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Eastern Washington tops Sam Houston State, 56-35, in season-opening thriller

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The season's first Division I football game did not disappoint.

James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

SB Nation 2014 College Football Guide

The No. 2 Eastern Washington Eagles hosted the No. 14 Sam Houston State Bearkats Saturday afternoon to kick off the 2014 Division I college football season. Those looking forward to a high-scoring affair after last year's 49-34 Sam Houston State victory were not disappointed, as Eastern Washington emerged with a 56-35 victory in a game with a number of big plays and momentum shifts.

What happened:

Quarterback and Walter Payton Award nominee Vernon Adams got to work early in the game, leading the Eagles on a 12-play, 88-yard drive to take an early lead. Adams ran for 13 yards on the first play of the drive and completed four passes for 40 yards. The drive ended on a three-yard touchdown pass to Blair Bomber, who was just a little open on the play.

TD

This was a common theme in the early game -- Eastern Washington's receivers repeatedly beat the Sam Houston State coverage, especially deep. Adams struggled early on the longer throws, often overthrowing receivers who had beaten their man by a few steps, and the Eagles failed to capitalize on a number of early defensive lapses. Here, Adams missed an open receiver who appeared to have run the wrong route:

bad

After a strong defensive first quarter, the Eagles' inability to capitalize on big-play opportunities came back to haunt them. Sam Houston State running back Keyshawn Hill burst up the middle for a virtually untouched 79-yard touchdown, tying the game back up at 7-7.

td

The two teams then traded a pair of touchdowns, bringing a 21-21 tie into halftime.

An early pattern emerged separating the two offenses. Eastern Washington had more general success on offense, with methodical drives but few conversions on big plays. The Bearkats struggled on offense but were able to survive on big plays. All three first-half Sam Houston State touchdowns were at least 50 yards apiece, but the Eagles significantly outperformed them in first-half yardage (342 to 263) and first downs (21 to nine).

The trend continued in the second half: Sam Houston State put together three unsuccessful drives to start out the third quarter while Eastern Washington scored two short touchdowns to gain a 14-point lead. The Bearkats responded with this catch and gain, followed up by a six-yard touchdown pass.

It wasn't enough for the Bearkats -- every time they scored, Eastern Washington countered, and the Eagles emerged with the all-important victory.

Three things it means:

1) Eastern Washington (unsurprisingly) looks like a serious title contender. The Eagles were the last non-NDSU team to win it all, and former Bison head coach Craig Bohl is now with Wyoming in the FBS. The opportunity is there for the Eagles to get back on top, and with Adams playing the way he is it's hard to see too many teams getting in the way.

2. Vernon Adams' Payton Award campaign has started. It wasn't his best game, but Adams threw four touchdowns en route to the big season-opening win. Adams averaged just 6.3 yards per passing attempt (and 5.1 yards per run), but he made the big plays when the Eagles needed him to and succeeded in knocking off a ranked opponent.

3. Sam Houston State will make some noise this year...if their defense holds up. The Bearkats had to replace a number of graduated players with transfers, and it showed in the opener. SHSU looked unstoppable in spurts but lacked the consistent play (and defensive stops) needed to pull off the upset. There's no question the talent is there to make a playoff run, and better on-field cohesion should come with more experience.

Where do they go from here?

We could see some movement in the polls for both teams. Eastern Washington could pick up a few first place votes from top-ranked North Dakota State (who open things up with a visit to Iowa State), while Sam Houston State will likely drop a few spots with their opening loss.

The Bearkats next face Alabama State, a solid program who received six votes in the preseason Coaches' Poll, before a daunting September 6 date against LSU. Eastern Washington plays NAIA Montana Western before travelling to face Washington.

Either way, get excited for the playoffs: both of these teams will likely be back in December.