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CEDAR CITY -- Eastern Washington senior quarterback Matt Nichols and senior tight end Nathan Overbay connected for three first-half touchdowns before Southern Utah ever got on the scoreboard, and Nichols later added a 52-yard touchdown run, leading No. 18 Eastern Washington to a 41-28 victory over the T-Birds Saturday at Eccles Coliseum.
It was the T-Birds' first home loss of the season, dropping their overall record to 4-6, 4-1 at home, while the Eagles improved their record to 7-3 overall.
"We played terrible, we coached terrible, we turned the ball over, we had it down in their territory," SUU Head Coach Ed Lamb said. "Our guys fought, they fought hard, we came back and made it an interesting game in the second half, but then we gave up huge plays and ridiculous plays.
"Their quarterback is not even a runner, hasn't even been competent running, reels off a 50-yard touchdown on us and we've got guys in our secondary staring right at him, they can't bring him down. It was just a terrible performance by us on offense at times, on defense at times, and we've got to coach a lot better than that."
Nichols' and Overbay's first connection was a 19-yard score less than a minute into the game, capping off a three-play, 35-yard drive set up by a 50-yard kick return by sophomore running back Taiwan Jones.
After a T-Bird three-and-out, Nichols and Overbay connected again for a 7-yard score to finish a 14-play, 80-yard drive.
The T-Birds struggled during two more three-and-outs in the first quarter, going for it on fourth down after the second one, but falling short. They finished the fourth quarter with five yards of total offense and 14-0 deficit.
After the T-Birds got their first, first down of the game on their first drive of the second quarter, sophomore wide receiver Jared Ursua fumbled after a reception, leading to the third Nichols-to-Overbay scoring pass and giving EWU a 21-0 lead.
Nichols completed 28-of-38 passes for 380 yards and four touchdowns while Overbay made six grabs for 59 yards and three touchdowns.
"It's one of the elite teams in America," Lamb said. "I predict that they've got an opportunity to advance deep into the playoffs and that's where our program's going and that's where we can be, and I think we're on the verge of that, but we've got to play well."
Senior linebacker Robert Takeno, who recorded 11 tackles, said the T-Birds didn't come out ready to play.
"We didn't necessarily come out to play very well," he said. "We came out and played awful to begin with. The team never stopped trying. (It) came out and gave us a full effort like it always does."
Junior wide receiver Tysson Poots agreed that the T-Birds weren't fired up at the start.
"We might have come out a little flat," he said. "I don't know if it was because of the weather. We didn't come out with the fire like we normally do; we just didn't seem ready for it. We knew they came here to play no matter what the circumstances of the field and the weather."
The T-Birds finally mustered significant offense on their next drive, having a goal-to-go situation from the EWU 9-yard line after senior quarterback Cade Cooper completed a 50-yard pass to junior wide receiver Fesi Sitake, but junior running back Major Gray fumbled the ball on third-and-goal from the 1-yard line, ending SUU's scoring opportunity.
The T-Birds finally got on the scoreboard with 1:37 before halftime on an 8-yard pass from Cooper to Poots, cutting the deficit to 21-7.
The Eagles matriculated the ball down the field for a 35-yard field goal attempt right before the half, but junior safety Akeem Anifowoshe blocked the attempt and junior cornerback Colin Pretlow returned it 28 yards to the EWU 44-yard line.
The T-Birds were set up for a 61-yard field goal attempt, but it was botched, resulting in senior holder Brandon Godfrey dropping at midfield to end the half.
The Eagles reclaimed a 21-point advantage late in the third quarter when Nichols scrambled up the middle for a 52-yard rushing score, giving EWU a 28-7 lead.
The T-Birds answered with a 9-yard touchdown pass from Cooper to Poots on the last play of the third quarter, making it a two-score game at 28-14 going into the final frame.
The Eagles, however, struck with another big play as Nichols threw a short pass to Jones, who turned it into a 60-yard score. Sophomore safety Tyson Turley blocked the extra point for the T-Birds' second kick block of the game, making the score 34-14.
Lamb said the defense's struggles were a result of poor communication and bad tackling.
"(There was) no communication in the secondary early on," he said. "Our own guys got down on themselves and tried to do other guys' jobs, and just terrible tackling, especially in the second half."
The T-Birds kept battling and scored on a 1-yard run by Cooper, which was set up by a one-handed falling-down catch at the goal-line by Poots off a tipped pass, pulling the T-Birds once again within two scores at 34-21.
Lamb said offensively, the T-Birds were "just throwing more caution to the wind," which allowed them to fight back within striking distance.
"(We just let) it all hang out there; we had nothing to lose, so (we were) going for it on fourth down, passing the ball on first, second and third down," he said. "We've got competent guys playing skill positions. If we're just going to chuck the ball around, we'll score our points. That's not how to win games though."
The T-Birds got the ball back with the chance to make it one-score for the first time since it was 7-0 EWU in the first quarter, but failed to convert a fourth down, giving the Eagles the ball back. The Eagles capitalized with a 4-yard touchdown run by Jones, closing the door at 41-21 with 1:42 remaining.
Cooper and Poots connected again late in the game to make the final score 41-28. Cooper completed 35-of-47 passes for 345 yards and three scores, all to Poots, who caught 15 passes for 147 yards. Sitake also had double-digit catches with 12 for 143 yards.
Takeno said the T-Birds are a young, but talented team and it's only a matter of time before they're an elite team.
"This program will be elite within the next couple years," he said. Next year, with the amount of young talent this team has, they'll have a winning season. Next year, they'll probably be favored to win conference. Next year, they can have a playoff selection... This team is young and talented; it's just going in the right places. It's going in the right directions."
The T-Birds will wrap up their season Saturday against the University of San Diego at 7 p.m. in San Diego, Calif.