CHENEY, Washington — On an afternoon when he took risk after risk with an array of creative offensive plays, Dan Hawkins saved his trickiest call for the most intense moment.
UC Davis’ head coach called what amounted to a reverse fly sweep that Namane Modise took in for a go-ahead two-point conversion with 73 seconds left in the fourth quarter to take a 29-28 lead in the Inferno.
Eastern Washington did not need any more time than that to complete yet another thrilling postseason comeback on their blood-red turf. The third seed in the FCS playoffs forged two touchdown drives of less than 47 seconds in the fourth quarter, including a four-play march capped by senior Sam McPherson’s game-winning 35-yard touchdown with 26 seconds left.
McPherson’s final answer helped lift No. 3 Eastern Washington to a 34-29 victory over No. 6 UC Davis in the quarterfinal of the FCS playoffs in front of 5,503 here on Saturday afternoon.
“It’s playoff football, that’s how you expect it to go and that’s how it went tonight,” EWU senior linebacker Ketner Kupp said after a 16-tackle outing as the Eagles joined Stanford and Northern Iowa as teams to hold the Aggies under 30 points this season. EWU did it twice. “I’m glad to come out on top.
“That effort shows the character of our team. Our guys remained together and the entire time we talked about how we knew what we needed to do and we thrived under pressure instead of crumbling. We rallied together and it was cool seeing the whole team respond that way.”
Hawkins called a trick play to set up Ulonzo Gilliam’s second touchdown run of the first half, a score that gave the hard-charging Aggies a 14-7 lead in the second quarter.
Hawkins called a wide receiver reverse pass on a fourth down and 1 from the Eastern 3-yard line on the final play of the first half instead of taking points. Chris Ojoh intercepted the attempt and the game went to the break tied 14-14.
And Hawkins showed great fortitude by calling the reverse fly sweep with 1:13 on the clock to give Davis a 29-28 lead in a wild back and forth affair between the final two Big Sky Conference teams left in the FCS postseason picture.
“There was no hesitation,” Hawkins said of the call. “We knew we had a good play and I think part of it is our style, we play to win, not to lose. We wanted to get on the attack and we felt good of it. Part of it was strategy and part was philosophy, and it came together.”
But as has been customary at Roos Field this decade, the Eagles found a way to win a quarterfinal contest. Saturday with temperatures hovering around 27 degrees, McPherson, sophomore quarterback Eric Barriere and the Eagles moved into the semifinals for the fifth time this decade behind yet another never-say-die effort.
With the game tied at 21 with 7:41 left, Barriere drilled a 55-yard completion to freshman Andrew Boston, then hit senior Nsimba Webster for a seven-yard touchdown to give Eastern a 28-21 lead with a drive that lasted 29 seconds.
Barriere completed 21-of-25 passes for 235 yards and three touchdowns while rushing for 43 yards on 13 carries and scoring his seventh rushing TD this year. In just his eighth start of the season — EWU lost senior All-American Gage Gubrud in a September 29 contest at Montana State — Barriere rushed for 35 yards and completed all six of his passes during an 11-play, 89-yard drive on EWU’s first possession of the game.
He ripped off a 29-yard run into Davis territory on the first play of Eastern’s go-ahead drive. McPherson, who rushed 24 times for 143 yards all told, ripped off his game-winning score two plays after Barrier’s scramble. Jim Townsend came off the edge and sacked Maier, forcing the UC Davis All-American quarterback to fumble. Ojoh recovered with 11 seconds left and the Eagles had their 17th playoff victory in program history.
“That was some last drive,” EWU second-year head coach Aaron Best said after his second career playoff win. “I challenged our team to get us a field goal attempt – we had three timeouts to make it happen. It just shows you what kind of player Eric Barriere is. He wasn’t on for most of the night, but when we needed it most he showed up and made some big plays. We’ve been around enough to know that nothing is ever perfect. We embrace adversity, we fight adversity and we are better for facing adverse situations.”
The Eagles are into the Final Four thanks to their 11th win this season. EWU hosts seventh-seeded Maine, a 23-18 upset winner at second-seeded and fellow co-Big Sky champion Weber State in Ogden, Utah on Friday night. The Eagles and the Black Bears will kick off at 11 a.m. on Saturday. The game will be broadcast on ESPN2.
“I couldn’t be prouder – we fight to the bitter end,” Best said. “This was a rejuvenated UC Davis team, and we knew weren’t going to see the same outfit we saw in November.”
The historic season ends for UC Davis after a 2018 filled with firsts. The Aggies finished with their first winning record, first Big Sky title, first playoff appearance and first postseason win of the Division I era following last week’s 26-18 victory over Northern Iowa. Davis’ season ends at 10-3 following its second loss to Eastern Washington in Cheney in less than a month.
