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Blanchette: Let’s build time machine for 1997 Eagles

After review, could we go back 13 years for even further review?

Just for the what-if fun of it?

Whether you ride with Doc and Marty in the DeLorean or Peabody and Sherman in the WABAC, a glimpse in Eastern Washington’s rear-view mirror will only reaffirm that the Eagles’ run through the playoffs to next month’s Football Championship Subdivision title game has been just as delicate as it is delightful.

Aaron Best, the Eagles’ offensive line coach, was still composed enough to point that out in the giddy aftermath of EWU’s 41-31 ousting of defending champion Villanova in the semifinals. But then, he has a history.

He was a backup lineman in 1997 when the Eagles made their other push into the semis, hosting Youngstown State at Albi Stadium in Spokane. Eastern trailed 7-0 at halftime, but had marched smartly to the YSU 19-yard line early in the third quarter when on third-and-4, quarterback Harry Leons was sacked by Jeff Fackrell. The ball came loose and was scooped up by Youngstown’s Mike Stanec, who thundered 73 yards for a touchdown and a 14-0 lead in a game YSU won 25-14.

Up in the press box, a thoroughly unofficial review of the television video suggested Leons was down before the fumble.

It had to be unofficial. No rules mechanism existed for an official review in those days.

“Now in this day and age,” Best said, “that would have been reviewed and probably would have been brought back. Who knows what happens after that? Maybe we tie it up and the whole character of the game changes. I just know that Youngstown wound up beating McNeese 10-9 in the final.”

There had been a similar crossroads on Eastern’s game-opening drive at the YSU 1-yard line, where receiver Joe Mitchell’s fumble certainly would have been reviewable today.

“Youngstown was playing its third consecutive road game,” said Mike Kramer, EWU’s coach at the time, “just like Villanova was last weekend. In the playoffs, that first road game is tough, the second one the climb gets steeper and by the third game, it’s a monster. If we’d scored on that opening drive, the road fatigue might have caught up with them – you don’t really know – but it was a key moment in the game and to their credit, they survived.”

History – even what-if history – is relevant today because of how fairly video has treated this year’s Eagles.

Make no mistake – the Eagles are in the championship game on their own merits. Just as replay has reaffirmed its much-debated merits.

No bigger play has there been in Eastern’s run, naturally, than the overtime goal-line stop and fumble that preserved the quarterfinal victory over North Dakota State. Replay didn’t confirm the on-field call that gave Eastern the ball and the victory; replay official Bill Fette said only that it was not “indisputable,” as the NCAA guidelines insist.

Indeed, that’s what happened on the other two important reviews in that game – a fumble by EWU’s Tyler Hart and a later one forced by Renard Williams both stood. Against Villanova, two key reviews reversed calls – a fumble recovery by Paul Ena that took nearly five minutes to sort out, and Alante Wright’s muffed punt that led to a Nova touchdown. The most bitterly disputed call – Tyler Washburn’s return for an EWU touchdown of a fumble the visitors insisted happened when running back Angelo Babbaro was on his back – was upheld.

“Everyone looks at that last play in the North Dakota State game,” said EWU coach Beau Baldwin, “but there’s been other significant ones and they’ve pretty much split down the middle.

“I’m certainly in favor of it, especially at this point of the season when so much is at stake. And I think it’s handled the right way, in the sense that they’re not trying to do too much. If it’s close, if it’s not clear-cut the other way, they keep with what was called on the field.”

That tempers the notion of a retired ref playing God from up above, and the timidity that in isolated instances over the years infected some on-field officials making calls they knew would be scrutinized. Some hidebound critics – you’re reading one – still gripe that the “indisputable” limits the “reasonable,” and makes game crews even more vulnerable to charges of ineptitude, or worse. And the whole concept of challenges – how many and when – remains arbitrary and defeating.

“But telephones are better than smoke signals,” Kramer pointed out. “Technological progress makes it easier for all of us to do our jobs better.”

More justice is always better than less. Just ask the Eagles of 1997.