CHENEY — Vernon Adams was still kicking himself over throwing two momentum-killing interceptions when he got a glimpse how easily things could have been worse.
It happened early in the fourth quarter of Eastern Washington’s 35-24 Football Championship Subdivision quarterfinal victory over Jacksonville State, when his teammate Albert Havili returned an interception 77 yards for the clinching touchdown.
“It’s looking like they’re driving down to take the lead,” said Adams, the Eagles’ Payton Award finalist, “and just like that Albert knocks the wind out of them. He makes that pick and we’re going crazy on the sidelines.”
The freshman linebacker’s big play backed a 190-yard rushing day by Quincy Forte and gave the third-seeded Eagles one more home game next Saturday against seventh-seeded Towson in the FCS semifinals. The winner earns a trip to Frisco, Texas, for the national championship game on Jan. 4.
Jacksonville State (11-4) had made things hard on the Eagles in the first half behind the running and passing of Eli Jenkins, but lost the freshman quarterback to a knee injury shortly before halftime. Backup Max Shortell passed for 173 yards in the second half, but threw two interceptions and the Gamecocks managed just a field goal the rest of the way. They also lost rushing leader DaMarcus James to a thigh bruise early in the third quarter.
Jenkins rushed for 118 yards and completed 12 of 14 passes before his exit, including a 10-yard touchdown to Anthony Johnson as Jacksonville State built a 21-14 lead in the second quarter.
“We always have a plan, because there are things that Max can do,” said Jacksonville State coach Bill Clark. “I would just like to have seen what happens with Eli in there.”
Before Jenkins’ injury, Adams marched the Eagles 77 yards for the tying score, connecting with Ashton Clark on a 41-yard touchdown. Forte then crashed in from 7 yards out for the second of his two touchdowns on the first possession of the third quarter, giving the Eagles the lead for good.
That was also the last damage done by Eastern Washington’s powerful offense, which rolled up 545 yards but hurt itself with three turnovers, including a fumble and an interception in the end zone.
“When you’re facing one of the best eight teams in the country, games are going to have that choppy feel and they’re not always going to be perfect,” said Eastern Washington coach Beau Baldwin. “You just have to find ways to win and our guys have been great at that.”
Adams, the FCS passing efficiency leader, completed 18 of 29 passes for 324 yards, 181 of those coming on 11 completions to Clark. Adams also connected on a 29-yard scoring pass in the first quarter to Cooper Kupp, the freshman receiver’s 21st touchdown reception of the season.