“It was magnificent in a lot of ways,” Hawkins said. “The pain of the last game really is there’s a lot of people who want to play it safe in life and it’s really easy to hang outside the fire and not feel the lows but you don’t feel the highs either. I think the guy in the fire is the guy who feels it both ways.
“To get a share of the championship, to get in the playoffs, to win in the playoffs really sets a whole new standard for UC Davis football.”
After turning the ball over five times in a 59-20 loss to EWU on November 10, the Aggies turned the ball over three times in the first half. The Aggie defense held after Jake Maier’s first interception — a leaping pick, earning a fourth down stop to end the first quarter down 7-0 despite the Eagles dominating the opening frame.
With EWU’s short-handed secondary — starting safeties Mitch Fettig and Tysen Prunty are out with injury, two of Eastern’s seven starters on the shelf — badgering UCD All-American senior wide receiver Keelan Doss on the outside, Gilliam got loose.
Gilliam’s 29-yard touchdown on a 4th down try tied the game 7-7 with 6:47 left in the half. Davis redshirt freshman Carson Crawford sparked the next possession for the Aggies by hitting sophomore Jared Harrell for a 44-yard gain into EWU territory. Gilliam scored a 24-yard touchdown on next play, giving the visitors a 14-7 lead with 6:08 until halftime.
For the first of many times Saturday, Barriere responded. He engineered a six-play, 91-yard drive that included 27 rushing yards by McPherson and three completions to tight end Henderson Belk for 53 yards, including g a 23-yard gain the play before a 13-yard touchdown that tied the game 14-14.
UC Davis cornerback Isiah Olave intercepted Barriere on the first play of the second half, giving the Aggies the ball 28 yards from the end-zone. Six plays later, Maier hit true freshman Lance Babb for his first career catch and first career touchdown from nine yards out to give Davis a 21-14 edge.
McPherson and the Eagles used a trick play of their own to kick the offense into high gear. After picking up a short third down conversion by lowering his pads, McPherson took a handoff, rolled to his left and found junior Dennis Merritt for a 33-yard gain inside the Davis 10.
Two plays later, Barriere beat the Aggie defense to the pylon to tie the game at 21 with 10:06 left. EWU held on its next defensive possession and Barriere started the second drive of the final frame with the 55-yard rope to Boston to set up a go-ahead score by Webster, his seventh touchdown this season.
“We all believed in each other. Before, we huddled up and told everyone what they were supposed to do,” Barriere said after moving to 7-1 as a starter this season. “Everyone believed in each other, did our job and we came out on top.”
With Eastern Washington’s defense putting significant pressure on Maier and playing tough coverage on the outside, Gilliam was able to amass 132 yards rushing n a career-high 26 carries. He scored three touchdowns total, including a receiving touchdown on an inside shovel pass to set up Modise’s go-ahead two-point conversion.
Maier, the 2018 Big Sky Offensive Player of the Year, finished the game 26-of-38 for 234 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions.
Doss caught nine passes for 143 yards, surpassing the century mark for the 19th time in his illustrious career. He finishes his senior season with 113 catches for 1,334 yards and nine touchdowns. The 2017 Big Sky Offensive Player of the Year finishes his career with 321 catches for 4.069 yards and 28 touchdowns.
The 6-foot-3, 210-pounder harbors real NFL aspirations and explored the draft waters in the off-season. Despite catching 115 passes for 1,499 yards as a junior, leading all of college football in both categories, Doss returned for his final season, helping the Aggies to their best season of the Division I era.
“It’s been awesome. Obviously not how we wanted to end but I couldn’t be more proud of my team,” Doss said. “One thing I told them before the game was, ‘Win or lose, let’s just put it all out there. At the end of the day, if we could say we gave it our all, it is what it is. We did that.
“They just happened to make the play but at the end of the day, it’s use playing the best that we can and this team was able to accomplish something that Davis has never done. It’s awesome to be a part of and I’m glad to experience it with these guys. I know the future is bright and they have great players still. It’s been a fun ride. It sucks it couldn’t keep going but it’s been a blast.”
The Eagles have made a habit of advancing at home in the playoffs in December. But Eastern has lost three straight semifinal games in Cheney. EWU fell 45-42 to Sam Houston State in 2012, 35-31 to Towson in 2013 and 40-38 to Youngstown State in 2016.
Friday night against Maine, an EWU team led by 27 seniors will get a chance to punch the Big Sky Conference’s first ticket to the FCS championship game in Frisco, Texas since the Eagles won it all in 2010.
“It’s awesome to get to play again at Roos, and I challenge everybody to come out again and bring a friend or two. I know this – if we go 1-0 this week we’ll play in January,” Best said. “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.
“That’s a special bunch. I don’t want this season to end because they are so precious, they are so important and they are so fun to hang around every day. We’ll let it rip next week and see where it goes.”
Photos courtesy of EWU athletics. All Rights Reserved.