In front of 10,422 witnesses done medium- well, Eastern Washington returned to the red Saturday in an atmosphere charged with possibility as anxious as it was eager.
Soon we discovered why.
In the routine dash onto the field in advance of the team, Destiny Brito, an Eastern cheerleader from Kennewick, launched herself into a series of back flips, landed awkwardly and had to be helped off the field.
As omens go, not so good, men.
On the other hand, a 0-3 record was a pretty lousy omen, too.
The unsettling part of Destiny’s unfortunate twist was that she wound up on crutches with a torn right ACL, and there seems to be no end to the company on the Eastern sideline. A growing fraternity of Eagle offensive linemen also watched the proceedings against Montana State swinging from the damnable sticks, and the correlation between those two things couldn’t have been drawn more sharply.
Now it’s the 0-4 Eagles, and though it might be cruel to say it, we can pretty much turn our attentions elsewhere until Nov. 20.
Because unless they arrive there riding a seven-game winning streak, there will be no defense of the Football Championship Subdivision title Eastern earned with such flair and fortitude.
The flair has been replaced with utter frustration.
The Eagles fell to MSU 36-21, their first loss on the Crayola turf since it was installed – an inevitability sometime, yes, but still hurtful. And even more so than in their previous three losses, the Eags affirmed that they are something other than the poster children for opportunism.
Carpe defeat? Not quite. But this Eastern team does have a knack of backing into it.
“It stings,” said coach Beau Baldwin. “It hurts. And there’s not much more that you can say to these guys.”
Other than strap it up and try it again next week, he means.
We have pretty much exhausted the thesis that these Eagles do not possess the magic of last year’s model – that, in fact, it seems as if they pumped the last drop out of the karma keg in overcoming Delaware for that nice bauble last January.
Never was this more evident than in a couple of second-half possessions fraught with game-changing potential.
Baldwin has noted his team’s inability to generate takeaways, but they actually managed a couple Saturday. The first resulted in a missed field goal. The second, with EWU trailing 20-14, had go-ahead touchdown tattooed on it until quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell overthrew Nicholas Edwards on a post-corner route.
Two plays later, EWU receiver Brandon Kaufman was the victim of a defensive “pick,” MSU cornerback Deonte Flowers holding him up as he made his cut and Sean Gords stepping into the line of Mitchell’s pass for an interception.
Later, the deficit down to five points, Eastern’s defense forced a rare three-and-out and the Eagles took over at midfield – and fizzled themselves.
“Just a hair off,” Baldwin said. “You saw the throw to Nick – we’ve been completing that pass, and if we get it, it’s 21-20 and the game has a different feel. Instead, we go the other way. It could be a different deal if we could find a way to play with a lead.”
Some of the difficulty can be attributable to changes in time and space. The injuries that had already cost Eastern three offensive line starters this season continued Saturday when center Chris Powers wound up on crutches. His backup, Patrick Mealey, was a tight end until five days ago. The guard beside him, Brandon Murphy, was a defensive lineman until emergency called last week at Montana.
“Unreal,” Baldwin said.
“It’s insane,” echoed Mealey, a Central Valley grad.
“On the bus home from Montana, coach (Zak) Hill came up to me and asked, ‘Mealey, you ever taken any snaps at center?’ I thought he was kidding.”
Behind this duct-tape outfit, EWU still managed 371 yards. But Mitchell was sacked five times, and spent much of the afternoon on the run. That means less time for his receivers to work free, as well.
But the whys of Eastern’s malaise are overwhelmed by the malaise itself. The prospects of a championship rerun that began with 15 returning starters and a No. 1 ranking have been blown to smithereens, and picking up the pieces is as problematic as find the quarterback an extra second to throw, with no particular aura to fall back on.
“But you have to look in the mirror and know you create your own luck,” Baldwin said. “At times last year, people would say, ‘Wow, you’re getting a lot of breaks.’ But you create that stuff.”
And Eastern, saddled with the worst of all possible schedules, hasn’t created anything to overcome it and instead has floundered in this alternate reality.
“We have things to play for,” insisted defensive tackle Renard Williams. “It’s not over yet.”
When even the cheerleaders wind up on crutches, maybe that’s something to be afraid of.