As he lined up for a potential game-tying field goal with two seconds to play in regulation, Eastern Oregon kicker Nathan Harden said the thought on his mind was to not fail the seniors.
“It’s easy for me to come back and say, ‘I’ll get it next time,’” the junior said. “Some of these guys are my best friends right now. That’s what motivated me the most.”
Harden was true from 41 yards out as the clock expired to send the game into overtime, Brenden Kelly made an incredible touchdown catch in the extra session for the eventual winning score, and EOU outlasted Carroll in a thrilling season finale, 41-34, Saturday at Community Stadium.
“That was probably one of the best games in my career here,” EOU head coach Tim Camp said. “As far as going to overtime, against Carroll College, senior day. I kept telling the guys to make plays one play at a time, one drive at a time.”
In the overtime period Kelly, who had 195 yards receiving and two touchdowns, ripped a would-be interception away from a Saints’ defensive back in the end zone to give the Mountaineers the lead.
“I don’t remember the whole thing. I just kind of black out and go into focus mode a lot of the time (in those situations),” Kelly said. “I just remember coming up, getting the ball and trying to score.”
The defense then made a stand when it needed to the most. Carroll running back Major Ali bulled his way for 176 yards and two touchdowns on the day, but was stuffed by the Mountaineers on third-and-2 and fourth-and-2 with the game on the line to seal the victory in a wild contest.
“Those last couple plays, our D-line, our three interior guys just bowed up,” said defensive back Justin Hughes, who had a game-high 17 tackles, including the clincher on Ali on the final play. “Our linebackers were filling (the gaps). Everyone was being physical. We were winning the line of scrimmage.”
The overtime session was a fitting conclusion to a second half full of twists, turns and lead changes.
Eastern, which sputtered on offense most of the first half and trailed 14-7 at the break, came alive in the third quarter. An 81-yard touchdown pass from Kai Quinn to Kelly and a 2-yard run by Victor Dias, sandwiched around a safety by the EOU defense, gave the Mountaineers a 24-21 lead late in the third.
The Fighting Saints retook the lead with 8:46 remaining in the fourth quarter on Ali’s 1-yard run, only to see EOU march right back on a 65-yard drive. Quinn, who rushed for two scores on the day, dove to the goal line from 1 yard out to put EOU back ahead, 31-28, with 6:17 to play.
Carroll countered again, coming through in the clutch on third down. The Saints were 4-for-4 on third down on the 16-play, 75-yard drive, including a 29-yard catch by Shane Sipes on third-and-25. Troy Arnston got open at the goal line for a 20-yard scoring catch — on third-and-15 — to put the Saints back ahead with just 59 seconds left.
But Isaiah Cranford blocked the extra point to keep it a three-point game. EOU marched into field goal range, helped by a dropped interception by Brian FauntLeRoy, two crucial catches by Nico Chavez and a clutch grab on the sidelines by Calvin Connors with two seconds to play to give Harden a chance.
Eastern settled in and found its rhythm on offense through the air. The Mountaineers finished with 504 yards off offense — 417 of which came from the arm of Quinn as EOU repeatedly went deep to exploit Carroll’s one-on-one coverage.
“We knew going into this game we were going to have to pass a lot and make our wide receivers make big plays like we know they can,” Quinn, who was 18-for-35, said.
The effort through the air by Quinn — who became the first EOU quarterback since Chris Ware in 2008 to throw for more than 400 yards in a game, and just the third ever — and the receivers countered Carroll’s stout running defense, which led the conference coming in at just 108.7 yards per game allowed.
“I said at halftime, ‘We have to expose them in the passing game,’” Camp said. “They’re stout inside. They did a good job. That was one of the adjustments. (We) were going to attack them. We attacked them more so in the second half in the air than anything.”
Indeed, EOU passed for 302 yards after halftime. On the afternoon, the Mountaineers had five passing plays of more than 30 yards.
“We took advantage of that (with) our one-on-one matchups and our big time plays,” Kelly said.
The victory not only sent EOU into the offseason on a two-game winning streak, but sent its 10 seniors out on a winning note. The 26 victories earned by those here four years is among the highest totals in program history, and the 32 wins for those in the program five years is the most in any five-year stretch.
“Honestly, I couldn’t be happier,” said senior linebacker Michal Arenas, who recorded 12 tackles and a sack in his final game. “All the seniors, myself included, are ecstatic about this win, especially for such a good game.”
Chavez and TJ Hancock both have five catches for 78 and 68 yards, respectively, for EOU. Connors added 64 in his final outing for the Mountaineers.
The Saints, who saw a three-game winning streak stopped, finished with 364 yards, including 228 on the ground.
The outcome gives both Carroll and Eastern a final record of 4-6 overall and in the Frontier Conference, and puts them in a three way-tie for fifth in the final conference standings.