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Seeking ‘Red’emption: Eastern Washington focused on snapping home losing streak in FCS semifinals

UPDATED: Wed., Dec. 12, 2018, 7:07 p.m.

By Dan Thompson For The Spokesman-Review

Since the installation of “The Inferno,” as the red turf at Roos Field in Cheney is called, Eastern Washington has been one of the best FCS teams in the country.

Over those nine seasons, the Eagles have reached the playoffs six times, winning a national title and going 12-4 in the playoffs.

Since the turf was put down in 2010, the Eagles are 51-10 on it, including the 34-29 semifinal victory over UC Davis last Saturday.

In contrast, the Eagles are 38-19 away from Roos Field over that span.

“The Red is a special place,” coach Aaron Best said after the team’s dramatic comeback victory. “It’s an incredible venue and it’s fun to have. We’re unique, and we play unique football on there. We have unique outcomes when those playoff times come around.”

But not all those outcomes have favored the often-favored Eagles. They won the 2010 FCS title, but the Eagles have lost three semifinal games since – all on that red turf, either as the No. 2 or No. 3 seed in the playoffs.

Thanks to seventh-seeded Maine’s upset victory over second-seeded Weber State last Friday, the third-seeded Eagles get to host another semifinal Saturday at 11 a.m. EWU hopes that for the first time in eight years it will emerge with a victory and a spot in the national title game in Frisco, Texas.

“It’s awesome.” Best said of hosting. “That’s why you have the season you do to be able to have, hopefully, home-field advantage.”

Each previous semifinal loss contained plenty of drama and unique outcomes: a feverish Eagles comeback that fell short, a six-drive surge for the Eagles that gave them a lead they couldn’t hold, and a back-and-forth contest that got away from the Eagles in the final seconds of regulation.

Each was decided on the game’s final two drives.

2012: Sam Houston State 45, Eastern Washington 42

The Bearkats entered the 20-team playoff field unseeded and 8-3 overall, but two of those losses had come to FBS teams.

In the playoffs, they beat Cal Poly 18-16 in the first round and went to Bozeman and toppled No. 3 seed Montana State 34-16 in the quarterfinals.

The game in Cheney kicked off on a 32-degree Saturday afternoon, with a light breeze under cloudy skies.

The Bearkats chewed up the Eagles’ defense in the first half of the semifinal, taking a 35-0 lead and prompting coach Beau Baldwin to turn to redshirt freshman quarterback Vernon Adams.

All Adams did was lead the Eagles on four scoring drives, cutting the deficit to 35-28 early in the fourth quarter.

But the Bearkats finally answered with a touchdown and, after another Adams touchdown pass, a field goal that proved to be enough. They finished with 418 rushing yards and possessed the ball for 38 minutes, 21 seconds.

Adams completed 14 of 26 passes for 364 yards and six touchdowns.

2013: Towson 35, Eastern Washington 31

Towson, ranked seventh in the 24-team bracket, earned a first-round bye and dispatched Fordham 48-28 and upset second-seeded Eastern Illinois 49-39 in the quarterfinals.

That gave the third-seeded Eagles home-field advantage after they beat a pair of unseeded teams in the second round (South Dakota State, 41-17) and quarterfinals (Jacksonville State, 35-24).

Like the year before, Eastern Washington fell into a multitouchdown hole (21-0). But this time, on a foggy, 21-degree day, the Eagles recovered.

They scored 31 straight points, capped by an Adams-to-Cory Mitchell touchdown pass with 11:55 to go in the game.

But the Eagles gained just 38 yards the rest of the game, and Towson stormed back with two touchdowns to win its 13th game of the season. Towson lost the title game 35-7 to North Dakota State.

2016: Youngstown State 40, Eastern Washington 38

Three years later, on the coldest Eagles game day, Eastern lost its most heartbreaking semifinal yet.

Youngstown State won three playoff games to get to the semis, beating Samford, third-seeded Jacksonville State and Wofford on its way to Cheney.

Eastern (the No. 2 seed) was coming off a 38-0 quarterfinal win over Richmond and a 31-14 victory over Central Arkansas the previous week.

Unlike the previous two semifinals, the Eagles kept it close from the start and held a 31-20 lead midway through the third quarter after Gage Gubrud found Shaq Hill for an 18-yard touchdown.

But YSU scored three touchdowns in the fourth quarter, including Kevin Rader’s 5-yard touchdown reception with 1 second left, handing the Eagles a 40-38 defeat in Baldwin’s final game as their head coach.

Youngstown State held the ball for 39 minutes, 20 seconds, including nearly 24 of the 30 minutes after halftime.

The Penguins lost the national title game to James Madison, which remains the only team other than North Dakota State to win an FCS title since Eastern’s championship in 2010.

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