Harry Leons wasn’t nearly the factor in Saturday’s 38-21 Division I-AA playoff win over Western Kentucky he’s been in Eastern Washington’s other 11 victories this year.
But that the senior quarterback was a factor at all might have been the main reason the Eagles survived to play another day.
Leons suffered a slight cartilage tear in his right rib cage Thursday during practice and was unable to throw the football on Friday.
The injury bothered him during pregame warmups Saturday, but the Big Sky Conference offensive player of the year played through the pain and took every one of his team’s snaps from center.
His passing numbers - 11 of 16 for 127 yards and one touchdown - were modest. But they were also comforting, especially to Eagles coach Mike Kramer, who was looking at having to throw little-used sophomore Griffin Garske into the playoff fray.
“Harry felt better at the end of the game than he did at the start,” a relieved Kramer said of Leons. “I just know he was wounded and did not attempt a pass (at practice) yesterday.
“I’m a little tired, because none of us (coaches) slept last night. Griff is going to be a fine quarterback in his time, but we’re at the crest of this wave we’re riding because of Harry.”
Leons claimed the cartilage tear was not a factor in his performance.
“It hurt before, but once the game started, I didn’t even think about it,” he said.
If Eastern’s goal-line stop of WKU fullback Latravis Powell was the play of the game, Mike MacKenzie’s 89-yard touchdown run moments later might have been 1A.
“Not getting in was big,” said Western coach Jack Harbaugh, “and then we had them down deep and felt we could get the ball back with good field position - and then the guy broke the long one.”
The touchdown run gave Eastern a 31-14 lead, and helped push MacKenzie’s yardage on the day to 163 - only 10 less than what Western, the NCAA’s top Division I-AA rushing attack, managed as a team.
“There was a time this season for Mike MacKenzie, after the Weber State game, that he struggled,” said Kramer. “He got beat up a little and his confidence suffered, and it may have cost us our only loss (at Montana State). This was great retribution for him today.”
Traveling in style
Western Kentucky flew nearly 1,800 miles to play its quarterfinal-round game against Eastern, but linebacker Ron Kelly said the extensive travel had nothing to do with the Hilltoppers’ loss.
As an independent school based in Bowling Green, Ky., Kelly and his teammates normally travel anywhere from eight to 12 hours on a bus to get to road games.
“So a little plane ride for four or five hours really isn’t that bad,” Kelly said. “This is a nice stadium and a nice place to play, and travel really wasn’t a factor.”
Eastern’s 17-point victory margin might have made it seem like Western Kentucky didn’t offer much resistance. But Eagles offensive tackle Jim Buzzard insisted that wasn’t that case.
“These guys were tough,” a visibly bushed Buzzard said of the Hilltoppers defenders after the game. “They were big guys.”
And much tougher to block than the smaller linemen that Northwestern State threw at the Eagles last Saturday.
“Once you got in front of them, they were done,” Buzzard said of the Demons. “But these guys, they kept coming at you. They were like a bunch of bulls out there.
“You just had to get lower than them. Like coach Kramer said, this was game played about 2-1/2 feet above the ground. It was all about pad levels.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo