By Dave Cook
Special to College Sports Journal
This story is courtesy of Eastern Wahington athletics
FARGO, N.D. — The Eagles nearly pushed the Bison over the cliff.
Top-ranked and five-time defending national champion North Dakota State rallied in the final minutes and beat No. 8 Eastern Washington University 50-44 Saturday in overtime in a thrilling showdown in the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision at the Fargodome in Fargo, N.D.
Sophomore quarterback Gage Gubrud passed for 450 yards and four touchdowns, and rushed for 49 and a touchdown in a losing effort. He led the Eagles on four second-half scoring drives after Eastern lost senior Payton-Award-winning wide receiver Cooper Kupp for the game with a shoulder injury.
In Kupp’s place, sophomore receiver St Stiles caught eight passes for 169 yards and a touchdown. Two sophomore linebackers also filled in for injured starters, and Ketner Kupp and Kurt Calhoun combined for 21 tackles in their starting debuts.
“I’m just proud of our players, and I’m not caught up in the end result with how I feel about how these guys came in here and battled,” said Eastern head coach Beau Baldwin. “It was a game either team could have won and came down to the wire. Give them credit, they found a way to win. We’ll be back swinging next week.”
After trailing most of the game, Eastern took a 44-41 lead with 4:32 to play after a 53-yard drive. But NDSU came back to knot it with a field goal, and Eastern’s ordain Dascalo missed a 49-yarder that could have won it.
After North Dakota State intercepted a pass on the second play of overtime, a 25-yard run by Lance Dunn on the first play of the ensuing possession by the Bison ended the game.
It was the second consecutive overtime win at home for the Bison, who had never played an overtime game in the Fargodome before beating Charleston Southern two weeks ago in the FCS Kickoff Classic.
“From a broad perspective in how we competed, our attitude and our effort, I loved how it felt the entire game,” said Baldwin. “I know we got down 10, but we never rolled over. We kept fighting and threw punches on both sides of the ball. We got some key stops late and made some big plays to score some key points.”
* EWU, now 1-1, was coming off a hard-earned and emotional 45-42 victory over Washington State, a Pacific-12 Conference opponent which was coming off a nine-win season and a bowl victory. Thanks to a school record for total offense (551 yards) by Gubrad in his debut as EWU’s starting quarterback, and a record-setting day by reigning FCS Offensive Player of the Year Cooper Kupp, the Eagles rolled up 606 yards on the Cougars. And the defense did its part, holding WSU scoreless for a 31-minute span from the second to fourth quarters.
* Now 2-0, North Dakota State needed overtime to win its first game of the season, 24-17 over seventh-ranked Charleston Southern on Aug. 27 in the FCS Kickoff Classic.
What It Means
* The two teams which have combined to win the last six NCAA Football Championship Subdivision titles squared off in a game that will probably have FCS Playoff implications down the road.
* North Dakota State is the undisputed heavyweight of the FCS, having won the last five championships and 20-straight playoff games since EWU won the national title in 2010. In the quarterfinals of the FCS Playoffs that season, a late game-tying drive at EWU’s Roos Field led to a 38-31 victory in overtime for the Eagles. The last team to win the national title before NDSU and EWU was Villanova (2009), whose reign ended when the Wildcats fell to the Eagles the week after EWU beat NDSU.
* In the seventh meeting overall – but the first at Roos Field in Cheney, Wash., — the third-ranked Northern Iowa Panthers of the Missouri Valley Football Conference visit the Eagles of the Big Sky Conference Sept. 17 in EWU’s home opener. Kickoff at Roos Field on Fan Red Out/Welcome Back/Family Day is 4:05 p.m. Pacific time in a game televised regionally by SWX. Like the Eagles, the Panthers also picked up an impressive season-opening win over a FBS foe, winning 25-20 on the road at Iowa State on Sept. 3. UNI’s comeback bid at home against No. 14 Montana came up just short in a 20-14 loss on Saturday.
Keys to Game
* Injuries played a major factor for the Eagles. Eastern played without its two starting linebackers, senior Miquiyah Zamora (hamstring) and Alek Kacmarcik (concussion), and nose guard Matthew Sommer (knee) missed his second-straight game. Against NDSU, senior wide receiver Cooper Kupp (shoulder) and Cole Karstetter (Achilles) were lost for the game in the second half with injuries.
* Gubrud completed 28-of-40 passes for 450 yards and four touchdowns, and rushed for another 49 yards and a TD on 18 carries.
* Sophomore Stiles had his best game as an Eagle, finishing with eight catches for 169 yards and a touchdown, eclipsing his previous highs of three catches for 30 yards last season against Sacramento State. In fact, he entered the NDSU game with no catches on the season and just seven for 70 yards in his career.
* Senior wide receiver Kendrick Bourne had the sixth 100-yard receiving game of his career, finishing with eight receptions for 133 yards.
* Senior Cooper Kupp had a pair of touchdown catches in the first half, and finished with five catches for 62 yards.
* Senior safety Zach Bruce had a career-high 14 tackles, eclipsing his previous high of 10.
* Eastern had 556 yards of offense, and had scoring drives of 82, 75, 85, 75, 62 and 53 yards. Eastern had 450 passing yards, while the Bison finished with 280 on the ground and 257 through the air for a total of 537.
