Talk to the coaches and players on Eastern Washington’s still-winless football team, and, to a man, they’ll tell you that things don’t feel that far off.
They do feel 0-4, however, which is where the 21st-ranked Eagles found themselves following Saturday’s 36-21 Big Sky Conference loss to Montana State that was witnessed by a Roos Field crowd of 10,422.
“It’s frustrating, there’s no two ways about it,” coach Beau Baldwin said after watching his defending NCAA Division I champions lose for the first time on the red turf that seemed to have such a magical mystique during last year’s title run. “We were just a drive or two short again of getting over the hump and taking a lead.
“It doesn’t feel like we’re that far off.”
It didn’t help that the Eagles lost another offensive lineman when all-American senior center Chris Powers tore the posterior cruciate ligament in his right knee midway through the second quarter. He watched the second half from the sidelines on crutches, along with two of the three other offensive linemen who have gone down with injuries this fall.
Still, they were hanging in against the visiting Bobcats (3-1 overall, 1-0 Big Sky) until sophomore quarterback DeNarius McGhee connected with Elvis Akpla on a 12-yard touchdown pass that put MSU up 33-21 with just less than 71/2 minutes left.
Shortly after Jason Cunningham kicked his fifth field goal of the game with 2:36 remaining, the issue was settled and the chances of the Eagles (0-4, 0-2) even qualifying for this year’s FCS playoffs were severely diminished.
“Our theme this week was: ‘Just find a way to win,’” said senior safety Matt Johnson, who finished with a team-high nine tackles, forced a fumble and intercepted a pass that led to nothing more than a missed field-goal try. “It sucks when you feel like you played OK and then things don’t go your way.
“Obviously, credit our opponents. They were all great teams, but we still don’t feel like we’re playing that bad.”
The Eagles moved the ball well early on, using a nice balance of runs and passes. Freshman running back Jordan Talley rushed for 108 yards and two touchdowns on 19 carries. Senior quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell completed 18 of 29 passes for 263 yards and one touchdown, despite being pressured relentlessly and getting sacked five times behind his patchwork offensive line.
But a couple of misfires to open receivers, including a ball that was thrown over the head of Nicholas Edwards inside the 10-yard line just before halftime with MSU leading 20-14, kept the Eagles from coming up with enough big plays to end their skid.
“We’ve felt for the past three weeks like we’ve been right there,” Mitchell said. “It’s just one of those things where you’ve got to make some big plays.
“Missing Nick on that post-corner just before halftime was huge, because if we score there, I think we end up taking these guys down.”
But MSU, behind the play of the elusive McGhee, who threw for 115 yards and ran for another 83 and a touchdown, and the strong leg of Cunningham, whose five field goals included two from 55 yards out that matched his career best, was able to control the game late.
The Bobcats, who ran 18 more plays than Eastern and won the total yardage battle 416-371, were especially efficient on third-down plays, converting 11 of 18, several of which were third-and-longs.
“That was our Achilles’ last year on defense,” Johnson said of MSU’s third-down success. “This year we’ve been doing OK, until today. Their quarterback is a great player, and credit them for good play calls and good execution in some of those third-and-longs.”
EWU’s line will remain a huge concern.
“Whether we want to say it or not, it hurts,” Mitchell said of O-line injuries. “Not having an All-American in there, and a couple of guys with more than a full year of experience, and then replacing them with guys that haven’t played is huge.”