CHENEY, Wash – Trailing 21-14, Eastern Washington scored twice within a less than three minute span to pull ahead and ultimately prevail 34-29 over Big Sky conferencemate UC Davis in a frenzied fourth quarter of FCS Playoff action.
“I can’t say enough about this team,” said EWU head coach Aaron Best, who achieved his second victory as a head coach and 17th playoff win as an Eagle. “It’s incredible to be at my alma mater and do win this in front of our home fans. This was an impressive win and I’m a proud dad, friend and coach of all 105 players and our staff.”
It didn’t seem like it was going to be Eastern Washington’s day after the UC Davis defense would hold the Eagles to 14 points while scoring 21 of their own, thanks to a couply of touchdown runs by RB Ulonzo Gilliam and a touchdown toss from QB Jake Meier to freshman WR Lance Babb II.
But Eastern forced UC Davis to punt on five-straight possessions late in the game, holding the Aggies to 1-of-6 on third down.
Trailing 21-14 entering the fourth quarter, Eastern went on an eight-play, 82-yard drive that was capped by a 5-yard TD run by Eric Barriere, and featured a 33-yard pass by Sam McPherson to Dennis Merritt. Eastern then took a 28-21 lead on a 7-yard TD pass from Barriere to Nsimba Webster to cap a two-play, 62-yard drive.
“We all believed in each other,” Barriere said afterwards. “Before, we huddled up and told everyone what they were supposed to do. We knew if we executed, it would turn out okay. Everyone believed in each other, did our job and we came out on top.”
After UC Davis went on a seven-play, 42-yard drive to pull within one, the Aggies took a 29-28 lead with a successful two-point conversion with 1:13 left. Eastern, though, needed just four plays to take the lead back, starting with a 29-yard run by Eric Barriere. A pass for 10 yards to Nsimba Webster gave EWU another first down, then Sam McPherson went around the left end for the final 35 and a TD with 26 seconds to play.
“I felt relieved and happy for Sam and the team,” Barriere said. “That was huge for us because it was after the two-point conversion and everybody was feeling a little down. We had belief and once he got in, we all felt relieved.”
Eastern clinched the win on a sack by Jim Townsend that was recovered by Chris Ojoh with 15 seconds left.
Barriere accounted for 278 yards of offense and four touchdowns for the Eagles, with 235 through the air and 43 on the ground. Running back Sam McPherson had 143 rushing yards, including the game-winning 35-yard run.
In what will be its 17th postseason home game since 2010, the third-seeded Eagles (11-2) now advance to the semifinals where they will host Maine (10-3), a 23-18 upset winner over Weber State on Friday in the quarterfinals. The game with the Black Bears will be played at 11 a.m. Pacific time on Saturday (Dec. 15) and will be televised on ESPN2.
“It’s awesome to get to play again at Roos, and I challenge everybody to come out again and bring a friend or two,” Best said. “I know this – if we go 1-0 this week we’ll play in January. Our mindset from the start of the season believed this could happen. It was Eag Nation, and it started within the four walls of our locker room.”