Two long runs in the first half help him to a 199-yard day as Eastern takes over sole possession of first place in the Big Sky standings
Lately, it’s been how well you finish rather than how well you start. This start was way too much to overcome.
Junior running back Taiwan Jones rushed for 196 yards and three touchdowns in the first half alone, then Eastern took care of business in the second half as eighth-ranked Eastern Washington University defeated Portland State 50-17 in a Big Sky Conference football game Saturday (Oct. 30) at Hillsboro Stadium in Hillsboro, Ore.
The victory secured sole possession of first place in the league standings for the Eagles, who are now 7-2 overall. Thanks to Weber State’s 30-21 victory over Montana, Eastern is alone atop the Big Sky standings with a 6-1 record, with Montana State 5-1 and UM 5-2.
“It’s huge,” said Eastern head coach Beau Baldwin, whose team has a bye next week before hosting Southern Utah on Nov. 13. “Our staff has done a great job and our players are battling every day. They have earned it and they deserve it. But by no means are we done. Our players will enjoy this, but they’ll be back working hard the next two weeks preparing for a very good Southern Utah team.”
Eastern had needed to come up with a huge defensive stops and offensive scores in the final minute to win its last two games over un-ranked opponents -- 28-24 over Sacramento State last week and 35-28 at Northern Colorado a week earlier.
“The team practiced well all week and we keep believing,” said Baldwin. “From the outside sometimes, the thought is it was going to catch-up with us sometime. But we always felt optimistic that we were going to finally play that complete game and peak late in the year. It was a good time to play our complete game. Now we have to try to keep that consistency going into our next game.”
Eastern finished with a season-high 523 yards of offense, and at one point had a 183-5 advantage over the Vikings en route to jumping out to a 14-0 lead. Portland State finished with 452 yards as it fell to 2-6 overall and 1-4 in the Big Sky.
But the biggest total was the point total -- a season-high for the Eagles by 14 -- as the Eagles played well in all facets of the game.
“We hadn’t put up a solid number of points yet this season,” Baldwin said. “Our players took on that challenge as an offense and went after it. But we still want to find a way to run the ball a little better in the fourth quarter.”
Jones had a 71-yard TD that put him over the 100-yard mark for the 11th time in his 20-game career as an Eastern running back, including his 12th career play of at least 70 yards. He added a 65-yarder a few minutes later as he averaged 15.3 yards on 13 carries in the first half.
The Walter Payton Award candidate carried just once in the second half and finished with 199 yards. He now has 1,118 yards this season, becoming EWU’s 15th 1,000-yard rushing performance in school history, including 11 in the last 16 seasons (1995-2010).
Couple with three receptions for 62 yards, he had 261 yards of all-purpose yards on just 17 touches (15.4 yards per touch). It was his 10th career performance of 200 or more yards.
Quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell added 231 yards and two touchdowns through the air, finishing 13-of-23 with no interceptions. He now has 19 touchdown passes this season. Freshman redshirt tight end Zack Gehring finished with a team-high 123 yards on three receptions with a 70-yard touchdown.
Buck Buchanan Award candidate J.C. Sherritt had 15 tackles, giving him 106 this season and 362 in his career. The senior strong-side inside linebacker needs 38 more tackles to break the school record of 399 held by Greg Belzer (1997-2000).
“Assignment-wise, execution-wise and players knowing understanding what they had to do in each situation,” added Baldwin. “I never thought there was any confusion based on what Portland State was doing. Our team had a good week of film study and preparation, and it showed on the field. All three units -- offense, defense and special teams -- were really prepared to make plays mentally and they came out and executed it. When you prepare like that, it allows you to play at that high speed.”
The Eagles scored on their first possession on a seven-play, 66-yard drive, capped by a 2-yard run by Jones. Later in the half, Eastern scored again on a 76-yard drive on just five plays, including a 20-yard touchdown pass from Mitchell to Ashton Gant.
After a PSU field goal, Jones scored his two long runs to put EWU up 28-3 with 4:07 left in the half. After leading 28-10 at intermission, the Eagles turned a blocked punt by Grant Williams into a recovery for a touchdown by T.J. Lee to increase the advantage to 18.
Eastern scored the next 10 points on a 44-yard field goal by Kevin Miller, and a 15-yard touchdown pass from Mitchell to Brandon Kaufman. The touchdown came following an interception and 49-yard return by Will Edge. Eastern closed its scoring with a 70-yard touchdown pass from Nick Gauthier to Gehring.
Following a bye week, the Eagles return home to Roos Field for their final two home games of the season. After a non-league game versus Southern Utah on Nov. 13, Eastern closes the regular season versus Idaho State on Nov. 20. Both games begin at 1:05 p.m. Pacific time.
The Eagles, ranked eighth in this week’s Sports Network/Fathead.com top 25 NCAA Football Championship Subdivision poll, are off to their best start since winning the Big Sky Conference title in 1997 as the Eagles were the last team other than Montana to win the league title outright. Eastern’s 5-1 league mark is its best six-game start since 2004. Eastern finished the 1997 regular season 10-1 overall and 7-1 in the league before advancing to the semifinals of the FCS Playoffs. Eastern was 6-1 in the league and 8-3 in the regular season in 2004 when EWU advanced to the quarterfinals of the playoffs.
Last season at Seattle’s Qwest Field, Eastern had a 545-278 advantage in total offense in a 47-10 romp over the Vikings. But the previous season in 2008, the Vikings passed for 623 yards and five touchdowns in a 47-36 Portland State win.