* Eastern’s defense held NDSU to single scores in the third and fourth quarters, and the EWU offense had back-to-back scores to take a 44-41 lead with 4:32 to play. But the Bison put together a 15-play, 71-yard drive to knot the score at 44 on a 28-yard field with 42 seconds remaining.
* Sophomore linebackers Ketner Kupp and Kurt Calhoun were forced to start their first games of their careers because of a pair of injuries to EWU’s starters. Kupp, the brother of Cooper Kupp, finished with eight tackles. Calhoun, whose brother Tim was a tight end for the Eagles (2002-06), had 13.
Milestones And Records
* Already the FCS leader in career touchdown receptions, Eastern’s Cooper Kupp equaled and then exceeded the FBS record as well on Saturday.
He had his 60th early in the second quarter to tie the mark of 60 set by Jarett Dillard of Rice from 2005-08, then had his 61st later in the quarter. He broke the FCS record for career TD catches with a three touchdown day at Washington State on Sept. 3, and is approaching two other all-time marks.
In just 41 career games, Kupp has 61 career touchdown receptions to break the previous FCS record of 58 set by New Hampshire’s David Ball from 2003-06. Kupp has now established eight FCS records, eight Big Sky Conference all-time marks and 18 school records.
He is also second in reception yards (5,032, 218 behind the record of 5,250 set by Elon’s Terrell Hudgins from 2006-09) and third in receptions (328, 67 behind the record of 395 set by Elon’s Terrell Hudgins from 2006-09).
* This week’s game at the Fargodome was EWU’s 56th all-time game in a dome, with a current record of 28-28. In the 2015 season, Eastern beat Idaho State 45-28 in Pocatello at Holt Arena.
Earlier, the Eagles fell 38-35 to Northern Iowa at the UNI-Dome in Cedar Falls, Iowa, where EWU is now winless. Until losing last in the final seconds at Northern Arizona in 2014, Eastern had won nine of its last 10 games in domes.
Eastern is 14-4 all-time at Idaho State’s Holt Arena, 9-7 at Northern Arizona’s Walkup Skydome, 4-8 at Idaho’s Kibbie Dome, 0-6 at Northern Iowa’s UNI-Dome, 0-1 at the Fargodome, 1-0 at North Dakota’s Alerus Center and 0-1 at South Dakota’s DakotaDome. Eastern also lost to Houston in 1992 at the Houston Astrodome.
* North Dakota State won in just the second meeting all-time between the two teams, the first coming in the 2010 NCAA Football Championship Subdivision Playoff quarterfinals on the way to the national title for the Eagles.
After struggling with five turnovers in the second half during a snowstorm, the Eagles put together a 13-play, 90-yard drive to knot the game with 23 seconds to play on a four-yard touchdown pass from Bo Levi Mitchell to Nicholas Edwards.
Mitchell, who was 13-of-32 for 141 yards, two interceptions and three touchdowns in the game, had entered that drive with just 38 yards passing. Mitchell now plays for the Calgary Stampeders in the Canadian Football League, while Edwards is currently EWU’s wide receivers coach.
The Bison have won the last five titles and 20 playoff games in a row since then, including a 130-36 scoring advantage in last year’s playoffs.
* The Bison are now 50-4 at home since 2010, have won 53-of-54 non-conference games at home with a current streak of 44 in a row since a 2003 loss to UC Davis and are 73-5 overall since 2011. North Dakota State is 8-3 against NCAA Football Bowl Division opponents, including a five-game winning streak they will take to Iowa on Sept. 17.
Head Coach Beau Baldwin Comments
On Narrow Loss: “I’m just proud of our players and I’m not caught up in the end result with how I feel about how these guys came in here and battled. It was a game either team could have won and came down to the wire. Give them credit, they found a way to win. We’ll be back swinging next week.”
On Game & Missed Field Goal: “I’m extremely proud. Sometimes you get caught up in the end result. It’s never one play that wins or loses you a ballgame. Even if we are in a situation where the field goal goes in, it doesn’t change the other 200 plays, counting special teams, that were in the game.”
On Playing Five-Time Champions: “Anytime you just play against great competition and against great players, it helps you as you go further in your season. That’s especially true with our non-conference schedule heading into our conference schedule, which is always tough. We can take a lot from this, and we will. Win or lose, you just have to continue to correct mistakes and look at things you did well at a really, really high level. Most of all, I’m proud of our players for competing like Warriors against a very good North Dakota State team. We were fighting back and fighting back all the way to take the lead in the fourth quarter.”
On Sophomores Filling in For Injured Players: “Those are things we’ve seen Stu do in practice and scrimmages, but he took it to another level on this stage. And Ketner and Kurt did a great job filling in for starters – that’s the guts of this team. We say ‘next man up’ as a mantra of our team, but our guys truly live it. They don’t panic in those moments. I’m proud of those guys, but there are many more players throughout our team who gave great effort today.”
On Team & Next Week: “I’m looking forward to moving forward with this group. No matter whether if we were 2-0, 0-2 or 1-1, we’d be taking the same approach next week against Northern Iowa. I’m just excited to move forward each week with this team.”