SEATTLE – Heading into its football season opener against the University of Washington, it has been more than 11 months, 11 games and a national championship since Eastern Washington University had been forced to deal with defeat.
But all of the good that had transpired since the Eagles suffered a lopsided road loss to Montana State back in late September of 2010 didn’t make Saturday’s 30-27 setback to the Huskies any easier to take.
“It’s tough, losing always is,” Beau Baldwin, Eastern’s fourth-year head coach and the engineer of last year’s riveting run to an NCAA Division I championship, said after watching his team dominate everything but the scoreboard against their cross-state Football Bowl Subdivision opponent. “But it’s even tougher when you’re in a spot and have a shot (to win) at the end.”
And the Eagles, who came in as the nation’s No. 1-ranked Football Championship Subdivision team, certainly had that kind of shot in front of a Husky Stadium crowd of 58,088 on this brilliant early September afternoon.
Not only did they more than double the Huskies in total yardage, 504-250, but they also drove 70 yards in less than a minute on their final possession to put themselves in position to win or tie – only to have UW’s Desmond Trufant pick off a Bo Levi Mitchell pass in his own end zone with 29 seconds left to blow up their big plans for an upset.
It was one of the few mistakes Mitchell made in torching UW for a career-high 473 yards and three touchdowns through the air. And he ultimately took responsibility for his errant last pass, which was intended for teammate Brandon Kaufman, who finished the day with 10 catches for 140 yards, both career bests.
“I thought I put the ball where I wanted it,” Mitchell said. “I wanted to put it a little bit short, where Kauf could go up and get it, and Kauf saw something a little bit different in the corner and thought he should slow down. But I take it on me. I should have put the ball in a different spot.”
The 6-foot-5 Kaufman said he felt miserable about the loss, and the way the game ended.
“It’s a game of inches, and that last (pass) was an inch out of my reach,” he explained. “It was a horrible feeling. It was an inside jump-ball Bo put up to me. It was within my grasp, but Trufant got a better jump on it than I did.”
Still, had it not been for a couple of special team blunders that led to UW touchdowns, the Eagles might not have needed the late comeback they were trying to concoct.
Eastern’s defense forced the Huskies to punt from deep in their own territory on their first possession of the game, but the Eagles Matt Johnson fumbled away Kiel Rasp’s punt, thanks to a beautifully timed hit by Trufant, and UW recovered on EWU’s 23-yard line. The Huskies scored three plays later on a 7-yard pass from quarterback Keith Price to Jonathan Amosa.
And they gave the Huskies another short-field TD late in the third quarter by recovering a Rasp punt that bounced off the helmet of Eastern’s Darriell Beaumonte at the Eagles’ 27-yard line. Price, a sophomore who completed 17 of 25 passes for 102 yards and three touchdowns in only his second career start, also capped that scoring drive with a 6-yard pass to Kasen Williams.
“That first one was great timing,” Baldwin said of his team’s first special-teams giveaway. “(Trufant) timed it perfect and hit Matt, and Matt is new to punt returns this year. The guy made a great play, I’ll give him credit.
“But the second one, we’ve got to clean that up. We’ve got to do a better job (of clearing away from the punt), and we’ll come back and work on that. But I love the fact that even after those mistakes, we still found a way to come back and give ourselves a chance to win.”
It helped that Eastern’s line protected Mitchell like he was the last gold bar left in Fort Knox.
“My O-line played great, I can’t ask for anything more,” said Mitchell, a senior, who also set career records for pass attempts (69) and completions (39) as Eastern all but ignored the run against UW’s big defensive front. “They were absolutely outstanding. They game me all the time in the world.
“They picked up the blitz, and when I scrambled, they didn’t quit. They were tired, too, but they kept moving and made blocks that let us make some big plays.”
Nick Edwards, who also finished with career highs in receptions (12) and yardage (108); Greg Herd and Ashton Clark all had touchdown catches for Eastern, while junior running back Chris Polk led UW’s offensive attack with 125 rushing yards on 23 carries.
When asked about the offensive numbers the Eagles put up against the Huskies, Mitchell added, “I knew we were going to put up numbers, but I didn’t know it would be numbers like that.
“The most important thing, though, is that we didn’t put up the number ‘31’ to win.”