Monday, July 13, 2009

Looking Ahead No. 5: Eastern Washington

Because I get bored voting for Montana to win the Big Sky championship in the pre-season polls every year, I always look for a reasonable alternative. Last year I voted for Eastern Washington. The Eagles returned the reigning Big Sky offensive MVP in quarterback Matt Nichols (right), three outstanding receivers and a multi-talented defensive front that featured future Buck Buchanan Award-winner Greg Peach.

But the Eagles proved to be more defined by their weaknesses than their strengths, at least early in the season. Handicapped by an inexperienced secondary, Eastern gave up 199 points in its first five games, an average of nearly 40 points a game. The Eagle defenders hit bottom against Portland State's run-and-shoot, yielding 623 yards passing in a 46-37 thumping. While the defense recovered well enough to hold its next five opponents to 19 or fewer points, Eastern could not overcome a stretch where they dropped three of four Big Sky games to PSU, Montana and Sacramento State. Turnovers were a big culprit -- in their five losses, Eastern was minus-9 in the takeaway department.

Three straight wins to end the season, including a final game victory over Big Sky co-champion Weber State, managed to salvage a winning record at 6-5, but that was far below the expectations that many, including EWU's players and first-year head coach Beau Baldwin, had for the season.

And then the hammer fell. An NCAA review, initiated by self-reported violations from Eastern, resulted in a three-year probation for the EWU program which includes a post-season ban in 2009. Eastern is appealing the ban, but unless the NCAA reverses its course, Nichols and his three outstanding senior receivers will finish their Eagle careers Nov. 21 in their regular-season finale against Northern Arizona.

Under ordinary circumstances, Eastern would again qualify as a "reasonable alternative" to Montana, what with 15 starters back from a team that finished so strong, including 12 who earned at least all-Big Sky honorable mention last year. Talent certainly will not be an issue for the Eagles, even though they lose Peach, who earned a roster spot with the Edmonton Eskimos in the Canadian Football League this summer, and two other all-league players on their defensive front. The key question, then, will be how the Eagles respond to the post-season ban: will they put a chip on their shoulder and play with extra motivation, or will they subconsciously relax knowing they can't go the playoffs?

The Eagles will take on Idaho State in Holt Arena in the fifth game of the season for both teams. While nobody in the Big Sky will play as difficult a schedule as the Bengals, Eastern's early slate is no picnic. The Eagles open with Division II Western Oregon at home, play at Cal, come home to Northern Colorado and then play at Sacramento State, who beat the Eagles in Cheney last season. With games under their belt against a PAC 10 power and a home and road conference test, the Eagles should have a pretty good sense of their strengths and weaknesses by the time they arrive in Pocatello for an Oct. 3 contest.

Those strengths should include a terrific passing game with Nichols at the helm, and four of the best receivers in the conference: Aaron Boyce, Brynsen Brown, Tony Davis and 6-foot-6 tight end Nathan Overbay, who looks ready to break out this season after catching six passes for 91 yards and a touchdown in Eastern's spring game. The Eagles also return most of their offensive line intact. The issue on that side of the football, then, is whether they can revive a running game that sputtered last season. If so, it will likely require better health for Tyler Hart and converted DB Taiwan Jones, both of whom had their freshmen seasons interrupted by injury last year.

Defensively, Eastern returns three outstanding linebackers in Makai Borden, JC Sherritt and Zach Johnson, an all-conference talent in safety Matt Johnson and a couple of run stuffers in tackles Renard Williams (6-2, 300) and Tyler Jolley (6-3, 275). They'll definitely miss Peach, and second-team all conference linemen Lance Witherspoon and Jason Belford. That great Eastern front four held opponents to just 2.8 yards per carry, and they averaged 3 sacks a game.

Idaho State has been fairly competitive against Eastern in recent years, compiling a 3-4 record over the last even contests, and taking a 31-31 tie into the fourth quarter before losing in Cheney, 45-31, last season. Like most of Eastern's early opponents, Idaho State took advantage of the Eagle secondary, with Russel Hill throwing for over 300 yards and three touchdowns and Jaron Taylor catching six passes for 112 yards and two TDS.

But then Eastern turned up the defensive pressure in the final period and sacked Hill five times in the game. The Eagles also shut down the Idaho State running attack, putting Hill and the offense in second and third and long situations most of the final period. Defensively, Idaho State never laid a glove on Nichols. Not surprisingly, I expect ISU's ability to generate some kind of rushing attack and to create a pass rush to be keys in this year's game -- and to be open questions for most of the season.

This year, the Bengals will be looking at the Eastern game as the chance to build some momentum. They will be playing their second straight home game after that brutal three-game road trip to start the season, and they hope to be coming off a win over Division II Central Washington -- although that is certainly no given. But if there is a window of opportunity in Idaho State's early season schedule, this is it.

--Brad B.

And thanks for being a Bengal fan -- it ain't always easy, but it's always fun.