They bottled up Cooper Kupp, but the Bears couldn't contain senior wide receiver Shaq Hill and sophomore quarterback Gage Gubrud.
Hill caught a school-record four touchdown passes from Gubrud, who had yet another stellar day for the Eastern Washington University football team in a 49-31 victory over Northern Colorado in Eastern's 90th Annual Homecoming Game Saturday (Oct. 8) at Roos Field in Cheney, Wash.
The Eagles had their fifth-most yards in school history, finishing with 659 for the team's third performance this season of 600 or more. Gubrud had 514 yards of total of offense to rank fourth all-time at EWU, and in just six career starts now has five of the top 10 performances all-time at Eastern.
"We found the big moment type of shots to Shaq -- Gage saw him and took advantage," said Eastern head coach Beau Baldwin after watching that duo have three TD connections of at least 29 yards. "I really loved the way he played – he was patient, didn't try to force things, took the run when it was there and played very base that way. Shaq had a monster day – not just the numbers, but he was playing strong and had a grit to the way he was playing the game."
Kupp, the reigning FCS Offensive Player of the Year, had only 59 yards on five receptions, and rushed three times for 13 yards, a year after having school records with 20 catches for 275 yards versus the Bears. Saturday's game between the unbeaten Big Sky Conference teams was a rematch of down-to-the-wire Eagle wins last year in Greeley (43-41) and 2014 in Cheney (26-18). Eastern also barely beat the Bears 35-28 during EWU's trek to the NCAA Division I Championship in 2010.
Won-Lost Records . . .
* Eastern is 5-1 and 3-0 in the Big Sky Conference, and the Bears are now 3-2 and 1-1 in the league. Both teams opened league play with a victory over Northern Arizona, with EWU winning 50-35 on Sept. 24 and knocking the Lumberjacks off 21-18 on Oct. 1. Northern Colorado's lone loss was a 47-21 setback at Colorado State on Sept. 17.
* Entering the game, Eastern remained fourth in this week's STATS FCS Top 25 poll, and also held steady at fifth in the coaches poll. North Dakota State remains No. 1 in both polls. In the Athlon Power Rankings, the Eagles are second behind North Dakota State.
What It Means . . .
* Eastern reached the mid-point of the regular season and heads into its bye week having exceeded expectations after a grueling early-season schedule that included an FBS bowl team, two of the top 10 teams in FCS and the preseason favorite in the Big Sky Conference. In their final five regular season games, the Eagles will play a pair of teams who advanced to the FCS Playoffs year ago (Montana and Portland State), and another ranked in the top 25 in FCS this season (Cal Poly). Eastern had won six-straight games a year ago only to lose its last three and fail to garner a playoff berth.
What's Next . . .
* After a bye on Oct. 15, Eastern's next road game will be at Montana State on Oct. 22 in a league game. Montana, a perennial playoff participant and Big Sky title contender, will visit Cheney on Oct. 29. After a road game at Cal Poly on Nov. 5, the Eagles will have Senior Day on Nov. 12 against Idaho State. Eastern closes the regular season Nov. 18 (Friday) at Portland State, which joined Montana as runner-up in the league last season and advanced to the playoffs.
Keys to Game . . .
* Eastern scored 35 points in the second half after trailing at intermission, 17-14. A 21-7 advantage in the third quarter gave EWU the lead for good, and the Eagles have now outscored opponents 108-28 in that stanza. Eastern had touchdown drives of 75, 75, 69, 58 and 56 in the second half, including TD connections of 29, 9, 42 and 45 from Gubrud to Hill. An 11-yard TD pass to Nic Sblendorio was EWU's other TD in the second half. The key in EWU falling behind 17-14 at halftime were missed opportunities in the red zone. The Eagles scored on a 75-yard touchdown drive, but on four other trips inside the 22-yard line – twice to the UNC 2-yard line -- the Eagles came away with just two field goals. The Eagles had a fumble and a missed field goal on the other two possessions
Turning Point . . .
