Eastern Washington uses big second half to turn back Northern Colorado

CHENEY That’s four second-half winning comebacks this season for Eastern Washington, which begs the question:

When do the Eagles actually decide to flip the proverbial switch and get down to business?

The surprising answer: months ago.

It happened again Saturday afternoon at Roos Field, where the Eagles teased a homecoming crowd of 10,924 before pulling away to a 49-31 win over Northern Colorado.

Fans missed the bigger picture. The way coach Beau Baldwin sees it, stirring halftime speeches and X’s-and-O’s adjustments won’t get you halfway through the third quarter unless the mental and physical foundations have been laid.

“I think we’re mentally in a better spot than our opponents in the second half, and shapewise our wind is better in the second half,” Baldwin said as the fourth-ranked Eagles go into their bye week at 5-1 overall and 3-1 in the Big Sky Conference.

“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.”

Against an improving Northern Colorado program, the Eagles’ superiority didn’t tell until late in the game, which wasn’t decided until safety Zach Bruce’s interception with less than 4 minutes to play.

This game was akin to a marathon, with the Eagles slowly pulling away. Trailing 17-14 at halftime because they twice settled for field goals in the red zone, the Eagles found their passing groove despite the breezy conditions and a UNC defense that kept the action in front of it.

“We found the big-moment type of shots to Shaq (Hill) — Gage (Gubrud) saw him and took advantage,” Baldwin said. “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.”

The result: 659 yards of total offense, the fifth highest in school history. Gubrud was 33 for 39 for 435 yards and five touchdowns, and also had a game-high 86 rushing yards.

In just six career starts, Gubrud has five of the top 10 combined-yardage performances in Eastern history.

The Eagles also showed more balance, running the ball 44 times for 237 yards as UNC often presented a three-man front. Running back Sam McPherson had a career day with 46 yards on the ground and 68 receiving.

“Today we made a huge step with our running game — there’s no doubt about that,” Baldwin said. “When a team dares us to do it, we’ll show that we will and do it with success like we did today.”

The defense needed a bit longer to assert itself, as UNC Kyle Sloter was a solid 24 for 43 for 296 yards and four TDs. Hurt by the deep ball in the first half, the Eagles finally got more pressure on Sloter.

One turning point came late in the third quarter. Trailing 28-24, Northern Colorado (3-2, 1-1) had first-and-10 at the Eastern 20.

Roverback J.J. Njoku and linebacker Ketner Kupp forced bad throws by Sloter, the latter resulting in an intentional grounding call to bring up third-and-20. Two plays later, defensive end Keenan Williams blocked a 38-yard field-goal attempt.

“It feels great to be back, to get the rust out,” said Williams, who had missed three previous games to an ankle injury.

Early in the fourth, the Eagles stoutly protected a 42-31 lead with more pressure on Sloter, forcing a punt at midfield.

“I think we just made a few adjustments and our D-linemen started getting some pressure, and they started getting worn out and we outlasted them,” EWU linebacker Alek Kacmarcik said.