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Blanchette: Eagles hang from cliff with 8 bullets to dodge

MISSOULA – So what do you think?

Ball on the 50, 8:46 to go, 17-14 Montana. This is going to be the drive that puts Eastern Washington on top and in command – coming as it does after Montana blows it on fourth down with a pass delivered behind a wide-open receiver. The momentum, the moment – all Eastern.

No, too early. That’s not the Eagles’ style at all. So how about this: ball on the 41, 4:44 to go? Two quick passes for a first down. The rhythm is back. Surely this is the drive to capture the lead, the sort of drive the Eagles had under copyright in 2010.

No, no, still not enough drama. These are the high-wire Eags, the last-second Eags. So: 84 yards to go, 58 seconds, no timeouts.

Perfect, right.

Well, 0-3 is perfect, in a way.

So try this instead: the reigning national champions with three losses to start the season, coming home at last to play the fifth-ranked team in the Football Championship Subdivision, eight games left that may all need to go in the win column for the Eagles to return to the playoffs and defend that title.

Now that’s your cliffhanger finish, folks.

But maybe that’s the problem. After falling to Montana 17-14 on a Saturday when the football was the least glorious part of the afternoon, Eastern finds itself down five runs in the ninth with two out. Do the Eagles start swinging for a six-run homer?

“We have a team that here on out can go 8-3,” insisted EWU quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell.

Apparently so.

This was an interesting exercise at the foot of Mount Sentinel. There was a time, remember, when the regal Grizzlies wouldn’t deign to acknowledge Eastern as an honest-to-gosh rival, already having the real McCoy 200 miles to the east. No disrespect, mind you, but it wasn’t a date to be circled on the calendar.

That charade is over. Consider that the largest crowd in Washington-Grizzly Stadium history – 26,066 – squeezed in for the show. Also consider that in the selling of tickets, this was the premium game on UM’s schedule – at a cool $57 a seat.

Hooray, then, for UM coach Robin Pflugrad, for fessing up.

“They’re very fired up about this win,” he said of his Grizzlies. “It is a rivalry, it’s a very strong rivalry – not only in the fall, but also in the winter during recruiting periods. We run into Eastern quite a bit.”

The Grizzlies ran into Eastern pretty good on Saturday, too. They held the Eagles without a touchdown for a half, pounded them for 316 yards rushing, dug in resiliently on the goal line just before intermission.

Most impressive, they sicced cornerback Trumaine Johnson to lock down the best of Eastern’s gifted receivers, Brandon Kaufman, and for that reason among others, rhythm did not come easy for the Eagles.

“You’ve got to remember that Montana has 10 seniors on defense,” EWU coach Beau Baldwin said. “They’re a great defense for a reason. They make you earn everything.”

Eastern’s vaunted offense had two plays all day beyond 25 yards – and as it turned out, neither led to a point. The Grizzlies had two of 40-plus in the first 10 minutes that staked them to a 10-0 lead.

And when EWU’s defense got the stops it needed to set the stage for one of those patented “wow” finishes, there was no wow. The Eags’ jury-rigged offensive line couldn’t keep the heat off Mitchell, who misfired as much this day as he was money last year.

“It’s like you’re maybe on a cruise ship,” he said of the 0-3 start, “and all of a sudden in the first 10 minutes it sinks. It’s a horrible feeling.”

Whatever happens now will never take away what Eastern so thrillingly earned a year ago, but there is a feeling that maybe this team has become a little too comfortable with its Wallenda ways. The no-panic mindset is great, but you know what’s better? Throttle-down control, start to finish.

“Never in my entire life did I think we’d be 0-3,” center Chris Powers said. “You could go back and I’d even say we thought we’d be 3-0.”

So, next stop 8-3?

“It’s never been about looking down the road,” he insisted. “It’s always about one game at a time, one series at a time, one play at a time. You kind of roll with the punches. It’s not about the whole season outlook right now.

“We’ve got to get to 1-3. We need to get a win, one win, and it doesn’t matter how we do it.”

You know what? Maybe it does.