Playoffs which was won by EWU 35-24 at Roos Field in Cheney, Wash. In that meeting, EWU was ranked third in FCS entering the playoffs and was a No. 3 seed, while JSU had a No. 20 ranking.
* Eastern entered the game ranked fourth in the STATS top 25 poll for the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision, and fifth in the American Football Coaches Association poll. In preseason rankings, EWU was ranked fourth by STATS and third by the AFCA before falling to Washington.
* Jacksonville State, meanwhile started the year sixth in both polls, then fell to 18th (STATS) and 17th (AFCA) after it fell 35-14 at Southeastern Louisiana of the Southland Conference. The Gamecocks moved up to No. 17/16 after beating Chattanooga of the Southern Conference 41-20 in their home opener on Sept. 7.
What's Next . . .
* Eastern will play its last non-conference game versus Idaho for the foreseeable future when the Eagles play in Moscow, Idaho, on Sept. 21 in the Kibbie Dome at 12:09 p.m. Pacific time. Last year's meeting against the Vandals was a league game, but this year's is not – part of the scheduling difficulties with the addition of UI to the league and the departure of North Dakota. The Eagles will play the Fighting Hawks on Sept. 28 in Cheney, and although that game counts in the league standings for EWU, North Dakota continues its transition to the Missouri Valley Football Conference and is ineligible for the Big Sky's automatic berth to the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision Playoffs.
Key Stats . . .
* Entering the game, the offenses were averaging a combined 1,016.5 yards of offense per game, including 745.5 through the air. Eastern entered ranked sixth in FCS in total offense (521.5) and fifth in passing (366.5), and Jacksonville State was right behind in 13th in offense (495.0) and ahead of EWU in second in yards through the air (379.0).
EWU Highlights . . .
* Junior defensive nose tackle Rudolph Mataia Jr., made the first start of his career, becoming the 10th Eagle to make his starting debut this season. Against Washington, eight players – three on offense and five on defense – made their starting debuts for EWU. Against Lindenwood, redshirt freshman cornerback Tre Weed made his Eagle debut as a starter.
* Making big plays for the Eagles in the first quarter were a pair of true freshmen. Marlon Jones Jr. forced a fumble on a kickoff return that was recovered by redshirt freshman Seth Harrison, and led to a touchdown. Later, true freshman defensive lineman Sebastian Gomez deflected a pass that was intercepted by sophomore Mitchell Johnson. Harrison, filling in as kicker for the injured Andre Slyter, made a 22-yard field goal and also converted all six of his extra points. He also had eight kickoffs for a 58.1 average with two touchbacks.
Notables . . .
* The Eagles and Gamecocks are regular participants in the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision Playoffs. Eastern's 13 appearances in the FCS Playoffs rank 15th overall and its 19 victories are sixth, including six appearances and a 14-5 record since 2010. Jacksonville State has appeared in the FCS Playoffs nine times and has seven wins, including six appearances and a 7-7 record since 2010 when EWU won the national championship. Jacksonville State lost in the 2015 title game to North Dakota State, and Eastern fell to the Bison in the championship game in the 2018 season.
* The Gamecocks have won five-straight OVC titles and have had 16-straight winning seasons to lead FCS. Eastern has won at least a share of seven of the last 10 Big Sky Conference titles and has 12-straight winning seasons to rank third in FCS (21 of the last 23 years). At home, both teams are tough to beat – the Gamecocks entered Saturday's game 49-5 (90.7 percent) in their last 54 regular season home games at 24,000-seat Burgess-Snow Field; the Eagles are 40-6 (87.0 percent) since 2010 when EWU installed its red turf at "The Inferno" at Roos Field. Eastern and JSU are set to play in Cheney, Wash., on Sept. 11, 2021.
* Both EWU and JSU feature exceptional multi-talented junior quarterbacks who are in the hunt to win the Walter Payton Award given to the top player in FCS. Eastern's Eric Barriere entered the game with 733 passing yards to rank third in FCS, and is averaging 385.0 yards of total offense to rank second. Leading FCS entering the game was Zerrick Cooper from JSU, who had 758 yards passing and is averaging 389.5 in total offense through two games.
* Eastern's Dre' Sonte Dorton – this week's STATS National FCS Offensive Player of the Week – entered the game ranked third in FCS in receiving touchdowns (3), fifth in receiving yards (295) and eighth in receptions per game (8.0, total of 16). Meanwhile, Trae Barry leads a talented Gamecock receiving crew by entering the game ranked eighth in yards (234) and eighth in catches per game (8.0, total of 16). Jacksonville State's Josh Pearson (eight catches for 106 yards and a TD thus far) joined Barriere and Cooper on the initial 2019 "Watch List" for the Walter Payton Award.
* Eastern was coming off a 59-21 win over Lindenwood in which Barriere had the 14th-best performance in Big Sky history (second all-time at EWU) with 556 yards of total offense. Eastern finished with a school record 769 yards as a team, with Dorton setting a school record with his 289 yards receiving and ranking fourth with 15 catches.
* The game at Jacksonville State was just the ninth occasion all-time that EWU has played east of the Mississippi River. The last time was in 2017 in a 56-21 romp at Fordham in the Bronx, and before that was in 2013 in Ohio when Eastern fell at Toledo 33-21. Those were only EWU's fourth and fifth games ever in the Eastern time zone. Eastern is scheduled to host the Gamecocks back in Cheney on Sept. 11, 2021, and will play at Western Illinois one week later on Sept. 18, 2021. The Leathernecks are located in Macomb, Ill., just 39 miles from the Mississippi River. Eastern is now 3-6 in games played East of the Mississippi River, including in 2007 when the Eagles played at Appalachian State (Boone, N.C.) in the FCS Playoffs (L, 35-38). Eastern's other games in the East were West Virginia in 2006 (L, 3-52), Southern Illinois (Carbondale) in the FCS Playoffs in 2004 (W, 35-31), Connecticut in 2001 (W, 35-17), Eastern Illinois (Charleston) in 1991 (L, 12-30) and Fairmont State in Morgantown, W.Va., in the NAIA Championship Game in 1967 (L, 21-28). Eastern has also played three games very close to the Mississippi River in Louisiana – McNeese State (Lake Charles) in 2007, Nicholls State (Thibodaux) in 2004 and Northeast Louisiana (Monroe) in 1992 -- and six times at Northern Iowa (Cedar City) in 2015, 2005, 1994, 1992, 1989 and 1985.
Head Coach Aaron Best Comments . . .
On Leading Most of the Game: "We controlled the game for about 57 minutes, but 57 minutes isn't the entirety of a ballgame. We will get better and this game will not define us. We went on the road and played a game with a half-hour delayed start, and we played our butts off. We played really, really well, but we didn't play well enough."
On Playing Jacksonville State: "You play who you are handed on the schedule. This was a great test for us. We've played better each week, even though the deck wasn't in our favor tonight. We had a lot of players get their first reps of college football tonight and we played a lot of individuals tonight – probably close to 60 total. Those were the conditions we were dealt so we can't complain about what we already knew. Our players withstood a barrage of adversity at times. There were situations where we didn't move the chains or get a stop. We did get a couple of third and goal touchdowns which were nice conversions. We just didn't do enough and they made more plays in the end than we did."
On Second Half: "We weren't the same version in the second half – they made adjustments and we made adjustments. Just because you score 35 points in the first half doesn't mean you are going to duplicate it in the second half. We had guys playing on half a leg. Every position was giving everything they had – we just couldn't squeeze enough out of the football tonight for 60 minutes. That locker room loves each other and we willed each other to the finish line, but we just couldn't cross it."
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