Clark, Forte and stingy defense enough to push Eagles into FCS Semi-final


Will Katoa, Samson Ebukam and Ronnie Hamlin on the sideline

By Galen Rock, Sports Editor

Another strong second half from the Eastern defense catapulted them to a 35-24 win over the Jacksonville State Gamecocks in the FCS national quarterfinal at Roos Field on Dec. 14.

In a game that featured over 1,000 yards of combined offense and eight total touchdowns, it normally would be considered a stretch to call this game a defensive battle, but that is exactly what it was.

The Eastern defense bent throughout the entire evening, but when it felt like the Gamecocks were gaining momentum, the defense never broke.

“It was a battle,” said EWU head football coach Beau Baldwin. “Every game is going to have a different feel to it. There might be some games that are smooth and rhythmic, other games that are defensive battles or one half might be different than the next. We are consistently able to make adjustments. Whatever ballgame it is, we are able to find ways to win.”

The winning plays this week came in the second half and both were not made by an award winner or All-American, but by a reserve cornerback and freshman linebacker.

With JSU driving with 10:40 left in the game down 28-24, EWU freshman linebacker Albert Havili stepped in front of an errant throw and raced 77 yards for the interception return and the comfortable two possession lead.

“It was fast. It all happened fast. When I passed the goal line is when everything started coming back to me,” said Havili after the game.

The defense did not stop there. On the subsequent JSU drive, senior defensive back and special teams ace, Bo Schuetzle, made a particularly physical play in the corner of the end zone to break up a pass intended for JSU receiver Josh Barge.

“It happened real fast tonight. They had run that play in the redzone a couple times tonight. The second the receiver’s hands went up, I just tried to grab that thing out,” said Schuetzle.

Both of these plays were game changing, especially in a contest that saw JSU lose their starting quarterback Eli Jenkins and have to rely on backup quarterback and University of Minnesota transfer, Max Shortell, a much different quarterback than the elusive Jenkins.

Up until the second half when he left with an injured left leg, Jenkins had run for 120 yards on 14 attempts while also passing for 127 yards and a touchdown.

Shortell, however, never got into a rhythm. He ended the game with 173 yards and two interceptions.

“We knew [Jenkins] was mostly the runner and [Shortell] was mostly the pocket passer. So we knew what our drops would be and what to look for. We knew with [Shortell] in the game we could dig our heels down and play the pass,” said Havili.

The Eagles also held JSU to 4.5 yards a carry and only a single touchdown, a sizeable improvement for a group who was gashed earlier in the year.

“It’s preparation throughout the week. You come to practice and see our [defensive line], and individuals hitting the bags and getting after it during practice,” said senior defensive tackle Andru Pulu. “It’s just preparation.”

The Eagle offense on the other hand, had an up and down day. In the first half, Vernon Adams and company accumulated 337 yards of total offense, 91 yards coming off the ground and 246 through the air, as well as, three total touchdowns. In the second half, the offense only gained 208 yards and 10 first downs.

Senior EWU receiver Ashton Clark and junior running back Quincy Forte were the stars of the show, offensively. Clark compiled 181 yards on 11 catches and a touchdown, most of which came during the first half offensive explosion.

“It’s something we pride ourselves on, everybody being ready. You know, you never know when you’re going to get your shot and you never know who’s going to have the big game. When that opportunity comes, we definitely take advantage of it,” said Clark when asked about Adam’s ball distribution. “We definitely want to make it hard for people to cover us. We want to make it feel like you have to watch all four of [our receivers] at all times.”

Forte, on the other hand, was the closer in this game. The Fairfield, Calif., native rushed for 190 yards on 24 carries, averaging nearly eight yards per carry.

“The [offensive line] is doing a really good job and I’m just growing as a [running] back. Coming in watching more film, being more patient, and letting my runs develop for me,” said Forte. “It always feels good to go over 100 [yards rushing] or 200 for the first time, but we got the [win] and that’s all that matters.”

Eagles will host the Towson University Tigers for the FCS Semifinal next week at Roos Field. It is the third semifinal for EWU in four years. Kickoff is set for 11 a.m. on Dec. 21. The game will be televised on ESPNU.