October 13, 2011 in Sports

Eastern’s season has familiar feel

By The Spokesman-Review
 

Eastern Washington has been here before – sort of.

The big difference is that the Eagles (2-4 overall, 2-2 Big Sky Conference) frittered away their margin for error earlier this fall than they did in 2009 and 2010, when they put together late-season winning streaks against BSC opponents to earn at-large berths in the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs.

If they hope to build on their modest two-game winning streak and continue the unlikeliest of playoff runs in 2011, they will have to do it without at least six players – including five who have started at some point this fall – who have had their season cut short by an injury.

“It’s been like this for three years now,” junior wide receiver Nicholas Edwards said of Eastern’s precarious playoff situation, in which they must win their remaining five games – including Saturday’s 4 p.m. Roos Field homecoming matchup against Northern Colorado (0-6, 0-4) – to have any chance of qualifying for postseason play.

“When we had the ban lifted two years ago, and then again last year, we knew we had to win out to make the playoffs, so this doesn’t feel all that different,” Edwards said. “We know what we need to do, and we know just how much more enjoyable it would be for all the guys we lost if we can just get through this again.”

In 2009, which started with the Eagles under a postseason ban as the result of an NCAA investigation into improprieties that occurred under former coach Paul Wulff, Eastern won four of its first five games and was 3-0 in the Big Sky before losing to Weber State and Montana and falling to 3-2 in conference play.

Those back-to-back losses left the Eagles looking at having to win out to make the playoffs. Once the NCAA overturned the ban, the Eagles responded by closing the regular season with four consecutive victories – including a nonconference win over Southern Utah – to tie for second in the BSC and earn an at-large playoff berth.

And last fall, they opened 2-2 overall and 1-1 in the Big Sky following an ugly 30-7 road loss to Montana State, before stringing together 11 consecutive victories on their way to winning the NCAA Division I championship.

“It feels almost the same this time around,” said senior quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell, who is only his second year in the program. “Last year was a little bit different, because we only had those two early losses and we knew that if we got another one, we just weren’t going to be Big Sky champions.

“But this year, we know if we get another one, we’re not going to the playoffs, which wasn’t necessarily the case last year. Still, every game was a playoff game for us at the end of last year, and we’re in that same situation again – win or don’t go.”

Kaufman seeks pass

Brandon Kaufman, Eastern’s standout junior wide receiver, who has missed the last two games with a broken bone in his hand, is expected to miss the rest of the season and petition the NCAA for a medical redshirt season that would allow him to return next fall with two years of eligibility remaining.

“That’s the plan right now,” Eagles coach Beau Baldwin said, “which would be a great thing for both our team, and Brandon.”

Kaufman is one of six EWU players to have their season cut short by injuries.

The others include offensive linemen Steve Forgette (broken fibula), Ashton Miller (torn Achilles tendon) and Jase Butorac (knee), wide receiver Tyler Hart (knee) and linebacker Zach Johnson, a fifth-year senior, who might also apply for a medical hardship and another season of eligibility.

Ratings update

Big Sky Conference leader Montana State (5-1, 3-0) retained the No. 3 spot in both The Sports Network/Fathead.com and Football Championship Subdivision Coaches’ polls this week, while second-place Montana (4-2, 3-1) jumped from 16th to 14th in the TSN/Fathead.com Top 25 and from 14th to 11the in the coaches’ rankings.

This week’s Sagarin Ratings has the Big Sky ranked as the nation’s fourth-best FCS conference behind the Southern, Colonial and Great West.

The Sagarin Ratings have MSU ranked No. 7 nationally among FCS schools, while Montana is No. 12 and Eastern Washington is No. 14.

Third-and-shorts

Idaho State’s David Harrington punted 12 times for a Big Sky single-game record 618 yards – and average of 51.5 per kick – in last Saturday’s 33-0 loss to Montana. … All four BSC teams that played on the road last weekend – Eastern Washington (at Northern Arizona), Montana State (at Portland State), Sacramento State (at Northern Colorado) and Montana (at ISU) – won, doubling the conference’s number of road wins this fall. … MSU, which has won nine straight regular-season home games, puts its conference lead on the line Saturday against visiting NAU, which has beaten the Bobcats in each of its last two trips to Bozeman. … Portland State’s Cory McCaffrey continues to lead all FCS players in rushing (157 yards per game) and scoring (18 points per game).

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