* The Bears were scoring at will for much of the game, but EWU's defense stepped up big late in the game by holding UNC to just seven points in their last five possessions. A blocked field goal by sophomore Keenan Williams was one of the biggest moments, as well as the defense forcing a punt early in the fourth quarter. Later in the quarter, an interception by Zach Bruce helped seal the win with 3:33 to play and the Eagles up by 11, which led to EWU's final TD of the day.
Top Performers . . .
* Sophomore Gage Gubrud completed 33-of-39 passes for 435 yards, and had five second-half touchdowns. He also rushed 11 times for 79 yards to give him 514 yards of total offense, his fifth game of at least 487 this season.
* Senior Shaq Hill had the second-best game of his career with seven catches for 153 yards and four touchdowns, tying a school record in the process. Also with four TDs for the Eagles were Jamie Buenzli in 1987 and Joe Pierce in 2003.
* Sophomore linebacker Alek Kacmarcik led the Eagles with 10 tackles and sophomore safety Mitch Fettig had nine with a sack.
* Senior safety Zach Bruce finished with seven tackles, an interception and a forced fumble.
* Senior rover J.J. Njoku broke up two passes and had a quarterback hurry, and also finished with five tackles.
Key Stats . . .
* Sophomore running back Sam McPherson easily had his biggest day as an Eagle, and in the process helped Eastern have its best rushing total of the season and best in the last 14 games with 224 yards. McPherson carried 10 times for 46 yards and a touchdown, and also caught eight passes for 68 yards. His previous career highs were 20 yards rushing against UNC last season, and two catches for 29 yards. He entered the UNC game with just 40 yards rushing and five catches for 38 yards in 11 career games.
* Eastern entered the game ranked second in FCS in total offense with an average of 546.4 yards per game. Sam Houston State is the national leader at 637.8 per outing. After five games, Eastern was the FCS leader in passing offense (432.8 yards per game) and third in scoring offense (47.2).
Team Highlights . . .
* The Eagles have won 35 of their last 41 Big Sky games since a 0-2 start in 2011. Eastern has won 25 of its last 29 league games, with the lone losses coming against Montana and Portland State in 2015 and Northern Arizona in both 2015 and 2014. An Oct. 25, 2014, loss at Northern Arizona snapped EWU's 14-game conference winning streak and a home loss against the Lumberjacks on Nov. 7, 2015, ended a streak of eight Big Sky wins in a row. Including non-conference victories (two versus MSU and one against Cal Poly) and a playoff win (Montana), the Eagles have won 29 of their last 33 versus conference foes.
Milestones & Records . . .
* With 176 career receptions for 2,545 yards and 23 touchdowns, senior Kendrick Bourne now ranks in the top nine in all three categories in school history. His touchdowns ranks eighth and his receptions are seventh, with his wide receivers coach Nicholas Edwards the next player to catch (215 from 2009-12). Bourne is now eighth in yards, just 21 from seventh (2,566, Tony Davis, 2006-09) and 89 from the No. 6 total of 2,634 by Edwards. Teammate Shaq Hill has 136 career catches for 2,183 yards and 23 touchdowns. His touchdowns rank eighth in school history and his yards are 15th, and he is one catch from the No. 21 position.
* With 72 all-purpose yards against Northern Colorado and 5,925 in his career, Cooper Kupp is now just nine yards away from the EWU record of 5,934 set by Eric Kimble from 2002-05, a mark which ranks seventh in Big Sky history. The league record is 7,112, and the top receiver on the list is Fred Amey from Sacramento State with 6,343 from 2001-04. Kupp, already the FCS record holder for career touchdown receptions (63) and receiving yards (5,774), is inching closer to the all-time FCS receptions record. He now has 357, 38 behind the record of 395 set by Elon's Terrell Hudgins from 2006-09).
* Kupp has now broken nine FCS records, eight Big Sky Conference all-time marks and 18 school records. He could equal a 10th FCS all-time mark at Montana State on Oct. 22. He caught a pass in his 44th-straight game against the Bears, two behind the record of 45. Jacksonville State's Josh Barge has a current total of 43 in a row, and because the Gamecocks play on Oct. 15 when the Eagles have a bye, he and Kupp could both tie the record on Oct. 22 and break it on Oct. 29. The record was originally set by Marcus Lee of Towson (2005-08), then tied by current EWU wide receivers coach Nicholas Edwards (2009-12) and Tyrone Walker from Illinois State from (2009-12). Current Eagle Kendrick Bourne has a current 30-game streak, and other long streaks by former Eagles include former record holder Eric Kimble (44 from 2002-05), Aaron Boyce (42 from 2006-09) and Ashton Clark (36 from 2011-13). Boyce could have owned the record at 46, but he tore his Achilles in 2009 with four regular season games left to play.
