21st-ranked Eagles force four turnovers in defensive battle heading into pair of league road games
The defense forced four turnovers and was equally effective on fourth down as Eastern Washington University shut-out Northern Colorado 16-0 Saturday (Sept. 19) in the Big Sky Conference football opener for both schools at Woodward Field in Cheney, Wash.
The Eagles recovered three fumbles and had an interception in Eastern's first shutout at Woodward Field since 1983. The Eagles have had six other shutouts since then either on the road or in Spokane, including a 34-0 win over UNC in 2006.
Eastern also held the Bears to a 0-of-4 performance on fourth down and had four sacks.
"We made a point of emphasis to let the players play," EWU head coach Beau Baldwin said of his team's defensive effort. "At times the opponents might get a little bit, but we're not giving up the big play. We're making them earn everything. And when we get down in the red zone we are stingy and we're also doing a great job of ripping on the ball and creating turnovers.
"Obviously coach (John Graham) and the defensive staff did an incredible job of preparing for this ballgame," he continued. "Ultimately, players made plays on the field. I was proud of their effort."
Eastern, which was ranked 21st in this week's Sports Network NCAA Football Championship Subdivision poll, is now 2-1, having also defeated Western Oregon (35-14 on Sept. 5) and falling to 10th-ranked California (59-7 on Sept. 12). The Bears are now 1-2, with a loss at 25th-ranked Kansas (49-3 on Sept. 5) followed by a home victory over San Diego (31-12 on Sept. 12).
Senior quarterback Matt Nichols had two touchdown passes in EWU's win over the Bears, and Mike Jarrett added a 28-yard field goal. But the Eagles managed only 292 yards of total offense while holding Northern Colorado to 238.
Nichols finished 14-of-25 for 146 yards, but was sacked three times. Taiwan Jones rushed for 95 yards on 18 carries for EWU, with Aaron Boyce and Tony Davis each catching four passes.
Jones also had an 85-yard kickoff return for a touchdown shortened to 55 yards because of an illegal block penalty. Eastern finished the game with 10 penalties for 79 yards, but had no turnovers.
The rest of the day belonged to the Eagle defense, as the Big Sky's leading tackler -- linebacker J.C. Sherritt -- finished with 16. He also recovered a fumble, and three of his tackles were for loss. Middle linebacker Kyle Wilkins added 11 tackles.
Safety Kevin Hatch had eight tackles, an interception and a pass broken up. Eastern recorded four sacks, including 1 1/2 by defensive end Jacob Kragt.
Hatch's interception led to EWU's first score, a 5-yard touchdown pass from Nichols to tight end Nathan Overbay with 1:21 left in the first quarter.
Another UNC turnover -- this time a fumble on a punt that was forced by EWU's Jason Harris and recovered by Nicholas Ramos at the Bear 6-yard line -- helped Eastern take a 13-0 lead just before halftime. Nichols passed nine yards to Boyce for the touchdown.
Eastern now travels to Sacramento State on Saturday (Sept. 26) to face the Hornets in a game that starts at 6:05 p.m. Pacific time. That begins the first of two-straight road games for the Eagles as they play at Idaho State on Oct. 3. The Eagles return home to face defending Big Sky co-champion Weber State on Oct. 10 for Hall of Fame Day at EWU.