Just as big as that new 360x160 red rug which, to paraphrase Coach Lebowski, really ties the campus together at Eastern Washington was the unspoken doubt advancing Saturday’s showdown with Montana.
Undertow, you might say, in the ocean of delirium and tsunami of marketeering these past several months.
And the doubt was this: What happens if you lose an all-or-nothing game in September?
Yes, mathematically two entire months of football remain, and the loser now may be later to win, to paraphrase Coach Dylan. But emotionally, the Eagles could hardly have had more invested than they did in this latest exercise in measuring themselves against the uber program of medium-boy football.
There was the new red turf, of course, and the hardball ticket policy meant to ratchet down – and get under the skin of – the waves of Montanans who have made Eastern’s stadium their own in the past. And there was the new red turf, and the fact that they’d sent the last senior class out without having beaten the Grizzlies – and being desperate not to do it again. There was also the new red turf, and what promised to be the biggest Cheney crowd in the program’s history – would you believe 6,400 season-ticket holders this year? – and this being the Big Sky Conference opener and all.
And did you hear? They installed red turf out there. It’s really … uh, red.
So having bet it all on the red, surely the Eagles understood that they were setting themselves up for a terrible anti-climax if the Grizzlies got over on them again.
“New turf doesn’t much matter,” acknowledged Eagles safety Matt Johnson, “if you lose that first game on it.”
Well, it may be an anti-climax, anyway. Concocting an encore – this year or beyond – to Saturday’s volcanic spectacle and the 36-27 victory over the uncharacteristically error-prone and undisciplined Grizzlies is probably more than heaven will allow, to paraphrase Coach Springsteen.
In front of 11,702 – most of whom seemed to be standing three-deep on the EWU sideline – the Eagles spotted the Grizzlies a two-touchdown lead, then forced six UM turnovers and marched smartly down the field in the last minute and half for the winning field goal. Dubiously, the Grizzlies were awarded an “untimed” last chance at Hail Mary after fans spilled onto the field before the referees were ready to depart, but Tyler Jolley stripped the ball before quarterback Justin Roper could pull the trigger, and Renard Williams rumbled to the end zone for six so-there points – the cherry on the sundae.
The Grizzlies thus went home losers of two in a row for the first time in five years – and with a harsh postgame blistering from new coach Robin Pflugrad ringing in their ears. They were undone largely by issues of their own making – carelessness with the ball, brain cramps on special teams, senseless penalties, and second-guessable play calling.
A slow-developing sweep a yard away from the winning touchdown? Really?
To this salad the Eagles added a sprinkle of salty defense – and a big dash of Taiwan Jones. The junior running back ran for a career high 221 yards – including 13 on a third-and-10 crossroads on that final drive.
“He’s so special,” said Pflugrad. “I don’t know when I’ve seen a guy who can dominate a game like that. We didn’t tackle him very well, but in hindsight I don’t know if you can tackle him well. He just has a knack of making you miss and won’t go down even after contact.”
When Eastern was struggling with its rhythm early, it was easy to holler for coach Beau Baldwin to get the ball to Jones more. But the game goes 60 minutes, and there’s method in meting out those touches – like not having your meal ticket broken in half. Indeed, one thing you haven’t always seen in these yearly crusades by Eastern is a smarter approach than the Grizzlies; it was more than evident Saturday.
“They’ve changed their offense and we felt we matched up better with them this year than in some games in the past,” said Johnson, who made both Eastern picks and forced a fumble. “They try and spread you out now, so we were able to better use our speed and not have to worry so much about their power game.”
A junior, Johnson will have yet another shot at Montana next year, but he and his classmates stressed how gratifying it was to get the Eastern seniors their lone win over the Grizzlies – which only served to underscore how much it hurt to send out the 2009 class with an oh-fer.
“It bothers you,” admitted Johnson. “Every game is important, but in the weight room when you’re talking in the offseason, this is the one you’re pointing toward. You can’t make it your whole season, but it’s definitely the one you think about.”
Like the new rug, it’s the game that can tie the season together. Maybe that’s the encore the Eagles have in mind.