Big plays by Jesse Hoffman and Taiwan Jones help Eagles improve to 8-2 as they play for Big Sky title at home next week versus Idaho State
It was just what Eastern Washington University head coach Beau Baldwin expected -- and certainly what he's witnessed before.
Senior Jesse Hoffman intercepted passes on the final two defensive possessions of the game for the fifth-ranked Eagles as they broke a 24-all tie in the fourth quarter to defeat Southern Utah 31-24 in a non-conference college football game Saturday (Nov. 13) at Roos Field in Cheney, Wash.
Hoffman also had four passes broken up and returned a third-quarter kickoff return 82 yards for a score. Junior running back Taiwan Jones rushed for 158 yards, including a 62-yard score on EWU's first offensive play of the game. Wide receiver Brandon Kaufman had two touchdown grabs, including the game-winning points with 3:39 to play.
But the win did not come easy -- again -- as Eastern was shredded for 434 passing yards and was out-gained in total offense 484-366. Seven of Eastern's eight wins this season have come by an average of just under seven points per game, including five decided by seven points or less. Of those seven games, the Eagles have trailed or been tied in the fourth quarter of four of them, in one they trailed in the third quarter and in the other two they were scoreless in the final stanza.
"I love our guys and how they just find a way at the end," said Eastern head coach Beau Baldwin. "They are never afraid of that situation and that moment. They seem to keep attacking. Whenever there is that time it seems a little bleak and things aren't going right, they find a way to flush everything else that has happened and they come back and make big plays late."
Now 4-0 at home this season, all four of Eastern's wins at the red Sprinturf surface at the "Inferno" have come down to the wire. Eastern will try for a perfect home record next Saturday (Nov. 20) at 1:05 p.m. when they host Idaho State needing a win to clinch at least a share of the school's fifth Big Sky Conference title (EWU also won in 1992, 1997, 2004 and 2005).
Now 8-2, the win was Eastern's sixth in a row since losing to Montana State 30-7 on Sept. 25 in Bozeman. Southern Utah, which will become a member of the Big Sky in the 2012-13 school year, was 6-4 and riding a five-game winning streak.
Eastern was coming off a bye week which followed the team's only blowout of the season, a 50-17 romp at Portland State on Oct. 30. While Eastern was ranked fifth in this week's Sports Network/Fathead.com top 25 NCAA Football Championship Subdivision poll, the Thunderbirds received enough votes to be ranked 27th.
The Eagles have all but assured themselves of a spot in the 20-team FCS Playoffs that begin on Nov. 27, and a win next week could garner one of the five seeds given to teams that guarantee them a first-round bye and to host games against un-seeded or lower-seeded teams. With No. 1 William and Mary and No. 4 Wofford losing Saturday, the Eagles may find themselves ranked third nationally when the new poll is released Monday.
"There is no question this had the feel of a playoff game because of who we were playing, it's in November and the weather -- it all feels like that," said Baldwin. "We were playing for so much and they were playing for a lot too because I'm sure they thought if they could get to seven wins they had a shot at getting into the 20-team field. Believe me, in my opinion they are as good as a lot of teams that will be in the playoffs in a couple of weeks. It had all of the makings for that type of a ballgame, and it just came down to a play here and there."
The 62-yard run by Jones on EWU's first offensive play of the game was more than double the longest rush Southern Utah had allowed all season (27 yards). He now has 14 plays in his career of 60 yards or more, and has 12 100-yard rushing performances in his career in his 28-game career (21 as a running back).
"He can make things happen even when nothing is there," said Baldwin. "He's someone who always gives us that."
Southern Utah quarterback Brad Sorensen completed 34-of-53 passes for 434 yards and two touchdowns, and two Thunderbirds had at least 100 yards in receptions. But thanks to Hoffman's two interceptions, Eastern won the turnover battle 4-1 against a team that had only had eight turnovers in its first 10 games of the season. And Eastern recorded six sacks and had 11 passes broken up.
