There will be no cautious dipping of a toe into the Big Sky Conference football waters for Eastern Washington University this fall.
The schedule-makers, instead, will force the Eagles to make an early-season headlong dive into a pool of circling Big Sky sharks that includes perennial national power Montana, along with Montana State, Weber State and Northern Arizona.
Following non-conference games against Nevada (in Reno on Sept. 2) and Central Washington (at Qwest Field in Seattle on Sept. 11), Eastern will open league play at home against Montana on Sept.18. The Grizzlies, whose only loss in 2009 came to Villanova in the title game of NCAA Football Championship Subdivision playoffs, are favored heavily in preseason polls of both league coaches and media members to capture a 13th consecutive Big Sky title.
EWU, which opens fall camp on Monday, is coming off an 8-4 season that included a first-round FCS playoff loss to Stephen F. Austin and is picked to finish second. But predicted to finish 3-4-5 are MSU, Weber and NAU – the three teams the Eagles play on consecutive Saturdays following their league-opener against Montana.
“Obviously, that’s a tough stretch,” Eastern’s third-year head coach, Beau Baldwin, said during Tuesday’s BSC coaches’ conference call about the menacing matchups his team faces in the first half of its league schedule. “But I also believe the entire league, from top to bottom, gets stronger every year, and, as we’ve seen the last few years, there are upsets and tight games no matter who you’re playing.”
Baldwin added that he sees those early season BSC showdowns as great opportunities for the Eagles to test themselves, perhaps against the league’s best, and find out exactly where they are in terms of development.
“In terms of how the last couple of years have gone, and in terms of how the media and coaches have voted, we’re playing the (other) top teams right from the get go, and that’s a challenge,” he said.
“But it’s fun that way. We’ll find out where were at and no matter what your guys are reading – good or bad – the one way to confirm it all is on the field. We’re looking forward to it, we’re excited about it, and we’ll just see how it goes.”
Just another game
Along with hosting Montana on Sept. 18, Eastern will also dedicate the new artificial red playing surface – the first of its kind in the country – that contractors could begin installing as early as today at Woodward Field.
Another sellout crowd is expected, and Baldwin was asked if, perhaps, the Eagles and their fans might be pointing toward their league opener as the Big Sky’s “game of the year.”
“Our course (our fans) are going to point to that, and it really wouldn’t matter when we were playing them,” Baldwin responded. “But there are so many great teams in this league, you can’t look at Game 1 in your conference – no matter who you’re playing – and feel like it’s make-or-break in any way.
“There is that feeling and buzz (about Montana), but it’s probably more from outsiders than it is from us. All theses league games are as important as the next.”
Idaho State, which finished 1-10 last year and 1-11 in 2008, is once again picked to finish last in the Big Sky standings. But fourth-year ISU coach John Zamberlin and senior quarterback Russel Hill both seem to feel they might be getting a bit overlooked.
“I understand why we got picked where we are, because of the last two seasons,” Zamberlin said. “But I also know it’s a prediction, and I know how hard our guys are working in the weight room and how frustrated our guys are about not winning.
“The poll is something to talk about, but the real motivator for our guys is the fact that they are tired of not winning.”
Added Hill: “Like Coach said, (the poll) is a motivator, but if the rest of the league knew what we had going, they wouldn’t pick us there. It’s just a preseason deal, and they make it every year. It’s not going to do anything but motivate us more, because we know the talent we have in our locker room.”
Rookies weigh in
The Big Sky’s fraternity of rookie head coach is rather small this fall, consisting of only Montana’s Robin Pflugrad, who took over the Grizzlies program shortly after Bobby Hauck bolted for UNLV, and Portland State’s Nigel Burton, who was hired to replace Jerry Glanville.
And both new coaches admitting to feeling a bit of apprehension.
“I think the person that holds his breath the most is probably myself,” said Pflugrad, who was promoted after spending last season as the Grizzlies’ wide receivers coach. “When you really think about it, when you walk around the hall everything is new. And the expectations here are as high as anywhere I’ve ever been or played against in the entire country.”
Burton, a one-time PSU assistant under Tim Walsh, spent the last two seasons as the defensive coordinator at Nevada and said one of he biggest changes he’s experienced as a head coach is “more sleepless nights.”
“You have to set the tone for the entire staff and the program,” Burton added. “There’s no one to look to and say, ‘Who’s going to fix this?’ or ‘Who’s in charge of this?’ because it’s you.”