Despite a three-season detour to the Pac-10 after he graduated from South Kitsap, it seems as if first-year Eastern Washington running back Ryan Cole has always been an Eagle.
“I like how we play together as a team, how we focus on ourselves,” the Oregon State transfer said. “I like how we stress every single day it’s not about who we’re playing, it’s about ourselves and how we have to get better to play Eastern football.”
That focus is especially pertinent now because the 12th-ranked Eagles’ weekly critical Big Sky Conference game is at No. 2 Montana, the measuring stick for all league teams and the team that has frustrated Eastern fans more than once.
But as Cole mimics his new coaches, fans can rest assured their running back is ready for the atmosphere – created by 23,000 rabid fans – that intimidates many visitors to Washington-Grizzly Stadium.
“Rivalry games are what college football is all about,” he said. “I played in a few big games at Oregon State with the Civil War. I know how it works, I know how crucial the game can be.”
While the Eagles (3-2, 2-1) insist the Grizzlies (4-1, 3-0) are less a true rival than a hurdle they must clear, exactly like the one last week and the one next week, EWU fans consider this game unlike any other. They’ve watched Montana snatch victory from them more than once, including last year when a blocked field goal with 20 seconds left allowed UM to leave Woodward Field with a 27-24 win.
And Cole understands that, too.
“It’s left a bad taste,” he said. “I wasn’t here to experience it, but when I was at Oregon State (the same thing happened and) the impression is still there. They want a chance to redeem themselves. Not them, us.”
If Eastern is to win, Cole must be a factor, which also means the young offensive line must continue to improve.
The Eagles were largely one dimensional in a 1-2 start either because the line wasn’t opening holes for Cole or they were forced to pass. Cole picked up 85, 58 and 32 yards in those games with one touchdown in each outing.
But in the last two games, after Eastern was thrust into almost a must-win situation, he has 362 yards and six touchdowns.
“It was really frustrating because we were not executing,” Cole said. “(Head) coach (Paul) Wulff noticed and he jumped in with (line) coach (Aaron) Best and started coaching the running game more. Slowly but surely we’re getting better. The offensive line is getting more settled in their positions.”
Frustrations aside, Cole had no regrets about leaving OSU over differences in the role he was expected to play for a coaching staff that was different than the one that recruited him.
“I’ve always been happy with my decision,” the even-keeled former prep All-American said. “I’d rather run the ball two times than be in the position I was at Oregon State. Right now I’m living it up.”
He has also discovered that the differences between I-A and I-AA football are negligible.
“The competitive level is always the same,” he said. “I’ve been more sore when I wake up on Sundays than I was at Oregon State. They still hit hard. The only thing lacking in I-AA is size, girth up front.”
The Eagles, though obviously pleased with Cole’s production, are even happier with the attitude he has brought to the team.
“He has, by his actions, become a leader,” EWU running back coach Joe Wade said. “There aren’t many guys that are going to out work him. He wants to be a good player. He does all the things he needs to do to be a good player. That’s why when early we didn’t have success (running the ball) I knew it would eventually come.”
At 6-foot-2, 225 pounds, Cole is an imposing figure but he also has run away from defenders on a couple long touchdown runs.
“I’ll do whatever I can to get a yard,” he said. “A lot of people say I’m a bruiser and I can definitely run between the tackles, but the greatest aspect to my running game is my size with the speed to hit the corners.”
The closest comparison is with Jesse Chatman, Eastern’s all-time leader rusher who is now with the New Orleans Saints. But that has more to do with power since the 5-8, 230-pound Chatman is a little shiftier.
“I don’t know if we’ve had a guy quite like him,” Wade said. “Jesse was a physical runner but still a little different. Ryan is probably the most physical tailback we’ve had that is a true tailback. He is a fast, hard-running back that is generally difficult to tackle because of his physical strength.
“As he’s gotten more comfortable in the offense we’re starting to see more and more big plays out of him.”