December 1, 2007

Eastern Can't Stop Appalachian State and Falls 38-35

Dec. 1, 2007

Final Stats

The Eagles provided some thunder, but two-time defending champion Appalachian State had way too much lightning.

Sophomore quarterback Armanti Edwards rushed for 126 yards for a touchdown and passed for 221 yards and two scores as the Eastern Washington University football team saw its season come to a close Saturday (Dec. 1) with a 38-35 loss to Appalachian State in a quarterfinal game in the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision Playoffs at Kidd Brewer Stadium in Boone, N.C.

The fifth-ranked Mountaineers finished with 529 yards of total offense and had scoring drives of 95, 71, 86, 60 and 61 yards before taking advantage of an EWU fumble to score a touchdown and take a 17-point advantage with 6:07 to play. Eastern, ranked 14th in the nation, rallied late and finished with 368 yards of offense. But after falling behind 14-0, EWU needed a pair of long kickoff returns and a fake punt for a touchdown to stay within striking distance of ASU.

Appalachian State now advances to the semifinals where it will host the winner of the Richmond versus Wofford game. A year after going just 3-8, the Eagles finished the 2007 season 9-4. The Mountaineers are 11-2 after the first-ever meeting between the two schools and EWU's inaugural game against a member of the powerful Southern Conference.

"This was a great team," said Eagle head coach Paul Wulff of his squad, including 12 seniors who played in their final game for EWU. "This was the best we've ever played based on how we came together as a team. They were so consistent. I don't know if I could have had more fun as a coach. This was a great, great group, especially our seniors. This was the best senior group I've ever been around."

Edwards entered the game as a huge offensive threat, having rushed for 1,060 yards and 16 touchdowns and passing for 1,347 yards and nine touchdowns. His 23 rushes and 22 passes against accounted for 45 of the 82 plays the Mountaineers ran on offense.

Despite the number of yards ASU piled up, Eastern made key several stops that helped get the ball back for EWU's offense. Eastern played the game without starting linebacker Makai Borden, who was unable to play because of a stress fracture in his foot.

"That's been our philosophy most of the year," Wulff said of his team's bend-but-don't break defense. "We were a little short-handed without Makai, but our kids played hard and did what they had to do."

But the only statistic Wulff cared about was turnovers. Eastern had three compared to none for Appalachian State. One of EWU's fumbles came at the ASU 2-yard line in the second quarter as Eastern was driving for a potential game-tying score.

"We can't come into their place and play like this and expect to win," said Wulff, whose team entered the game ranked 13th in FCS in turnover margin with a plus 15 for the season. "You can't turn the ball over like that and win a ballgame."

Eastern's own sophomore quarterback, Matt Nichols, struggled all day against a veteran Appalachian State secondary. He completed just 24-of-42 passes for 185 yards, two touchdowns and one interception that came during a four-possession scoreless stretch in the second half for EWU.

In his last three games alone, Nichols had averaged 394 yards of total offense per game with 11 touchdown passes and a 180.4 passing efficiency rating. For the season, the Big Sky Conference Offensive Player of the Year finished with 3,744 passing yards and 4,136 yards of total offense to rank second in school history in both categories, as well as school records with 34 touchdowns and 280 completions.

"They did a nice job against us, but we didn't execute very well either," said Wulff. "It wasn't a great day for us."

"We couldn't get into any rhythm and that's a tribute to them," he added. "It was a tough game back-and-forth, but there wasn't enough consistency for us."

Junior Dale Morris rushed for 69 yards and a touchdown for the Eagles, and sophomore Aaron Boyce was the team's leading receiver with five catches for 37 yards and a score. Sophomore free safety Kevin Hatch had 15 tackles for Eastern, and senior linebacker Jared Kuhl closed his career with nine tackles and a sack.

