CHENEY, Wash. Sacramento State proved it could go toe-to-toe with the top-ranked FCS team in the country, but the Hornets couldn't match the big plays of Eastern Washington.
The Eagles, in their first week at No. 1 in the Football Championship Subdivision rankings, produced 16 plays of at least 10 yards, half going for more than 20, including a 52-yard touchdown pass early in the fourth quarter that was the difference in the Hornets' 31-28 Big Sky Conference loss Saturday night.
As usual, Sac State (5-3, 3-2) was a difficult challenge for the Eagles (6-1, 5-0) and this time the announced crowd of 8,714 homecoming fans had to sweat until Mason Magleby's 45-yard Hail Mary pass on the last play of the game was knocked down at the goal line.
Though Eastern now leads the series 17-4, all four Sac State wins have been on the road, all in the last seven trips.
"Even when the last play went, I thought we still had a chance," said running back Ezekiel Graham, who rushed 17 times for 82 yards and had three catches for another 36. "They had a lot of big plays. We kept chipping away at it."
The Hornets had 10 plays of 10 or more yards, but only two longer than 20. The biggest was a 30-yarder from Magleby to Morris Norrise to set up the final pass to the end zone.
"I felt it was going to come down to the end," Hornets coach Marshall Sperbeck said. "We had the ball last, but there wasn't enough time. If we had another couple of plays, I felt good about our chances.
"I'm proud of our team. Our team is not going to get down, they're going to fight to the end."
Four of the Hornets' long plays came on a 75-yard drive that ended a minute into the fourth quarter on a 17-yard run by Graham that cut Eastern's lead to 24-21. But just four snaps later, Kyle Padron hooked up with Brandon Kaufman for the 52-yard TD that proved the back-breaker.
After Sac State starting quarterback Garrett Safron left the game with a hand injury, Magleby connected with T.J. Knowles on a six-yard scoring pass to push the Hornets to within 31-28 with 3:05 left in the game, but they were 90 yards away with only 21 seconds left to play when they got the ball back.
The Hornets only had three possessions in the first half, the first producing a 7-3 lead late in the first quarter. De'jon Coleman capped the 16-play, 65-yard drive with a one-yard run. But there were only nine snaps in the other two possessions, good for 21 yards.
Eagles freshman quarterback Vernon Adams lit up the Hornets with 17 of 21 passing for 169 yards. His 10-yard pass to Greg Herd on third down with 6:10 left in the second quarter, putting the Eagles ahead, was an amazing combination of arm and legs.
The Hornets had an all-out blitz that had Adams backpedaling. He slipped two tackles and stayed upright despite being grabbed by the facemask before threading the needle to Herd in the end zone.
"It seemed the play went on forever," Sperbeck said. "Give credit to the kid, he made a play."