Two teams combine for nearly 1,200 yards of offense, but difference was Lumberjacks holding Eagles without a touchdown for 27 minutes
There were no late-game heroics for the Eagles this week, but they had a mid-game scoring slump instead.
Stephen F. Austin rolled up 563 yards of offense to help open up a 25-point lead and held on to defeat Eastern Washington University 44-33 Saturday (Nov. 28) in a first round game in the NCAA Championship Subdivision Playoffs at Homer Bryce Stadium in Nacogdoches, Texas.
Eastern rallied back from a 25-point deficit after the Lumberjacks took a 37-12 lead with 5:54 left in the third quarter. But the Eagles couldn't overcome a stretch in the second and third quarters in which they went just over 27 minutes without a touchdown and were out-scored 27-2.
Eastern senior quarterback Matt Nichols had school records for completions and attempts as he finished 43-of-76 for a career-high 461 yards and three touchdowns as Eastern scored 21 of the final 28 points. In the loss, he broke the Big Sky Conference career passing yards and touchdown passes records and finished sixth in FCS history in total offense (13,308), passing yards (12,616) and touchdown passes (96).
The 13th-ranked Eagles finished with 595 yards of total offense as the two teams combined for 1,158. The Eagles finished the season 8-4, after clinching a playoff berth by scoring with 3:30 left on Nov. 21 to defeat Northern Arizona 49-45. The Eagles closed the regular season with a four-game winning streak, winning those by a combined 172-107 margin.
"It was a tough one," said Eastern head coach Beau Baldwin of the loss to SFA. "But the one thing our team has done all season is that they never lose their fight. That's why I'm proud of these guys. They never rolled over when things weren't going our way.
"We'll go back and wonder what would have happened if we could have taken advantage of a few more opportunities on offense," he added. "But I know that no matter what our players kept fighting even though we didn't play our best football game."
Stephen F. Austin improved to 10-2 after winning a share of the Southland Conference title. The Lumberjacks will advance to the quarterfinals of the playoffs against Montana, which rallied from a 48-21 deficit to stun South Dakota State 61-48.
"Give Stephen F. Austin credit -- they are a good football team," Baldwin said. "They have some players in some spots on both sides of the ball that can make plays. Their defense didn't get much attention, but they have some great players too."
Nichols completed 12-of-15 passes for 127 yards in the first quarter alone, and in the process broke the 46-year-old Big Sky Conference record for passing yards to go along with the total offense record he set previously. He broke the league career passing record of 12,207 held by Weber State's Jamie Martin (1989-92).
Running back Taiwan Jones, Eastern's sophomore 1,000-rusher, had 118 yards on 15 carries and scored a touchdown for the Eagles. He also caught 10 passes for 68 yards on his way to finishing with 200 all-purpose yards despite playing the game with a broken bone in his hand and a hip flexor injury. Jones finished the season with 1,213 yards, ranking as the sixth-most in school history.
Senior Tony Davis finished with 10 catches for 115 yards, and concluded his Eastern career with 213 catches for 2,566 to rank third and fourth, respectively, in school history. True freshman Brandon Kaufman finished with six catches for 70 yards and a touchdown.
Nathan Overbay had eight grabs for 100 yards and a score -- his 13th receiving touchdown of the season to rank second all-time at EWU. He had all but one of his catches in the fourth quarter during EWU's comeback attempt.
Defensively, true freshman Paul Ena had 20 tackles for the Eagles to rank as the sixth-most in school history. Junior J.C. Sherritt, the FCS leader in tackles with a school and Big Sky record total of 154 entering the game, finished with 16 to give him 170 for the season.
Sophomore Renard Williams had a pair of sacks and six tackles, and senior Kevin Hatch finished with eight tackles and an interception. It was his ninth of his career to tie him for ninth in school history. Jesse Hoffman also had an interception and Tyler Jolley also had a sack.
In all, there were 189 plays run in the game -- 99 for Eastern and 90 by the Lumberjacks. Both quarterbacks completed 43 passes, with SFA's Jeremy Moses completing 43-of-57 for 432 yards and four touchdowns. Duane Brooks had 15 catches for 124 yards for the Lumberjacks, who also had a 100-yard rusher in Vincent Pervis with 125.
The Eagles scored on their first possession of the game with a 40-yard field goal by Mike Jarrett to cap a 56-yard drive. Eastern scored again on an 80-yard drive later in the quarter, capped by a 5-yard touchdown pass from Nichols to Matt Martin.
That knotted the score at 10-10, but SFA scored 13 of the next 15 points to take a 23-12 lead at halftime. The Lumberjacks then scored the first two times they had the ball in the second half to take a 25-point advantage at 37-12.
Eastern then scored on a four-play, 66-yard drive, starting with a 12-yard run by Jones and ended by a 20-yard touchdown pass from Nichols to Kaufman. After another SFA score, Eastern drove 70 yards on six plays to score on a 2-yard run by Jones and pull within 44-26 at the end of the third quarter.
Following an interception by Hatch, Eastern had a 12-play, 70-yard drive to cut the lead to 44-33 with 9:38 to play. The final five yards came on a touchdown pass from Nichols to Overbay.
The Eagles got the ball back with a chance to cut into the 11-point lead, but Nichols was intercepted with 5:13 left in the game. That ended a string of 267 passes without an interception for the Nichols. Eastern also missed a 43-yard field goal with 1:43 left that could have made it a one-possession game.
In a contest matching two of the top four passing offenses in FCS, the Eagles entered the game ranked in the top 10 nationally in passing (4th, 308.6), total offense (4th, 450.1) and scoring (9th, 33.7). In addition, the Eagles entered leading FCS in passing efficiency (161.59), completing 66 percent of their passes for 30 touchdowns and just five interceptions.
Stephen F. Austin entered as the FCS leader in passing (346.1) and scoring offense (37.2), and is third in total offense (477.6). The Lumberjacks have the fifth-best passing efficiency rating in FCS (152.76), having completed 68 percent of their passes for 40 touchdowns and14 interceptions.