There are some football games that you can figure out fairly early how they’re going to play out. Then there are games like tonight in Cheney, WA where the Eastern Washington Eagles come from behind to beat the Northern Iowa Panthers, 34-30.
It didn’t look that way early on for the Eagles. Led by star senior quarterback, Aaron Bailey, the Panthers took an early 10-0 lead after the first quarter. Bailey was the Panthers do-everything guy going 6-10 with 92 yards passing while rushing for 35 yards on 5 carries and 1 touchdown. UNI was 4 of 7 on third downs and 1 of 1 on fourth down in that quarter.
Meanwhile, the Eagles struggled on offense to start the game. Playing without senior All-American and Player of the Year Cooper Kupp, EWU seemed out of sync. Sophomore quarterback Gage Gubrud, in only his third career start, only went 3-7 for 9 yards passing.
It looked as though Gubrud and the Eagles figured things out a bit early in the second quarter. The Eagles went 80 yards in 8 plays to cut the lead to three. The drive was highlighted by a 30 yard run by senior receiver Shaq Hill that put the ball inside the 20. Hill finished the drive with a 5-yard touchdown reception on a Gubrud pass.
But, the Eagle defense could not contain the Panther offense before halftime. UNI had back-to-back touchdown drives going 65 yards in 4 plays (1:48) in one and 45 yards in 5 plays (2:11) in the other, leading to a 24-7 halftime lead.
At the half, the Panthers held a 257 to 172 total yard advantage over the Eagles. They were 5 of 10 on third down (EWU = 3 of 9) and 1 of 1 on fourth down (EWU = 0 of 2). UNI was 5 of 10 in the red zone compared to EWU’s 1 of 2.
Then halftime happened.
And Antoine Custer happened.
The freshman running back from Custer, CA took the kickoff at the 7 and returned it 93 yards for a touchdown. It was the first spark that the Eagles needed.
A quick three-and-out for the Panthers offense and EWU was back in business, down 24-14. But, a Gage Gubrud interception quickly halted that momentum leaving it up to the Eagle defense with Northern Iowa taking over at the EWU 30.
Whatever the coaches and players said or did at halftime should be bottled up and used in the future because the Eagle defense stymied the Panther offense again. They kept the score close after a missed Matt Easley 43-yard field goal attempt.
The Eagle offense could not capitalize going three-and-out on their next series. On their next offensive series, Coach Beau Baldwin recognized the need for another spark calling on sophomore quarterback Reilly Hennessey to lead them. “When we’re in a game, just like at any position, when somebody might be struggling or not feeling it, you want to do what’s best for the team,” said Baldwin. “We felt like making a change and doing something a little bit different.”
Aided by a crucial 4th and 1 offside call on UNI, Hennessey and the EWU offense went 65 yards on 7 plays (2:25) to cut the Panther lead to three. Northern Iowa clung to a 24-21 lead heading into the fourth quarter.
The teams would trade scoring drives in the final quarter. EWU took the lead on a 7 play, 52-yard drive (2:55), on a 7 yard Hennessey pass to Stu Stiles. Stiles had the unenviable task of filling in for senior All-American receiver Cooper Kupp. Kupp was injured in last week’s heartbreaking 50-44 overtime loss to FCS #1 North Dakota State.
After a Northern Iowa field goal made it 28-27, Eastern Washington could not convert on a 46-yard, 12 play drive on their next possession. UNI would take over on downs and drive to the EWU 32. A Matt Easley field goal gave the Panthers the lead, 30-28.
“When you are in a fight and you’re getting beat up, you either keep getting beat up or you fight back,” Coach Baldwin said after the game. His Eagle team fought back in a big way on their next series.
“Sneaky Beau Baldwin”, as senior linebacker Miquiyah Zamora calls his coach, pulled out a fake field goal play on 4th and 13. Hennessey, the holder, took the snap, rolled right and found a wide open Beau Byus for a 23-yard touchdown pass with 43 seconds left in the game. The two-point conversion failed.
“We’ve had the in our arsenal for a while,” Baldwin said in his post-game comments. “You pull it out when you think it’s right. Our guys practice it and I trust them and you execute it.”
UNI would get the ball back one more time with a chance to win, but the EWU defense was having none of that as they forced a fumble to end the game.
It was the first victory for the Eagles against the Panthers. They came into the game 0-6 against them after last season’s close 38-35 loss in Cedar Falls. All six of Eastern’s previous losses took place in Iowa. This was the first visit to Cheney by Northern Iowa.
The win puts the Eagles at 2-1 for the season as they head to Flagstaff for an important Big Sky showdown with Northern Arizona next Saturday. The Lumberjacks defeated the Eagles in Cheney, 52-30 last season. NAU is on a two-game win streak versus EWU having beaten the Eagles 28-27 thriller in 2014 in Flagstaff. They are coming off a 73-3 win at home over Division II New Mexico Highlands on Saturday.
For now, however, the Eagles will enjoy this win tonight. Who will be the starting quarterback next weekend? That will have to wait. Whichever guy is taking snaps, Coach Baldwin thinks they’ll be just fine, “When you have three quarterbacks that can win you games, that’s a nice luxury to have.”
A predictably unpredictable luxury.