For most of this Saturday afternoon, the Eastern Washington Eagle faithful were apprehensive. They would leave, however, relieved.
Apprehensive because their Eagle team was on the verge of a Big Sky conference loss to Cal Poly. Relieved because their Eagle team came back to win, 42-41 in overtime.
The Mustangs took a 7-6 lead midway through the first quarter and it seemed like they would never look back. The Mustangs, behind their star duo of quarterback Chris Brown and fullback Joe Protheroe, had their way against the Eagle defense.
In the first half, EWU could not stop Brown and Portheroe. Even with Protheroe hobbled throughout the game by a sore right ankle, he and Brown accounted for 294 of the 503 rushing yards for the Mustangs.
Cal Poly made it 35-20 halfway through the fourth and it seemed that would be enough given the struggles of the Eastern offense.
The high-octane Eagle offense, ranked #1 in passing in FCS, had been held to only 90 yards passing (212 total offense) through three quarters. With winds gusting upwards of 20-25 mph, the rhythm-based offense of Eastern could never get on track through the air.
“A lot of that was on me,” said EWU quarterback Jordan West. “We just couldn’t get into rhythm. I was missing some of my passes early. It was pretty frustrating, but thankfully we ended up turning it around.”
Added Coach Beau Baldwin, ““We ended up finally finding a little bit of rhythm. We needed to get that rhythm earlier, regardless of the wind.”
Part of the lack of rhythm was also due to the ball control offense employed by Cal Poly. Through three, the Mustangs had run 69 plays while possessing the ball for 28 minutes. That’s a long time for a rhythm-based offense.
But, this Eagle offense isn’t a threat to win on the ground. They win through the air.
It took the better part of the game, but down by 15 with less than eight minutes left in the game, EWU’s quarterback Jordan West and the Eagle offense finally woke up.
A 12-play drive capped off by a Jabari Wilson 4-yard run cut the lead to eight. The drive was aided by the first of two late penalties by the Mustangs – this one a personal foul for unsportsmanlike conduct. A failed onside kick and a subsequent three-and-out from Cal Poly gave West and company another opportunity.
It was all they would need.
The Eagles got the ball on their own 45 after a 22 yard punt by Cal Poly’s Stephen Pyle. EWU ran one running play, four passing plays with one first down before facing 4th and 5 on the Mustang 32. A critical delay of game penalty by Cal Poly gave the Eagles a first down.
Two plays and a second attempt at a two-point conversion and the game was tied.
In overtime, the Eagles only needed one play to reclaim their first lead since the first quarter. West connected with wide receiver Kendrick Bourne who scampered his way in for the TD. EWU led 42-35.
On the Mustangs possession, they proceeded to run the ball as they had all game long. Five plays – five rushes – touchdown.
Betting on their stout offensive line and their running prowess, the Mustangs gambled in going for two and the win. Pressure from the Eastern defense forced an errant Chris Brown option pass to Kori Garcia and the game was over.
“This is just awesome,” said junior linebacker Miquiyah Zamorah. “As a defensive player, this is how you want it to be. You want it to be in your hands.”
It wasn’t the kind of win Eagle fans have come to expect from their Eastern Washington teams, but in this conference, they’ll take it. In this conference sometimes you have to fight to survive.
“It had a lot of grinding moments,” added Coach Baldwin. “Give credit to Cal Poly. They came in here and played incredible football — and (they) were in control at many times. But, our guys fought and found a way.”