September 4, 2011 in Sports

Blanchette: Eagles prove riffraff can play rough

By The Spokesman-Review
 

SEATTLE – Class warfare can be fun.

Naturally, this was a tough sell to the aristocratic tastes of Seattle, where never until Saturday had the University of Washington deigned to mix it up with the football proletariat. Play the rabble from the 63-scholarship ranks? What’s next? Screwtop Chardonnay and Velveeta at the tailgate party?

No wonder the patrons stayed away as if was the Tyrone Willingham era.

Well, the commoners breached the portals of Husky Stadium and, against all odds, still the creaky castle stands.

And the landlords? Their noses were bloodied, if not out of joint.

In fact, it’s likely the Huskies learned more about themselves than did the shirt-tail relatives from Eastern Washington, who are so secure in who they are and what they can do that it was almost a cruel joke when their latest swashbuckle came up short Saturday evening.

It took an end-zone interception by UW’s Desmond Trufant to preserve a 30-27 victory over the Eagles, last year’s champions and this year’s top-ranked team in the NCAA’s Football Championship Subdivision – or, as Huskydom thinks of it, the other side of the tracks.

Yet right up until he took the football away from EWU’s Brandon Kaufman with 29 seconds to play, there was a single overriding notion on the Eagles sideline.

“Why not, right?” offered center Chris Powers.

Powers was front and, uh, center for each of the Eagles’ improbable comebacks and dramatic flourishes of 2010, and saw no reason the sort of voodoo that did in Sac State and Southern Utah and North Dakota State and, finally, Delaware on that title roll couldn’t be conjured up against Washington.

“That’s the only thing I could keep saying – ‘Why not?’ ” Powers said. “Why not win this game? Why not go out there and put it in the end zone? Why not?

“That last huddle, you look at the clock and there’s 1:30 or something and 90 yards to go. Well, we’ve been here before. It wasn’t anything for us. It’s not a pressure thing.”

Fact is, the Eagles didn’t look at ease until they’d fallen behind by two touchdowns late in the third quarter – after the second of two punt-return gaffes that decided this game.

Just as they never seem to look at ease until it’s third or fourth down.

It was third-and-26 when quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell rifled a ridiculous 43-yard touchdown strike to Greg Herd. Later came the drama-building drive that got the Eagles within a field goal, a masterwork that including three third-down conversions and another on fourth down. Eastern’s first touchdown had been a 32-yard pass play – on fourth down.

Some of that is coach Beau Baldwin and his outlook on four-down territory.

“Too many times the game is played a little too conservative in that area of the field,” he said. “Long field goals can be tough. Fourth-and-6 or -7 might be a higher percentage.”

And some is just nerve.

“Our guys don’t worry about it,” Baldwin shrugged.

Mitchell, given magnificent protection, was pretty magnificent himself – when he had to be. He was 28 of 53 and moved the chains 12 times on first or second down; on third and fourth, he was 11 of 17 for 10 first downs and three touchdowns.

And certainly he had to be magnificent when Ashton Clark fair caught UW’s last punt on his own 5.

“Coach B and I just kind of looked at each other,” Mitchell recalled, “and said, ‘Let’s do it.’ ”

Said defensive tackle Renard Williams: “I thought we had it in the bag.”

They got within 25 yards. Needing to be a little short on the ball to Kaufman, Mitchell was a shade long instead. It was one of those glitches Eastern might have got away with against a fellow FCS lodge member.

The subplot was almost as much fun as the football. Mitchell admitted he tried to “rile up” the Huskies with some ultraconfident pregame remarks to the press and suggested that “they probably respect us a lot more now.”

Kaufman was not as generous.

“It makes me feel empty,” he said. “We’re a good football team and we should be respected. They didn’t respect us at all. They’re an arrogant group.”

Well, the scoreboard allowed them to be – if the Eagles weren’t into moral victories, then they can’t expect the Huskies to wallow in embarrassment, even if Eastern doubled their yardage.

“The goal is always to be 1-0,” Baldwin said, “and I said that all week, whether people shook their heads or not.”

This is, the dynamic of FCS vs. FBS football. Thirty-seven games were played this weekend mixing the two. The FCS won two – Sacramento State stunning Oregon State in overtime, and Richmond dropping sad-sack Duke. Others – Weber State, Stony Brook, Northern Iowa, Eastern Kentucky and EWU – staged heroic near-misses.

It’s not quite the first round of March Madness, but it’s getting there.

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