The Eastern Washington players and coaches showed it again Saturday night: their comfort zone rests firmly on an easy chair at the edge of a cliff.
How else to explain the Eagles’ third straight cliffhanger, a 34-30 win over Northern Iowa that was seemingly conjured out of the winds at Roos Field?
Let’s see … your All-America wide receiver is out with a shoulder sprain, your quarterback is struggling behind an overmatched line and your defense spends an entire half chasing down the most athletic quarterback it’s seen in years.
And you’re down 24-7 at halftime. So what?
Coach Beau Baldwin considered the question after the Eagles improved to 2-1 against the toughest non-conference schedule in school history.
“Seventeen points is 17 points,” Baldwin said. “We don’t get caught up in that.”
However, the fans – 9,111 of them – were understandably caught up after a first half that reminded them more of last November’s slide than the recent win at Washington State and the near-miss at North Dakota State.
Then the light switch was flipped by true freshman running back Antoine Custer Jr., who returned the second-half kickoff 93 yards and electrified the crowd and the Eagles defense.
Pushed around for 30 minutes by UNI quarterback Aaron Bailey, the Eagles responded with a few adjustments, but mostly some ferocity.
“That wasn’t us in the first half,” defensive end Samson Ebukam said. “We were more intense, and we stuck to our techniques.”
The result: four straight three-and-outs. A Northern Iowa offense that gained 257 yards in the first half managed just 9 yards in the third quarter.
“We had to find a way to be better; I felt like we were getting beat in all facets of the game,” Baldwin said. “When you are in a fight and you’re getting beat up, you either keep getting beat up or you fight back.”
Down 24-14 but with some momentum, the Eagles promptly handed it right back, as starting quarterback Gage Gubrud threw his second interception, this one straight to UNI lineman Karter Schult.
Given a reprieve in the form of a missed Panthers field goal, the Eagles went three and out again, still trailing by 10 midway through the third quarter.
With Gubrud struggling, Baldwin went to backup Reilly Hennessey, who quickly found his rhythm and brought the Eagles back from the brink without the services of All-America wide receiver Cooper Kupp.
As Kupp watched from the sideline, Hennessey took the Eagles to a 28-24 lead on touchdown passes to Kendrick Bourne and Stu Stiles.
“Reilly definitely stepped up,” said Bourne, who had 152 receiving yards on a career-high-tying 10 receptions. “We know we can win with any quarterback, but we can’t wait to have ‘Coop’ back.”
The Panthers (1-2) came alive in the fourth quarter, but had to settle for field goals against an EWU defense that held the visitors to 5-of-17 on third down.
Eastern’s lead was whittled to 28-27 on Matt Easley’s 36-yard field goal with 11:12 to play. Facing the wind in the fourth quarter, the Eagles began to struggle on offense, while Bailey led UNI downfield again.
UNI took a 30-28 lead on Easley’s 49-yarder with 4:13 to play, but Hennessey led the Eagles on a game-winning drive that ended in his 23-yard touchdown pass to tight end Beau Byus on a fake field goal play.
“It’s a huge win. I’m not into moral victories, but through this schedule, to be 2-1 is an indication we’ve done a lot of good things,” Baldwin said.
“Now, we also have some things we have to continue to correct and find ways to grow as a team. We’re going to keep grinding and fighting, and I’m happy with the fact we can learn off a win against a very good ball team,” Baldwin said.
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