RENO, Nev. – Coach Beau Baldwin found out a lot about his Eastern Washington University football team Thursday night.
Some things – like Taiwan Jones being a budding superstar – he already knew.
But Baldwin also learned that he has a quarterback in Bo Levi Mitchell who is capable of at least minimizing the graduation loss of Matt Nichols. And a defense with enough talent, depth and resolve to survive a horrible first-quarter showing and finally figure out a way to cope with Nevada’s loaded “pistol” offense.
Still, none of that was enough to prevent a season-opening 49-24 loss to the Football Bowl Subdivision Wolf Pack in front of a Mackay Stadium crowd of 16,313.
Nevada, behind a sensational performance by senior quarterback Colin Kapernick, jumped on the Eagles for a couple of quick scores and then added a couple of meaningless touchdowns in the final quarter to make the final score a bit deceiving.
“There were a lot of positive things from tonight,” Baldwin said. “You look at the scoreboard and that’s one thing but we came up short on just a few plays here and there.”
Kaepernick, a 6-foot-6, 225-pounder, completed 26 of 37 passes for 306 yards and two touchdowns, while torching the Eagles for another 60 yards and two TDS on the ground.
But even those gaudy numbers weren’t enough to overshadow the performance of Jones, who rushed for 145 yards and caught two passes for 92 yards and a first-quarter touchdown in amassing a career-high 322 all-purpose yards.
“It’s almost to the point where I’m not surprised,” Baldwin said of Jones’ heroics. “But then again, there were a few more things (he did) tonight that just make you marvel at how well he can may plays, even when there’s nothing there.
“He’s a special football player and, obviously, the big-play guy on our offense.”
Jones wasn’t pleased with his early effort – even though he had 126 combined rushing and receiving yards and his team’s only touchdown at intermission.
“I felt like I was sleeping that first half,” he said. “But, fortunately, I woke up in the second.”
Jones’ big second half helped set up a pair of Eastern scores – the first coming on a 5-yard pass from Mitchell to Brandon Kaufman and the second on a 1-yard run by Darriell Beaumonte – that cut Nevada’s lead to 35-24. But it wasn’t enough to offset the Wolf Pack’s blinding start, which included two touchdowns in the first 6½ minutes of the game.
After that, EWU’s reeling defenses seemed to figure things out and did a much better job of dealing with Nevada’s prolific hybrid offense.
“That was our biggest worry, just dealing with the early speed of that,” Eagles defensive coordinator John Graham said. “We got kicked right in the stomach early on, but we kept coming. This will be a great learning experience for our kids, and it gives a lot of good things to build on.”
Sophomore Jeff Minnerly, a converted quarterback who started his first collegiate game at free safety and finished with a team-high eight tackles, echoed Graham’s comments.
“A the start of the game, we had a little bit of trouble with it,” he said, “but then once we slowed down, started reading our keys and doing a better job with our eyes, we were able to slow them down.
“A better start and a few less missed tackles and it’s a different ballgame.”
Mitchell, a first-year junior transfer from Southern Methodist, seemed a little too amped up in the early going, badly overthrowing several receivers on deep corner patterns. And while he never really dialed in the deep ball, he did manage to complete 19 of 35 throws for 253 yards and two touchdowns.
“You can never replace Matt,” Jones said, when asked about Mitchell’s debut as an Eagle. “But I think it was a blessing getting Bo Levi. He’s a big step forward for us, and he put the ball where receivers get it.
“Today it didn’t go as well as we’d have liked, but we’re going to have a good team.”