Eastern Holds Off No. 8 Weber State 33-26
Nov. 22, 2008
For 38 minutes, Eastern Washington University showed why it had entered the season as the eighth-ranked team in the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision.
For the next seven minutes, Weber State showed why it’s currently ranked eighth in the FCS and won the regular season Big Sky Conference title.
But for the final 15 minutes, the Eagles simply survived for a season-ending 33-26 victory over Weber State Saturday (Nov. 22) at Elizabeth Dee Shaw Stewart Stadium in Ogden, Utah. Eastern built a 33-7 lead with 6:54 left in the third quarter, then held the Wildcats scoreless in the final period to finish the year with its 11th winning season in the last 13 seasons.
"We came out today and played the best team in the conference on the road and came right at them," said Eagle head coach Beau Baldwin, who concluded his first year at the helm with a three-game winning streak. "I was proud of the attitude our players had all the way back to the practices they had this week. It means a lot to finish with a victory -- it was a special game."
Eastern’s Greg Peach, a candidate for the Buck Buchanan Award given to the top defensive player in FCS, recovered a fumble with 1:02 left to clinch the win for EWU. Peach did not get a sack as he finished the year with 18, but the Eagles ended the regular season with a victory for the 12th time in the last 14 seasons. He joined 17 other Eastern seniors in ending the season on a high note.
"It was a dogfight and you knew they were going to make some plays too," said Baldwin of WSU’s comeback from the 26-point deficit. "But our players were able to keep making plays and it was exciting and fitting to see Greg Peach fall on that last fumble."
The Wildcats entered the game having already clinched at least a share of the Big Sky title and assured themselves the league’s automatic berth in the FCS Playoffs. But Saturday’s loss, coupled with Montana’s victory over Montana State, also gave the Grizzlies a share of the league title. It was the 11th-straight season UM has won or shared the Big Sky title.
Montana and Weber State both finished with a 7-1 Big Sky record, with fifth-ranked Montana entering the FCS Playoffs 11-1 and the Wildcats entering 9-3 overall. The Eagles finished their season 6-5 overall and 5-3 in the Big Sky to finish third.
"I said before the season I thought we were the best team (in the Big Sky) and I still think we’re the best," said senior Alexis Alexander, who played in just the first half because of an ankle injury and closed his career with 44 yards on seven carries. "We had our ups and downs this season, but it feels good to finish strong. We had so much fun and our team came together in such a great way at the end of the season."
Eastern junior quarterback Matt Nichols completed 17-of-33 passes for 242 yards and a pair of touchdowns, and also rushed for a team-leading 71 yards. The Eagles finished with 208 yards on the ground -- second only to this season to the 225 they had versus Western Washington. Junior wide receiver Aaron Boyce had a pair of touchdown catches as he finished with six grabs for 108 yards.
The Eagles had 450 yards of total offense, and converted 12-of-21 third downs in the game. Weber State, which scored 19 of its points in a 6:06 span in the third quarter, finished with 456 yards but was just 3-of-8 on third down and had five total turnovers to EWU’s one.
The Eagles intercepted Weber State quarterback Cameron Higgins four times after he had entered the game with just eight for the season. Two of EWU’s interceptions were by senior Marcus Walker from Pullman, Wash., and sophomore Kevin Hatch from Freeman, Wash., returned a pick 73 yards for a score. The fourth was by freshman Matt Johnson -- his fourth of the season.
Eastern’s defense had held its last five opponents to 19 points or fewer, which was something that EWU has not done since becoming a member of the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision in 1984. Although the Eagles surrendered 26 points against WSU, they ended the season with six-straight games of allowing 26 or fewer after a 47-36 loss at Portland State.
"The defense went out there to win the ballgame," said Baldwin. "They made so many plays and strides since the Portland State game, and made a lot today. I was so proud of them."
Eastern scored on its first two possessions while Weber State had a three-and-out on its first possession as EWU jumped out to a quick 14-0 lead.
The Eagles opened the game with an 11-play, 79-yard drive, capped by a 2-yard run by senior Alexander. The Eagles followed with a 47-yard march on just six plays, with Boyce catching a 41-yard touchdown pass from Nichols.
Eastern added two field goals after drives of 71 and 67 yards in the second quarter. Senior Felipe Macias made a 26-yarder before kicking a 31-yarder with three seconds left to give the Eagles a 20-7 lead at intermission.
The Wildcats scored in the first half on a nine-play, 90-yard drive, but had two other drives stopped by interceptions when WSU had the ball inside the EWU 20-yard line both possessions. The first ended on an interception by Walker on a tipped pass by freshman Zach Johnson, and the second came with just 1:06 left in the half on a pick by Matt Johnson.
Eastern dominated in the first half with 291 total yards to Weber State’s 172. Nichols completed 11-of-22 passes for 173 yards and the Eagles converted 9-of-11 third downs.
The Eagles struck first in the second half when Hatch intercepted an overthrown ball and returned it 73 yards for a touchdown to give EWU a 27-7 lead just 1:03 into the third quarter.
After Walker’s second interception of the game at the Eastern 4-yard line, the Eagles marched 96 yards on nine plays, with Nichols finding Boyce for a 33-yard score to give the Eagles a 33-7 lead with 6:54 left in the quarter.
But Weber State struck fast after that, needing just 10 plays and 2:37 to drive 170 yards and score 19 unanswered points in the third quarter. Trevyn Smith, who finished with 157 yards rushing for WSU, scored twice on runs and once on a pass as the Wildcats pulled to within 33-26 on the final play of the period.
Eastern had only 45 yards of offense in the final period, but did pick up five first downs. Two of them came on a drive late in the game as they took 3:29 off the clock. Most importantly, the Eastern defense slowed the Wildcats down as Weber State managed only 58 yards and first downs in the fourth.