* Senior Miquiyah Zamora had seven tackles to give him 305 in his career and become the ninth Eagle in school history to have 300. He currently ranks 10th all-time at EWU, and the next player for him to catch is Dion Alexander with 313 from 1992-95. Zamora entered the game ranked 19th in FCS and second in the league with an average of 10.3 tackles per game, while teammate Zach Bruce has a 9.8 average to rank fourth and 26th, respectively,
Notables . . .
* Eastern played the game without a trio of offensive linemen, including senior starting center Jerrod Jones (knee), starting tackle Nick Ellison (rib) and backup Will Gram (concussion). Eastern's starting lineup for the second-straight week consisted of three sophomores and two redshirt freshmen, with none of them having started an EWU game entering the season. Running back Antoine Custer Jr. (concussion) also missed the game
* Eastern is now 54-33-3 in its previous 90 Homecoming contests, but had its streak of six-straight wins snapped last year with a 52-30 loss to Northern Arizona. The streak from 2009-14 dated back to a 15-13 loss to Sacramento State in 2008.
* The 2016 football season at Eastern Washington University marks the 50th season Eastern has played its football games at its current site in Cheney, Wash. But this is the seventh as "Roos Field," as a new red synthetic Sprinturf surface made its debut in 2010. Eastern finished a perfect 8-0 in its debut season at "The Inferno," including three playoff victories, and is 36-7 overall since the turf was installed. Eastern has a 150-62 record (72 percent) in 212 games at Roos Field since 1967, with the Eagles utilizing Joe Albi Stadium in Spokane as the school's main home field from 1983-89.
Head Coach Beau Baldwin Comments . . .
On Second Half: "Our team kept grinding and battling. Offensively we finished when we were in the red zone, executed better and completed drives. In the first half we didn't punt, but we got in our own way a little bit down there. I give Northern Colorado credit, that's kind of their mentality against a team like us and they did the same thing to Northern Arizona. But we were able to get into a rhythm in the second half."
On UNC Defense on Cooper Kupp: "Coop makes it tough on a defense. Ultimately, when you do decide to do that to him the rest of our offense can make it really tough on another team. You just have to stay patient. We've seen both sides of it where an opponent is not going to let No. 10 beat them, and then others who know there are too many other guys. We are ready to adjust to either game plan, and our team did a really good job of adjusting to that, especially in the second half."
On Defense: "I thought we played really well in the second half. There were times where we gave up some things and there are some correctable moments. There is one thing you can see about our team in general, but definitely our defense, is that they have a grit about them. I think we're mentally in a better spot than our opponents in the second half, and shape-wise our wind is better in the second half. In every game you've seen us finish and finish and finish. There is something to that with our strength coaches and everything we did in the offseason. It's not by accident that our defense is continuing to do things late in games against people. They are grinding and put themselves in a better spot 35, 40, 45 and 50 minutes into the game than the opponents we've been up against this year."
On Entering Bye Week 6-1: "It's been a tough stretch – it's been a six-game battle. It's important to go into a bye week coming off a win, and that's huge. I know every coach says it's needed, but this is about perfect for us. I could have said a week or two ago we could have used it. We're happy to get to this point and find a way to win ballgames and still have the bye week to shore some things up and heal a few of our players. We'll see what we can do coming out of it."
On Progress of Team: "I think we're in a good spot. If I compare it other teams from our past, I think in a lot of areas we're as good as we've been. There are other areas we have to still catch up – you have to strive after perfection even though no one achieve that. But comparing us with some of our past teams that have had some success, we're in a similar or even better spot in some areas."
On Running Game: "Today we made a huge step with our running game – there's no doubt about that. When a team dares us to do it, we'll show that we will and do it with success like we did today."