Cheney, WA (SportsNetwork.com) - Huge plays from underclassmen have been the key to Eastern Washington's success throughout the 2013 season.
Typically the heroics of sophomore quarterback Vernon Adams and freshman receiver Cooper Kupp spread the stat sheet from week to week for the Eagles. But in an FCS quarterfinal-round matchup with a hot Jacksonville State team, it was freshman linebacker Albert Havili who sealed the Eagles' 35-24 victory at Roos Field Saturday.
Havili stepped in front of a Max Shortell pass with just under 11 minutes to play in the fourth quarter, easily intercepting the throw and returning the ball 77 yards to put Eastern Washington up by 11, which proved to be the final score of the contest.
Third-seeded Eastern Washington (12-2) advanced to the national semifinals for the second consecutive season and third time in four years. The Big Sky Conference champions will host seventh-seeded Towson (12-2) next Saturday. The Tigers defeated No. 2 seed Eastern Illinois, 49-39, in a quarterfinal Friday night.
"I am really proud of our guys to keep fighting," EWU coach Beau Badlwin said. "We found different ways to win this game than we did a week ago (against South Dakota State). Who knows what kind of game we will be in next week, but we know it will be against a very good opponent. We are happy to get one more shot at home with next week's ball game."
Though the visiting Gamecocks (11-4) had several chances to try to regain the lead, a costly turnover on downs with over seven minutes to play and a Shortell interception with 58 seconds left ended the Ohio Valley Conference squad's season.
Adams, a Walter Payton Award finalist, ended his up-and-down day 18-of-29 passing for 324 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions. Receiver Ashton Clark was Adams' favorite target, hauling in 11 receptions for 181 yards and a touchdown.
Eagles running back Quincy Forte carried the ball 24 times for 190 yards and two touchdowns. It's the second straight playoff game Forte has come up big for Eastern Washington, as his 202-yard, one-touchdown performance last weekend helped his Eagles beat South Dakota State.
Jacksonville State quarterback Eli Jenkins left the game at the end of the first half with a knee injury and was replaced by the junior Shortell. When Jenkins left, he had already accumulated 127 passing yards on 12-of-14 passing, and 118 rushing yards on 14 carries.
Shortell was 12-of-22 for 173 yards with two interceptions.
Gamecocks running back DaMarcus James finished the game with 46 rushing yards and a touchdown on 15 carries, bringing his season touchdown total to 29.
Both teams missed opportunities to get on the scoreboard early in the first quarter. Forte was stripped of the ball on Jacksonville State's 1-yard line, which was recovered by the Gamecocks. And Jacksonville State place-kicker Griffin Thomas missed a field goal on the game's first attempt.
Adams found Kupp on a 29-yard touchdown strike on the Eagles' ensuing possession, extending the freshman's scoring reception record to 14 straight games. He ended his day with 99 receiving yards and the one score gave him 21 touchdowns this season.
Jacksonville State was quick to answer, as Jenkins gave an end-around handoff to Telvin Brown inside the Eagles' 5-yard line on the Gamecocks' next possession. Brown pulled up short of the line of scrimmage and fired a scoring pass to tight end Gavin Ellis, knotting the score at 7-7.
Forte, with the aid of solid blocking, gained 82 yards on 11 carries in the first half, highlighted by a 3-yard touchdown run that tied the score, 14-14, midway through the second quarter. The teams ended the first half tied, 21-21.
With the win, Eastern Washington improved to 7-0 at home on the red turf this season. The Eagles set Big Sky records for single-season scoring (561) and passing offense (4,853), with Adams breaking the conference record for passing yards (4,600).