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Eagles Remain Undefeated In Big Sky

Cooper Kupp and the Eagles can't be held back this season. Cooper Kupp and the Eagles can't be held back this season.

by Eastern Washington Athletics

The Eastern Washington University football team had plenty of options of its own.

The Eagle defense held the nation’s top rushing team in the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision to three points through the first three quarters and Cooper Kupp set a pair of FCS receiving records, as the Eagles bested the option offense of Cal Poly 35-22 Saturday, Nov. 16, in San Luis Obispo, Calif.

Eastern wrapped up at least a share of its seventh Big Sky Conference title in school history with the victory. The Eagles shared the title with Cal Poly and Montana State last year, and have also won league titles in 1992, 1997, 2004, 2005 and 2010. It was Eastern’s third in the last four years (2010, 2012, 2013).

“It’s hard to win one Big Sky title let alone three out of the last four years,” said Eastern head coach Beau Baldwin. “That’s amazing and I’m just proud of all the people who are a part of making that happen.”

The Eagles are 9-2 overall and a perfect 7-0 in Big Sky Conference play for the first time in school history. Eastern hasn’t lost since falling at Sam Houston State 49-34 on Sept. 28 and are ranked third in The Sports Network FCS Top-25 Poll for the fourth-straight week.

Eastern closes the regular season with Senior Day/Military Appreciation Day at Roos Field versus Portland State on Nov. 23 at 2:45 p.m. on ROOT Sports. Playoff pairings are announced the following day at 8 a.m. Pacific time on ESPNU.

Eastern out-gained Cal Poly 486-437 in the game, including 415-146 in the middle two quarters. After a 44-yard drive for a game-opening field goal, in their next six possessions, the Mustangs managed no drive of longer than six plays or 54 yards. Meanwhile, EWU took a 35-3 lead.

“Our defense got better as it went along,” said Baldwin. “Coach John Graham, his staff and his players did an outstanding job. They only had three on the board through the first three quarters – that’s an amazing job against that outfit. We got into a little bit of a grind, and because the defense was doing what they were doing early in the game, they kept us from going down. If they weren’t playing their best football, we would have gone behind. We weren’t scoring a lot until we hit the TD at the end of the second quarter. Our defense’s effort was big all day against a great offense like Cal Poly.”

Kupp caught eight passes for 139 yards and a pair of touchdowns as he equaled the FCS record for most consecutive games with a TD catch of 11. He now shares the record with Randy Moss from Marshall in 1996, Cal Poly’s Ramses Barden in 2008 and EWU’s Brandon Kaufman in 2010. Now is now third in school history with a season total of 16, ranking only behind the school record of 19 shared by Nicholas Edwards in 2011 and Eric Kimble, 2004. The record for most touchdowns by a freshman is held by Moss with 19 in 1996.

He also broke the FCS record for receiving yards by a freshman, and now has 1,231 yards for the season on 68 catches. The old record was 1,196 set by Sean Price of Appalachian State in 2012

“’He’s obviously really talented, but on top of that he maximizes his talent and opportunities,” said Baldwin of the Jerry Rice Award candidate. “He deserves it because of how hard he works at it. He does all the little things to put himself in position to break those records. He’s always making huge plays – it’s constant.”

Sophomore quarterback Vernon Adams completed 14-of-21 for 224 yards and a pair of touchdowns, but left the game with a shoulder injury suffered on a third-quarter TD pass. The two TD passes by Adams were his 40th and 41st of the season, moving him into ninth in FCS history and just one away from the Big Sky Conference record of 42. Jimmy Garoppolo from Eastern Illinois had two on Saturday, giving him 42 and moving him into seventh in FCS history.

“It was a stinger, but he’ll be fine,” said Baldwin of Adams, his Walter Payton Award candidate. “He might have been able to play, but we just thought we would do the smart thing moving forward. Honestly, we didn’t change a lot of what we were doing with Anthony. He went in there slinging it and he was just fine.”

Senior Anthony Vitto replaced him and completed 14-of-21 passes for 127 yards and a TD.

“There are a lot of schools in the country where he would be a starter,” said Baldwin. “I know it’s hard on him sometimes because he wants to play. When he has the opportunities like this, he’s making the most of them. You see it at Oregon State, you saw it last week against Montana State and you definitely saw it in a big way today. I’m really proud of him and we’re lucky to have a player as a backup to Vernon that has the ability as a starter.”

Senior linebacker and Buck Buchanan Award candidate Ronnie Hamlin led the Eagles with 10 tackles, and senior Bo Schuetzle had the first two interceptions of his career to go along with a pair of tackles. Senior Ronald Baines also had an interception, the third of his career.

The triple-option attack of Cal Poly went into the game averaging 308.6 rushing yards per game to lead FCS, and had 424 in an easy 42-7 home win over Sacramento State last week. Cal Poly had also entered the game ranked 34th in FCS in total defense (350.0 per game) and 16th in scoring defense (21.0).

“They’ve given up only 10 points per game lately, so points have not been easy no matter who they’ve played,” said Baldwin. “We knew it might not be real easy. We were able to click and get going. They made it interesting at the end – we just need to make a few more plays in the fourth to close it out. At the end of the day we had a 35-3 lead heading into the fourth quarter, and that was huge.”

Eastern fell behind 3-0 and went scoreless on its first two possessions after not even having to punt a week ago in a 54-29 win over Montana State. Eastern didn’t score in the first quarter for the second time this season, having also fell behind 3-0 against North Dakota in what was eventually a 35-14 victory.

But Eastern scored twice in the second quarter on drives of 96 and 70 yards. Forte popped a 37-yard TD run on a Cal Poly blitz for EWU’s first score, then Kupp gathered in a 32-yard pass from Adams with just 1:17 before halftime. Eastern had only 27 yards in the first 15 minutes, but out-gained the Mustangs 198-69 in the second quarter.

Eastern got the ball to start the second half, and the Eagles capitalized with a 65-yard drive. Adams capped the drive with a 24-yard TD pass to Kupp on yet another blitz by Cal Poly.

Adams tweaked his shoulder on the TD catch to Hill, and he was replaced by Vitto, one of a number of Eagles returning to their home state of California. On his fifth play in the game, the found Shaq Hill down the sideline for a 54-yard TD pass and a 28-3 EWU lead with 7:19 left in the third quarter.

A Mario Brown 34-yard run with 3:37 left in the third quarter closed out the scoring for the Eagles. Cal Poly scored three fourth-quarter touchdowns to make the score close.