DAVIS, California – Fans said it all week: this was a trap game.
Sure enough, Eastern Washington almost fell in.
UC Davis rolled up 551 yards of offense and led by two scores early in the fourth quarter, but the Eagles rallied for a 41-38 Big Sky Conference win at Aggie Stadium.
“We are a team that responds and we handle adversity really well,” EWU coach Aaron Best said. “UC Davis played a heckuva game and they are a heckuva team. We just happened to make one more play than they did.”
In this case, that was Gage Gubrud’s 7-yard touchdown pass to Nic Sblendorio with one minute, 37 seconds to play, capping a 75-yard drive.
How much fun was that?
“I don’t know if fun is the right word,” Best said. “I’ll tell you what, I’m 39 going on 69. But if I’m going to do it I’m going to do it with this bunch.”
And it still wasn’t over. UC Davis drove to the Eastern 33 in the final second but missed a 49-yard field goal with 15 seconds left to keep the 10th-ranked Eagles atop the Big Sky standings at 3-0.
The game followed the usual script in a series that has gone Eastern’s way in all six meetings: the Eagles get a solid start, then fall into the rabbit hole before emerging and winning going away in the second half.
This time, the Eagles waited until the final two minutes to pull it out.
“At the end of the day (we won with) guts,” Best said. There were a lot of legitimate guts we played with today. We played a few men down during the game, but nobody batted an eye. That’s who we are and that’s who we will continue to be.”
Once again, the Eagles thrived in adversity. Trailing 14-13 at intermission, they fell deeper into the hole before rallying.
Eastern missed a great chance on its second play after intermission, as Talolo Limu-Jones couldn’t hold on to Gubrud’s deep throw on the right sideline.
After an exchange of punts, UC Davis used a halfback pass that netted 24 yards to the EWU 16. On the next play, Jake Maier hit a diving Keelan Doss for the score and a 21-13 Aggie lead.
With the urgency imposed by an eight-point deficit, the Eagles responded with an 11-play, 75-yard drive that included two third-down conversions and a 14-yard TD completion to Limu-Jones.
In past meetings, this was the moment when the Aggies would fold. No this time. Davis came back with a 73-yard drive to restore the 8-point lead in the final seconds of the third quarter.
Disaster struck on Eastern’s next possession, as Gubrud’s deep pass to Zach Eagle was picked off and returned to the Eastern 20.
The Eagles held the damage to a 26-yard field goal by Max O’Rourke, but found themselves in a two-score hole for the first time.
The Eagles climbed out of that hole in 10 seconds – the time it took northern California native Nsimba Webster to take a short pass over the middle and go 71 yards for a touchdown.
The two-point conversion pass was incomplete, leaving the Eagles down 31-26 with 11 minutes left.
By this point, momentum was wearing white. Eastern’s defense forced another three-and-out, and the Eagles got the ball at midfield after a short punt.
Eastern needed just four plays to take the lead, starting with Gubrud’s 46-yard throw to Limu-Jones to the UCD 9. Three plays later, they connected again for a 6-yard touchdown to give the Eagles their first lead since the first quarter.
The Eagles went for two again, and this time were successful, as Gubrud threaded the ball past two defenders and into the hands of Webster to give the Eagles a 34-31 lead with 9:17 to play.
The Aggies didn’t fold, marching 76 yards for the go-ahead score with 4:50 left. They were aided by a facemask penalty on EWU linebacker Kurt Calhoun, but the big play was a 14-yard sideline completion to Doss that set up C.J. Spencer’s 10-yard scoring run.
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