That massive target on the back of Eastern Washington University’s defending NCAA Division I championship football team – a target players embraced from the opening day of fall camp – proved too much for the Eagles to handle Saturday afternoon in Vermillion, S.D.
South Dakota, obviously eager to engage the No. 1-ranked Football Championship Subdivision team in the country, punched Eastern in the stomach early and often and delighted a DakotaDome crowd of 8,689 by cruising to a 30-17 upset win.
The Coyotes (1-1), despite losing the total yardage battle 380-369, took advantage of their higher intensity level and a stumbling start by EWU (0-2) to build an early 21-0 lead and never let the Eagles within a touchdown the rest of the way.
Eastern’s running game, much like it did in last Saturday’s 30-27 loss to Washington, produced little in the way of yardage, forcing senior quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell to once again shoulder the lion’s share of his team’s offensive responsibilities.
And while Mitchell managed to shake off his own early struggles to complete 38 of 60 passes for 369 yards and two touchdowns, he could not bring the Eagles all the way back.
“It’s disappointing,” Eastern head coach Beau Baldwin said of the unexpected loss. “It’s always disappointing, and I feel like there’s no question we’re capable of a lot more, and that all starts with me.”
Baldwin went on to take much of the blame for his team’s paltry running game, which accounted for a mere 11 yards on 19 carries against USD’s big, physical defensive front.
“I haven’t looked at the (rushing) numbers, and I know some of it had to do with sacks,” he explained, “but, ultimately, I have to get us into more situations where we’re running the ball. And then that allows you to get in a better flow.”
The Eagles had nothing going early, as USD used the quick feet and dependable arm of senior quarterback Dante Warren to score the game’s first two touchdowns and then added another when Jim Thompson picked off a Mitchell pass and returned it 67 yards to give the Coyotes’ a 21-0 lead with just under 8 minutes left in the first half.
Eastern responded later in the period by marching 72 yards on 14 plays and scoring its first touchdown on a 2-yard pass from Mitchell to Nick Edwards in the final second of the first half. The Eagles added a 21-yard Mike Jarrett field goal early in the third period and later sliced USD’s lead to 24-17 on 27-yard scoring strike from Mitchell to Greg Herd.
But that was as close as they could get as the Coyotes kicked a pair of four-quarter field goals and did a nice job of maintaining possession of the football and using clock down the stretch.
Warren completed 8 of 15 passes for 126 yards and one touchdown, while also rushing for 59 yards and another score on 16 carries. EWU’s top rusher, on the other hand, was freshman running back Jordan Talley, who carried five times for 23 yards.
Next up for the Eagles is a trip to Missoula next Saturday to open Big Sky Conference play against perennial national power Montana.
“This is the situation were in,” Baldwin said of the fact that his team’s early season schedule doesn’t get any easier. “We don’t like it, but that’s the situation we’re in, and we all have to step up – including myself.”