Hoffman had four pass break-ups, and also had six tackles. Senior Tyler Jolley had 2 1/2 sacks and six total tackles, and also recovered a fumble. Cornerback Dante Calcote added three passes broken up, while linebacker Zach Johnson had a team-high 18 tackles with a sack. Senior linebacker J.C. Sherritt chipped in 11 tackles and had a forced fumble. Junior Renard Williams added a sack, a forced fumble and a quarterback hurry.
"I would say on both sides of the ball we didn't play great at times, certainly," said Baldwin. "But I give credit to them. They are a very good football team -- I said that coming into this game. They are underrated -- they really got into a good rhythm and I give them credit. Their players were making plays and their quarterback did a great job."
Kaufman's 25-yard touchdown catch from Bo Levi Mitchell gave Eastern a 17-7 lead early in the second quarter, but Southern Utah came back to knot the score at 17 and then again at 24. Eastern was out-gained 161-4 in the third quarter, but found its offensive rhythm again in the fourth.
Hoffman's first interception came with 6:01 left in the game, and Mitchell calmly directed Eastern on its game-winning drive. Mitchell finished 21-of-34 for 211 yards and Kaufman had nine catches for 129 yards.
"We didn't find much rhythm, and it wasn't until the middle of the fourth quarter that we found it," said Baldwin. "We were able to go down and score, and Kaufman made a great play at the end. It was just one of those games where we had to find a way to win even though we went through some times where we weren't playing perfect football."
Hoffman's second pick came at the 2:58 mark, and Eastern's victory was sealed when holder Jeff Minnerly rushed for seven yards and a first down on a fake field goal attempt on fourth-and-four.
Currently, Eastern and Montana State are both 6-1 in the Big Sky standings, with both owning 8-2 records overall. The Bobcats travel to Missoula to play Montana on Nov. 20, and the Grizzlies are currently 5-2 in the league and 7-3 overall.
MORE GAME NOTES . . .
The lone common opponent for the Eagles and Thunderbirds this season had been Northern Arizona, a team SUU lost to 26-23 on Oct. 2 and EWU defeated Oct. 23 by a 21-14 score. Southern Utah won the Great West Conference title with a 4-0 mark, including a 20-7 victory over nationally-ranked Cal Poly.
The Eagles and Thunderbirds were just two of 13 FCS teams with a current streak of five-straight wins or better entering Saturday's contest. A year ago in Cedar City, Utah, Eastern had 608 yards of total offense as it turned a 28-7 advantage in the third quarter into a 41-28 victory.
Southern Utah, which was 0-11 just three years ago, had out-scored opponents 189-65 during its winning streak. Eastern has now out-scored its last six opponents 200-131.
Eastern Washington entered the SUU game ranked fifth nationally in the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision in takeaways with 25, but Southern Utah was the fourth-best school in fewest giveaways with just eight this season. The Thunderbirds featured the nation's eighth-best passing offense, averaging 282.3 yards per game, and were also 11th in total offense (425.8) and 24th in scoring (30.3). Eastern entered the game allowing 273.0 passing yards per game -- only two of 117 FCS teams have a higher average.
Southern Utah is also 18th in rushing defense (112.4 yards per game), and went against an Eagle team ranked 45th in rushing offense (161.6) and features All-American Taiwan Jones, who is fourth individually in rushing (134.8) and second in all-purpose yards (202.5).
Individually, SUU quarterback Brad Sorensen was sixth in FCS in passing efficiency (151.6) while ranking seventh in passing offense (272.9) and 11th in total offense (275.4). He entered the game completing 67 percent of his passes for 2,729 yards, 19 touchdowns and just four interceptions. Tysson Poots was fifth in receptions per game (7.7, total of 77) and third in receiving yards per game (112.1, total of 1,121) and had 10 receiving touchdowns.