But Eastern's special teams were the most productive, with Nicholas Ramos returning three kickoffs for 155 yards, including an 82-yard return that set-up Eastern's first points in the game. A.J. Jimerson returned a kickoff 78 yards for a score -- Eastern's first kickoff return for a touchdown since the 2001 season. In addition, Bryan Jarrett scored on a 51-yard run on a fake punt in the third quarter.

"Our special teams were good and that was encouraging," Wulff said. "Special teams kept us in the game, obviously. We had some big plays."

"They gave us a spark too," he added. "But at the same time, as we were scoring on special teams our offense was on the sideline and our defense was getting tired. That was a problem. It wasn't anybody's fault, it's just how it works. Our offense didn't get in any rhythm in the third quarter because they weren't on the field except for a few plays."

Appalachian State jumped out to a 14-0 lead on drives of 85 and 71 yards, with Edwards rushing for a score and passing for a TD.

It took Ramos -- Eastern's smallest player at 5-foot-7, 155-pounds -- to jumpstart Eastern on the ensuing kickoff. His 82-yard return took the ball to the ASU 14, where two plays later, Nichols found Boyce for a 7-yard touchdown.

After forcing a Mountaineer punt, the Eagles drove down the field, and a 26-yard pass from Nichols to Nathan Overbay gave EWU a first-and-goal at the ASU 2-yard line. But a botched exchange from Nichols to Morris was recovered by Appalachian State with 4:45 left in the half.

The Mountaineers capitalized on the momentum shift, driving 86 yards on 14 plays to score on another touchdown pass by Edwards. The drive took 4:20 off the clock as the Mountaineers took a 21-7 advantage at halftime.

Eastern's non-scoring. 69-yard drive was its longest of the first half as the Eagles were out-gained in total offense 311-139. Morris had 55 yards rushing and Nichols passed for 61, but Edwards was the top offensive player on the field with 154 first-half passing yards on 9-of-9 passing and another 78 rushing.

Eastern scored on its first possession of the second half, but it took an ASU penalty and a fake punt to accomplish that. The Eagles were forced to punt, but a 5-yard running into the punter penalty allowed Eastern to punt again. But this time, the Eagles snapped the ball directly to Jarrett who went through a huge hole and then powered his way for a touchdown.

After an Appalachian State field goal, Eastern's struck again on a kickoff return. Instead of booting the ball deep to Ramos, the Mountaineers kicked it short to Jimerson, who surged through a hole and went down the sideline for a 78-yard touchdown that helped bring EWU to within 24-21 with 5:45 left in the third quarter.

But Eastern couldn't stop ASU, and the Mountaineers followed with a 61-yard touchdown drive to regain a 31-21 advantage. On Eastern's first play following a 39-yard kickoff return by Ramos, Nichols threw an interception on his first pass -- the first of four empty possessions by the Eastern offense.

The fourth empty possession was a fumble by Nichols that resulted in an ASU touchdown to give the Mountaineers a 38-21 advantage with 6:07 left in the game. Eastern followed that with a 65-yard drive, capped by a 1-yard touchdown run by Morris, then scored again with 28 seconds to play on Matt Martin's 2-yard pass from Nichols. Appalachian State recovered onside kickoffs after both of Eastern's TD's to preserve the win.

Eastern had advanced in the playoffs with a convincing 44-15 win at previously unbeaten and second-seeded McNeese State. The 14th-ranked Eagles doubled the offensive output of the third-ranked Cowboys as EWU finished with 626 yards -- sixth best in school history -- while holding MSU to 312.

Meanwhile, the Mountaineers scored with just over a minute to play to defeat James Madison 28-27 in their first-round game. Ranked fifth in FCS, Appalachian State upset Michigan 34-32 to open the season.

The Mountaineers defeated Northern Arizona 34-21 on Sept. 15, just two weeks after knocking off the Wolverines. Eastern blasted NAU 52-24 on Nov. 10 as part of EWU's five-game winning streak that was ended with the loss to Appalachian State.

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