Eagles wobble, but they don’t fall down

SUNDAY, SEPT. 6, 2009

Nichols struggles early before righting ship

If you eat a toad for breakfast, your day probably isn’t going to get much worse.

On the flip side – for college football teams, at least – if you score from 87 yards out on your first play from scrimmage, your day probably isn’t going to get much better.

Eastern Washington University learned the latter of those two lessons Saturday afternoon when it opened its 2009 college football season with a ho-hum 35-14 win over Western Oregon at Woodward Field.

Eastern, ranked No. 18 in the Sports Network Preseason Poll of NCAA Football Championship Subdivision teams, handed the ball to Taiwan Jones on its first offensive play of the game – and season – and the sophomore speedster, making his debut as a collegiate running back, sprinted 87 yards for a touchdown that electrified a crowd of 3,113 but didn’t exactly ignite the Eagles’ offense.

Following Jones’ long scoring run, Eastern suffered through a series of first-half offensive stumbles – including a pair of interceptions thrown by senior quarterback Matt Nichols – before righting itself in the second half and sticking a fork in the visiting Wolves, an NCAA Division II team from Monmouth, Ore.

Nichols, in his fourth season as a starter, shook off his two early picks to complete 20 of 30 passes for 286 yards and three touchdowns, and the Eagles defense used a couple of interceptions by senior safety Kevin Hatch to keep the Wolves from entertaining any serious upset threats.

Afterward, Eastern’s second-year head coach Beau Baldwin expressed subdued satisfaction over his team’s overall effort and no surprise over the swoon his offense seemed to suffer following Jones’ early run.

“Sometimes you worry a little bit about that,” he said of the Eagles’ big start. “I’ve been in games before where we score on the first play of the game, and in almost all of those games, we haven’t played great as an offense in the first half.

“It’s like you’re excited about that one play, but then you kind of relax and get into an almost natural, relaxed mode, like, this is going to be easy. And we knew all week this wasn’t going to be easy.”

The Wolves answered EWU’s first touchdown with a 21-yard scoring pass from senior quarterback Josh Riddell to Sean Fullerton midway through the opening period and were trailing by only 14-7 late in the first half when John Breza picked off a Nichols pass to set up a first down at Eastern’s 24-yard line.

But on third down from EWU’s 8, Hatch stepped in front of Sean Kauleinamoku in the end zone and snuffed out WOU’s scoring threat with the first of his two interceptions.

From that point on, the Eagles were dominant, with Jones, who played cornerback as a redshirt freshman last fall, scoring on a 1-yard run early in the third period and Nichols connecting with senior tight end Nathan Overbay on a pair of fourth-quarter touchdown passes.

“Hatch’s play in the end zone was huge right before halftime, because if that’s not a pick, they at least have a chance to get three on the board,” Baldwin said. “That was a great play he made there, and then he makes another one later.”

Hatch, a former standout at Freeman High School, sensed his late first-half pick might be a game-changer.

“Our whole defense buckled down on that play,” he said. “And going in at halftime, we had that feeling that we had just got a pick – a big play – and that we were going to be fired up and ready to go in the second half.”

Click here to comment on this story »