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Eastern strives to improve running game

Although the numbers produced in the infancy of this 2011 college football season are woeful, at best, Eastern Washington University coach Beau Baldwin remains a believer in his team’s running game.

That might seem unfathomable, considering the Eagles have rushed for a staggering low 42 net yards in two games – both losses – and without scoring a rushing touchdown, no less. But Baldwin insists there are several underlying circumstances, including his own lack of commitment to the run, that have contributed to Eastern’s dramatic lack of production on the ground.

“More than anything, there just has to be a true commitment to it early on,” Baldwin said of the running game that has served the Eagles so well in years past. “And we have to find ourselves not getting down early, but then staying with the run even if we do get down.

“And that falls on me. I have to do a better job of that.”

In addition, the Eagles’ stable of running backs, while talented, is dreadfully short of experience in the wake of All-American Taiwan Jones’ decision to forego his senior season and declare for the NFL draft following last year’s run to a national championship.

And the offensive line, despite the return of preseason All-American senior center Chris Powers and three other starters, has been operating with a couple of relatively untested youngsters on the right side, because of injuries to junior tackle Will Post and sophomore guard Ashton Miller, who is out of the season with a ruptured Achilles tendon.

Still, Baldwin refuses to use any of those factors as excuses for his team’s paltry average of 1.2 yards on just 36 rushing attempts.

Of the inexperience at running back, where sophomores Mario Brown and Demetrius Bronson, a first-year transfer from the University of Washington, are the only players on Eastern’s four-deep depth chart with any previous NCAA Division I game experience, Baldwin said, “That’s not a problem at all. We were young at running back last year when Taiwan was out, but we still ran the ball, so it’s not my mindset to get away from the run just because we’re young and a little bit inexperienced.

“I like the guys we have back there.”

And so does Powers, the anchor of Eastern’s offensive front.

“With more experience, you are probably going to see more and see the holes opening up in front of you a little sooner,” he said, when asked about the Eagles’ top four running backs, who include freshmen Jordan Talley and Quincy Forte. “But Mario did the job last year, so I don’t feel uncomfortable with him or any of our other young backs back there.

“I feel like, if there’s a hole, they’re going to hit it and we’re going to get yards out of it.”

That hasn’t been the case thus far, in a disappointing Eagles’ start that included a 30-27 road loss to Washington in their season opener and a 30-17 setback at South Dakota last weekend.

In those two games, Brown emerged as Eastern’s top rusher, despite netting only 24 yards on 15 carries, and he won’t be available for Saturday’s Big Sky Conference opener against Montana in Missoula after being suspended for one game for throwing a punch following Saturday’s loss to USD.

Talley has gained 23 yards on just seven rushing attempts, and leads the team with an average of 3.3 yards per carry. Forte has yet to carry, and Bronson has amassed a meager 10 yards on six carries.

Offensive line coach Aaron Best, who played center at Eastern under former head coach Paul Wulff, also attributed the Eagles’ lack of a running game this fall to several different factors.

“For starters, our trigger guy gives us a very good option throwing the ball,” he said of senior quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell, who has completed 77 of 129 passes for 842 yards and all five of Eastern’s touchdown. “But I think Coach Baldwin has probably wanted to mix the run and pass a little more to set up play action, but really hasn’t had the opportunity.”

And as far as his offensive line is concerned, Best added, “We, as much as our running backs and our quarterback, need to get in a rhythm. So, for us to have shown run on how many plays – one out of every seven or eight – it makes it hard for our O-line to get in a rhythm.”

Baldwin backs away from reading too much into his team’s rushing numbers, mainly because of the pass-happy game plan that produced more than 500 yards of total offense against Washington.

“I wouldn’t second-guess anything about the UW game,” he said. “That was our plan going in. So it’s really just one game I don’t feel good about in terms of our rushing attempts. And we’ll iron that out for sure.”

Bronson, who is expected to start at running back against Montana in the absence of Brown, said establishing the run has been a major focus once again this week.

“Every day, we’re working on it, because it makes it hard for other teams to defend the play action (passes),” he said. “Coach Baldwin told us it was kind of his fault that we got away from it last Saturday, but we still trust him, because they did it last year – even without Taiwan.

“Not a day goes by when we’re like ‘OK, we got it, now,’ as far as our running game goes. So it’s going to come around, and when it hits, it’s going to be big.”