Nov. 8, 2008
A spark is all it took.
Freshman redshirt Taiwan Jones returned the opening kickoff of the second half 93 yards for a touchdown and Eastern Washington University went on to a 31-16 Big Sky Conference football victory over Northern Colorado Saturday (Nov. 8) in Greeley, Colo.
Ahead just 7-6 at halftime, the return was the spark Eastern needed to build a 28-9 lead in the fourth quarter. Eastern's defense held the Bears out of the end zone for the first three quarters, led by the 15 tackles and interception by freshman redshirt linebacker Zach Johnson. His twin brother Matt Johnson added 12 stops.
Defensive end Greg Peach tied EWU's single season record with his 15th sack of the season, then broke it with his 16th in the fourth quarter. The Eagle defense held UNC to three field goals through the first 50 minutes of the game despite allowing 449 yards of offense in the game.
Offensively, Matt Nichols completed 19-of-26 passes for 243 yards and two touchdowns to Aaron Boyce. Eastern finished with 336 yards of offense, including 93 on the ground after a minus 31-yard total a week earlier in a 15-13 loss to Sacramento State.
"I was really proud of the guys," said Eastern head coach Beau Baldwin. "We missed on a few opportunities in the first half but we stayed with the plan. All three facets had a big impact in the second half -- special teams, defense and offense."
It was a game in which both teams were trying to heal some wounds caused by disappointing losses this season.
"It was a situation where our backs were against the wall and every one of our remaining games meant something," said Baldwin. "We showed that today's game really meant something to our players. They came out, played together and stayed together. I was proud of their effort."
The Eagles, now 4-5 on the season and 3-3 in the Big Sky Conference, need victories in their last two games to salvage the school's 11th winning season in the last 13 years. When the season began, Eastern was hoping for its fourth berth in the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision Playoffs in the last five years.
The Eagles had entered Saturday's game having lost three of their last four games to drop the Eagles from a top 11 ranking in the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision to elimination from the Big Sky title chase and playoff contention.
Northern Colorado, meanwhile, is now 1-5 in the Big Sky and 1-8 overall after a 1-11 finish last season and 1-10 mark in 2006. The last time Baldwin faced the Bears -- in 2006 when he was EWU's offensive coordinator -- Eastern recorded a 34-0 shutout of the Bears in Greeley.
The lone victory for the Bears this season was a 29-9 romp over winless Idaho State on Oct. 11. Northern Colorado's season has been punctuated by near-misses. Until it defeated ISU, the Bears had lost by three points to Texas State (38-35), three to Northern Arizona (25-22) and three to UC Davis (34-30) in games that came down to plays in the final seconds.
But Eastern's 14-0 advantage in the third quarter helped ensure that the game wouldn't come down to the final play this time. And Peach helped guarantee that with his two second half sacks.
The leader in the NCAA Football Championships Subdivision entering Saturday's game, Peach now has 33 1/2 sacks in his career. Earlier this season he broke the previous career record of 30 set by Frank Staudenraus (1982-85), who also previously held the single season record with 15 in 1985.
"I'm really proud of him and it's an honor to coach Greg," said Baldwin. "He's a hard worker and was a winner in high school playing for a state championship team. He's deserved every bit of it, and everything that has come to Greg he's earned. He deserves the records."
Eastern's defense has come a long way since giving up 623 passing yards and 597 total yards five games ago in a 47-36 loss at Portland State on Oct. 4. But in the four games since, the Eagles have surrendered just 67 points (16.8 per game), 999 passing yards (249.8) and 1,494 total yards (373.5).
"The defense has done a great job," said Baldwin, who is in his first season as head coach along with defensive coordinator John Graham. "They've found a way to get better and better. It takes time sometimes. It was the same players but it's a new system and new terminology. It's a group coming together and understanding what their roles are in each situation."
Eastern had just 21 offensive plays in the first half, compared to 35 for UNC as the Bears had an 18:17 to 11:43 advantage in time of possession. Northern Colorado also had a 158-128 advantage in total offense.
The Eagles scored first, driving 39 yards on six plays to score on a 17-yard pass from Nichols to fellow junior Boyce. It was the 20th touchdown catch for Boyce -- all of them from Nichols -- as he moved into a tie for fourth on EWU's career leaders list. Later, he caught his 21st for sole possession of fourth.
Northern Colorado, which converted 6-of-11 third downs in the first half, pulled to within 7-6 at halftime thanks to a pair of field goals by Michael York. He made a 21-yarder in the first quarter and a 34-yarder in the second.
But Jones gave Eastern its first special teams touchdown of the season with his 93-yard return, the longest of the season by far for the Eagles. A 39-yarder was EWU's longest before that, and Jones had a 36-yard return previously. Jones, a freshman redshirt who missed Eastern's first four games with a broken fibula, now has a 49.0 average in four kickoff returns this season.
On Eastern's first offensive possession of the third quarter, Nichols found Boyce for a 29-yard touchdown pass to cap a quick, four-play, 61-yard drive and give EWU a 21-6 lead. After a UNC field goal on the first play of the fourth quarter, Dale Morris put the Eagles up 28-9 with a 1-yard touchdown run. Felipe Macias closed EWU's scoring with a 35-yard field goal with 4:58 left.
The Eagles close the season against two of the Big Sky's top teams -- Northern Arizona at home on Nov. 15 and at Weber State on Nov. 22. Both the Lumberjacks and Wildcats were nationally-ranked and were 4-0 in the Big Sky before then 16th-ranked Weber State's surprisingly easy 42-14 victory at then 15th-ranked Northern Arizona on Oct. 25.