After squirming for 30 minutes under the microscope of a national television audience, the top-ranked Eagles finally broke free to beat the Bearkats 56-35 on Saturday afternoon at sold-out Roos Field.
“We made a few adjustments and the guys bought into it — you could tell it in their eyes,” head coach Beau Baldwin said.
Until then, the Eagles seemed a bit blinded by the limelight. The offense was out of sync, the defense gave up two long running plays and Eastern twice found itself a touchdown behind in the first half.
“There were some antsy nerves,” Baldwin said.
But in a reprise of last season, the Eagles concocted another magical third quarter, outgaining the Bearkats 123-60, scoring a go-ahead touchdown early in the half and setting up another with an interception late in the period.
That seemingly stirred the offense, which put four touchdowns on the board in the fourth quarter, finished with 624 yards of total offense and left the coaches and players satisfied but not smug.
“I just have to get back on the field next week, I was overthrowing guys and hitting their fingertips,” said quarterback Vernon Adams, who was oh-so-close on several long throws in the first half.
It didn’t help that just as he did in last year’s opener at Oregon State, Adams was cramping and taking intravenous fluids on the sideline.
“My quarterbacks coach (Zak Hill) told me I had to work on my technique. In the first half, I was nervous and sloppy,” Adams said.
Adams finished 26-for-48 for 302 yards and four touchdowns, but lamented several near-misses and a pick-6 that gave the Bearkats a 14-7 lead early in the second quarter.
That was Sam Houston’s second score in 17 seconds, putting the Eagles in an early 14-7 hole; worse, All-American receiver Cooper Kupp was sidelined by an ankle injury.
No matter, Adams led the Eagles on a 74-yard drive capped by his 13-yard TD pass to Kendrick Bourne. The visitors retook the lead on quarterback Jared Johnson’s 53-yard TD run down the right sideline, but Eastern forged a 21-21 tie on Jalen Moore’s first collegiate touchdown, a nifty 34-yard run midway through the second quarter.
By then, Kupp was back in the lineup, and more important, the Eagles were soon back in the locker room.
“We knew things weren’t going to go perfect, especially in a game one, but I was impressed with our leaders and how they kept responding,” Baldwin said.
“I’m proud of the way they came out in the second half,” the Eastern coach said.
The first act belonged to the defense. With Sam Houston facing third-and-12 at its own 34, Eagles end Samson Ebukam sacked Johnson for a 9-yard loss.
Taking over at their 26, Adams and running back Quincy Forte carried the Eagles to their first lead since the first quarter. Already over the 100-yard mark, Forte rumbled 36 yards to the 3, setting up Adams’ 3-yard TD pass to Blair Bomber with 9:28 left in the third quarter.
“We got better,” Adams said, without a trace of sarcasm.
That gave the Eagles a 28-21 lead, one they extended to two scores when tight end Zach Wimberly scored his first collegiate touchdown on a 1-yard run 10 seconds into the fourth quarter.
The Bearkats got one back 3 minutes later, but Adams responded with a game-defining drive highlighted by a 29-yard run that probably covered twice that distance and left several Bearkats grasping at air.
But not all of them. SHSU defender Eric Agbaroji was whistled for a late hit as Adams went out of bounds at the Bearkat 15. It was one of 16 Bearkat fouls totaling 159 yards.
“I wouldn’t say they were dirty but it did get me fired up when they grab like that, but that’s how every football player is,” Baldwin said.
A malfunctioning visor sent Adams to the sideline, and backup Jordan West capped the drive with a 5-yard TD pass to Kupp.
Sam Houston State answered with another score with 5:14 to play, but the Eagles put the game away with two scores in the last 3:13 by Bourne and Moore.
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