As he prepares for his initial venture into the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs as a head coach, Beau Baldwin can’t help but feel he’s been here before.
Probably because he has – sort of.
Eastern Washington University’s second-year head coach was the offensive coordinator and mentor of quarterbacks under Paul Wulff when the Eagles made back-to-back FCS playoff appearances in 2004 and 2005.
But even more important, perhaps, is what Baldwin accomplished during his one-year hiatus from EWU in 2007, when he returned to his alma mater, Central Washington, and took over as the Wildcats head coach.
In his first try at running a college football program, Baldwin led CWU to a share of the Great Northwest Athletic Conference regular-season title and into the NCAA Division II playoffs, where the ’Cats won two games and advanced to the quarterfinals before losing to two-time defending national champion Grand Valley State.
In addition, several members of Baldwin’s current staff at EWU – including defensive coordinator John Graham – were also a part of Central’s 2007 playoff run. And several others were assistants under Wulff at EWU in 2007 when the Eagles earned an at-large playoff berth and advanced to the quarterfinals before losing to eventual national champion Appalachian State.
Baldwin expects all of that past experience to prove beneficial as the Eagles (8-3) prepare for Saturday’s first-round FCS playoff matchup against Southland Conference co-champion Stephen F. Austin (9-2), which kicks off at noon in Nacogdoches, Texas.
“A playoff is a playoff,” Baldwin said, “and I think the run we were fortunate enough to have at Central, where we strung together a couple of wins, will help us prepare for this one.
“When you’ve been through it, you know what to expect. And you can talk to your team about it with first-hand knowledge. Of course, the more often you get in, the better you are going to get – hopefully – at knowing what you need to do to give your team the best chance to move on in the playoffs.”
Last game? No worries
Despite all they accomplished during the regular season, the Eagles went to bed following last Saturday’s wild 49-45 road win over Northern Arizona not knowing for sure if they would ever play together again.
But the uncertainty didn’t seem to bother the seniors on this year’s team, most of whom were looking at the possibility of their football playing days being over.
“For some reason, I didn’t feel that way after the game – maybe because we were all so excited about getting that win,” senior safety Kevin Hatch said. “I guess it was in the back of my mind that it could have been my last game. But it was still a great feeling knowing that if it was, we went out the right way – with a win.”
Senior linebacker Makai Borden decided not to lose sleep over something he couldn’t control.
“And after that game, about the only thing we could control was staying positive,” he explained. “I wasn’t necessarily not thinking about it (being my last game), but I definitely didn’t focus on it too much.
“That was pretty much the approach I took, and, luckily, everything has worked out for the best and we get to play again.”
Another chance for Nichols
Matt Nichols, Eastern’s record-setting senior quarterback, went into last Saturday’s regular-season finale against Northern Arizona needing 460 passing yards to surpass former Weber State standout Jamie Martin and become the Big Sky Conference’s all-time leading passer.
Remarkably, Nichols threw for over 250 yards and four touchdowns in the first half against NAU. But despite finishing the day by completing 22 of 33 passes for 408 yards and five TDs, he came up 52 yards short of Martin’s record 12,207 career passing yards that was set 17 years ago.
But with the Eagles having earned an at-large berth in the FSC playoffs, Nichols will get a least one more chance to accumulate the 53 yards he needs to become the most prolific passer in the 46-year history of the Big Sky.
“It just shows his toughness and longevity,” EWU coach Beau Baldwin said of Nichols, who passed Martin as the BSC’s career leader in total offense earlier this year and now has 12,830 yards. “A lot of players have talent but get hurt along the way, or this or that. But Matt has just been constant, and one of those guys – week in and week out – who just brings it.
“He deserves the records. He has worked hard to get that, and I’m really proud of him.”
Eastern’s junior linebacker J.C. Sherritt continues to lead the FCS with an average of 14 tackles per game. The former Pullman standout, who set a single-game school record with 24 tackles in EWU’s 31-13 loss to Weber State back on Oct. 10, got involved in 15 during last Saturday’s win over Northern Arizona and now has 154 on the year, which is three more than the previous single-season school record set by Greg Belzer in 2000. … Eastern and Stephen F. Austin have played three times, previously, with the Lumberjacks holding a 2-1 advantage in the series. The two schools played each year from 1987-89, with EWU winning the first game 3-0 and SFA taking the next two by scores of 48-10 and 42-36. … Eastern is 6-0 when winning the turnover battle this season and holds a 22-4 turnover advantage in those six games. … The 17 seniors on EWU roster have combined for a total of 339 career starts.