CHENEY, Wash. -- At times they were fortunate, but for most of the time on Saturday they were dominant.
In a pivotal game for the season the No. 21-ranked Weber State Wildcats shook off last week's disappointing loss and knocked off No. 14 Eastern Washington 31-13 in a game where the Wildcat defense wanted to make a statement.
"We played Weber State defense," said linebacker Nick Webb, who led WSU's defense with 13 tackles. "I don't think up until this point we had played to our full potential. Today we showed how we can play."
Sure, there were heroes on offense with Cameron Higgins passing for 235 yards and a pair of touchdowns to Mike Phillips while Trevyn Smith ran for 143 and a touchdown. But it was the defense that put the Wildcats in position to be successful.
"The defense kept playing and didn't give them anything until late in the game," said WSU coach Ron McBride. "They got sacks, they got turnovers and they played tough, hard-nosed football. They played the kind of football we've traditionally played."
The Wildcats (3-3, 3-1 Big Sky Conference) held the league-leading rusher, Taiwan Jones, to just 64 yards and no touchdowns after he had run for 358 yards and seven touchdowns in his last two games. They also sacked EWU quarterback Matt Nichols four times and came up with five turnovers.
"That's what wins games is turnovers and the defense made turnovers happen," Smith said "The defense wanted to win, it was very obvious today, and it was huge."
The Eagles (4-2, 3-1 Big Sky Conference) took a 7-3 lead late in the first quarter when J.C. Sherritt intercepted Higgins and returned the pick 36 yards for a touchdown. EWU didn't reach the end zone again until midway through the fourth quarter, and by then WSU had been in control of the game for a while.
"We just came out, played hard and answered the call," said WSU defensive lineman Ryan Eastman, who made his first appearance since suffering a knee injury in Week 2. "I'm super happy to be back and loving every second of it."
Eastman recorded three sacks while Brighton Barkdull also got to Nichols behind the line of scrimmage.
While Nichols threw for 354 yards and a touchdown, the Wildcat defense rushed the senior the whole game and picked him off three times. Thyrell Lewis intercepted Nichols late in the second quarter while Beau Hadley and Webb snagged interceptions of their own on the Eagles' first two possessions in the second half.
Cornerback Josh Morris spent the entire day one-on-one with EWU's top receiver Aaron Boyce, who came into the game averaging 86.4 yards per game. While Boyce finished with five catches, all of which came in the second half, for 88 yards and a touchdown he didn't get involved in the game until it was too late.
"It was a challenge and I was up for it," Morris said. "I felt like if I could do my job we could be successful and come out with a win."
But the senior wouldn't take much of the credit for keeping Nichols from finding Boyce.
"That pressure from the d-line is the reason," Morris said. "They were in (Nichols') mix the whole game long."
With the defense, which had eight tackles behind the line-of-scrimmage for a loss of 29 yards, not giving up any points until the fourth quarter, the Wildcat offense moved the ball and scored all four times it reached the red zone.
Both of Higgins' scoring passes to Phillips came in the second quarter as WSU went from trailing 7-3 to leading 22-7 at the break. The Higgins-Phillips combo struck first on an 80-yard play early in the second quarter and then hooked up again on a 30-yard touchdown just before halftime.
Mike Snoy connected on field goals of 22, 21 and 23 yards in the first half.
Tim Toone made history by catching seven passes for 52 yards, moving him past the 3,000-yard career mark. Toone is just the sixth player in Big Sky Conference history to pass that mark.
Smith's three-yard scoring run came on the possession following Boyce's 19-yard touchdown catch that, following a blocked extra-point attempt by Webb, cut WSU's lead to 25-13. WSU freshman Bo Bolen returned the ensuing kickoff 67 yards to EWU's 23-yard line, keeping the momentum with the Wildcats and giving the offense a short field.
"The game can go two ways at that point," Smith said. "We can fall off and let them come back or we can push the issue."
Thanks to Bolen's return the Wildcats once again extended their lead with Smith's score. EWU got into the red zone twice after that, but fumbled the ball both times. Kevin Linehan recovered a fumble by Jones in the end zone and then Hadley fell on the ball following a mishandled snap by Nichols.
"Everybody contributed, everybody played hard," McBride said. "If we had a problem we played through the problems and this is a great sign for this football team."
Weber State 31, E. Washington 13
At Cheney, Wash.
Weber State 3 19 3 6 -- 31
E. Washington 7 0 0 6 -- 13
Weber State--Snoy 22 field goal, 10:24.
EWU--Sherritt 36 interception return (Jarrett kick), 2:19.
Weber State--Phillips 80 pass from C.Higgins (Snoy kick), 11:03.
Weber State--Snoy 21 field goal, 1:32.
Weber State--Safety, 1:08.
Weber State--Phillips 30 pass from C.Higgins (Snoy kick), :32.
Weber State--Snoy 23 field goal, 7:25.
EWU--Boyce 19 pass from Nichols (kick blocked), 8:56.
Weber State--Smith 3 run (kick failed), 4:31.
First downs 20 23
Rushes-yards 42-184 27-35
Passing 235 354
Comp-Att-Int 21-37-1 24-39-3
Return yards 23 39
Punts-avg. 5-42.4 5-36.8
Fumbles-lost 0-0 4-2
Penalties-yards 6-54 7-68
Time of possession 36:04 23:56
Rushing--Weber State, Smith 32-143, Bolen 6-33, C.Higgins 2-10, Team 2-(minus 2). E. Washington, Jones 13-64, Beaumonte 4-9, Nichols 8-(minus 10), Team 2-(minus 28).
Passing--Weber State, C.Higgins 21-37-1-235. E. Washington, Nichols 24-39-3-354.
Receiving--Weber State, Toone 7-52, Bolen 3-26, Eldridge 3-6, Phillips 2-110, Smith 2-21, Tafuna 2-12, Francisco 1-5, Halfhill 1-3. E. Washington, Davis 6-131, Boyce 5-88, Overbay 5-74, Jones 5-48, Edwards 2-17, Martin 1-(minus 4).