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What a huge difference a game makes

Sat., Dec. 18, 2010

There’s something different now about this place, this program.

Maybe one victory shouldn’t do that, necessarily. Maybe it won’t be completely true without one more.

Maybe one play call – one brassy, all-in call – shouldn’t make that much difference. Maybe one subdued opponent, even one with a marquee player in a working man’s game and the mystique surrounding any defending champion, doesn’t complete the resume.

But don’t deny that it feels different out at Eastern Washington University this morning, even with campus deserted for the holidays and more work ahead.

“Feel like a champ,” grinned freshman running back Mario Brown.

Like one, he said. The reality is pending.

But the Eagles will have that chance, too, thanks to the remarkable 41-31 unraveling of Villanova on Friday night at Roos Field, filled – 6,600 worth – with the chilled, the giddy, the hungry, the deserving and, yes, maybe a few of the guilted-into-its.

The Eags and their constituents now have three full weeks to anticipate and savor the Football Championship Subdivision title game in Frisco, Texas, and to answer the question: How can that experience top this one.

“I’m not sure,” admitted receiver Nicholas Edwards, “because I can’t fathom this.”

Of course, that’s a riff on what they’ve been saying pretty much week to week at Eastern with all the harrowing escapes and big finishes.

A season that began with a bold stroke – the field they were playing on – crested, at least for the time being, with another.

With the Eagles seemingly just trying to run out the clock on a 34-31 victory and needing five yards to do just that, coach Beau Baldwin called timeout with 91 seconds left and told his quarterback, Bo Levi Mitchell, to throw it over the top to Greg Herd.

“I kind of looked at him funny,” said Mitchell. “Go to the end zone?”

Considering that he’d already thrown for three touchdowns and 269 yards – and given the occasional whipsaw extremes of his own game – shouldn’t it have been Mitchell’s job to talk his coach into the gamble?

Maybe. But things are different now.

“Everybody’s saying, ‘Throw it short,’ ” Mitchell said. “But he knew exactly what he was doing and why we were doing it, and the safety jumped the slant route and Greg made a great play on the ball.”

And that was the stake through the heart of Villanova, which had resisted all previous attempts despite turning the ball over five times.

The Wildcats, in their own way, were something else. With the trip to Cheney, they traveled more than 9,000 miles through the air through three rounds of this insane tournament to try to get another 3,000-mile trip to Frisco. They brought with them a pinballish offensive attack and a Swiss Army knife of a receiver in Matt Szczur, though some of the zip in their game may have been lost in the jetstream.

Along with an important part of their luggage: their hands.

Some of that, of course, was Eastern’s doing.

“We feel pretty confident in ourselves as a defense,” said linebacker J.C. Sherritt. “We give up yards but we make people go the full length of the field and we count on people making mistakes.”

Baldwin, however, said he “would go the opposite way. I count on our guys to come up with a play.”

And there you have it. The underdog persona will always play well at Eastern, but this team was simply better. All the yardsticks said so, and especially the one that saw Szczur limited to 67 all-purpose yards before leaving with a concussion.

For the first time since 1994, a Big Sky team other than Montana will play for the title. This is a stark fact painted against the lukewarm support the Eagles received in the playoffs – but that, too, went by the wayside Friday.

“It was nice to see,” said offensive line coach Aaron Best. “It’s funny – I’ve been around here since 1996 and in an area of 1.1 million or whatever, you wonder why you can only get 4,000 for North Dakota State.

“Tonight you look at the stands and see it full and you wonder, ‘Is it because it’s on ESPN2?’ Then let’s tell them it’s on ESPN2 every week and just lie and say it’s blacked out locally.

“But regardless if there’s one in the stands or 10,000, the difference with this team is that they aren’t looking behind them. They love the support, but they don’t care – the score they’re keeping is the one on the scoreboard, and they don’t care who it’s against.”

Still, the turnout and the din make them feel like champs. In three weeks, they’ll try to manufacture that feeling for themselves.

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