CHENEY, Wash. – The red carpet on the road to Frisco, Texas, turned out to be a roadblock for Jacksonville State.
Something had to give when the fourth-ranked total offense among Football Championship Subdivision teams met the sixth-best pass defense in Saturday’s national quarterfinal on the red turf at Eastern Washington’s Roos Field, aka “The Inferno.”
Walter Payton Award finalist Vernon Adams threw two touchdowns and Albert Havili provided a back-breaking 77-yard interception return for a score as No. 3 Eastern Washington held off No. 20 Jacksonville State 35-24. The Gamecocks end their first season under head coach Bill Clark with an 11-4 record.
Eastern Washington (12-2) hosts Towson State next Saturday in the FCS semifinals.
Injuries to starting quarterback Eli Jenkins and record-setting running back DaMarcus James proved too much for the Gamecocks to overcome after battling the Eagles evenly for one half.
Jenkins had accounted for 245 total yards (127 passing, 118 rushing) before leaving with an injury late in the second quarter. James, who had a 1-yard TD run midway through the second quarter, also sat out the second half after being hurt.
James finished the 2013 campaign with a school-record 29 rushing touchdowns.
Eastern Washington scored on its first drive of the second half to regain the lead for good. The Eagles added the clincher when Havili stepped in front of a Max Shortell pass and returned the interception 77 yards with 10:40 remaining to make it 35-24.
Jacksonville State – which had outscored its first two playoff opponents (Samford, McNeese State) by a combined 59-0 in the first half – found itself tied with the high-octane Eagles 21-21 at intermission.
The two offenses piled up 649 yards in the first 30 minutes.
JSU’s defense forced a pair of first-half turnovers after the Eagles had moved into the red zone. The first turnover, a fumble recovery by Harris Gaston, came after the only punt of the half, a 35-yarder by Hamish MacInnes that gave EWU possession at JSU’s 37. But Gaston forced a fumble at the goal line and recovered it in the end zone to stop the threat.
Jacksonville State came back with a 60-yard march from its 20 to Eastern Washington’s 20. But the Gamecocks came away without points when All-American kicker Griffin Thomas missed a 37-yard field goal attempt wide to the right.
Eastern Washington covered 80 yards in six plays after the missed field goal try. Adams capped it off with a 29-yard scoring pass to Cooper Kupp at the 5:52 mark to make it 7-0.
The Jenkins-led Gamecocks’ offense took the ensuing kickoff and drove 75 yards in 13 plays to tie it.
Telvin Brown capped the drive by taking a pitch from Jenkins and tossing a 3-yard pass to tight end Gavin Ellis in the back of the end zone. Thomas kicked the PAT to make it 7-7 with 55 seconds left in the first quarter.
Robert Gray intercepted Adams early in the second quarter and JSU took advantage of the second EWU turnover.
Jenkins’ running and passing quickly moved the Gamecocks 80 yards in 12 plays. Jenkins finished off the go-ahead scoring march with a 10-yard pass to Anthony Johnson at the 10:48 mark and Thomas’ PAT gave JSU a 14-7 lead.
Eastern Washington’s second scoring drive of 1 minute, 45 seconds pulled the Eagles into a 14-14 tie. Forte went three yards for a touchdown at the 9:03 mark and Kevin Miller’s kick tied the game for the second time.
But the first-half scoring outburst wasn’t over.
James took a direct snap and ran in from the EWU 1 with 6:11 left in the second quarter to finish off a 72-yard drive. Thomas’ PAT put Jacksonville State ahead for the second time, 21-14.
The Eagles, however, answered with another quick score, drawing even at 21-21 when Adams and Ashton Clark hooked up on a 41-yard TD reception with 2:39 left before halftime.
Eastern Washington’s Adams, a sophomore, threw for 324 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions. Clark caught 11 of Adams’ 18 completions for 181 yards and one TD.
Shortell was 12-of-22 for 173 yards in relief of Jenkins with two interceptions. Troymaine Pope gained 49 yards on 14 carries after stepping in for James.
The Gamecocks are slated to kick off the 2014 season on Aug. 30 at defending Big Ten Conference champion Michigan State.