Turning the page shouldn’t be this hard – not when the book is the thrill-a-minute story of Eastern Washington football.
But coach Beau Baldwin and his staff struggled this week to move on the next chapter; they were still tying up 16 loose ends that fairly tugged at the heartstrings.
That would be 16 seniors who dearly wanted to return to the national title game they helped win two years ago.
“It hurts to lose, but this one hurts even more because they meant so much to this program,” Baldwin said after Saturday’s 45-42 loss to Sam Houston State in the Football Championship Subdivision semifinals.
And while that game couldn’t define the season, it explained a lot.
“You don’t say this very often, but even in a loss, one of my most proud moments was being in our locker room at halftime (while trailing 35-0) and seeing zero finger-pointing and zero complaining, or heads down feeling sorry for themselves,” Baldwin said.
“You’d have thought it was 14-all.”
It seemed that way all season, which will probably be the legacy of the 2012 squad. All but two games came down to the fourth quarter, and nine were decided by six points or fewer. Eastern won six of them, which is what really defined an 11-3 season that included a shared Big Sky Conference title and only the school’s third semifinal playoff appearance.
“Probably the most rewarding thing was the constant ability to respond to adversity,” Baldwin said. “That’s bigger than anything you do schematically, or even what your talent level is.”
Along the way, the Eagles improved in several key statistical categories.
Baldwin largely fulfilled the goal of better offensive balance, almost doubling the rushing yardage from 2011 (from 869 to 1,729) while improving yards per rush from 3.0 to 3.7. The Eagles gained an average of 8.6 yards per pass attempt and finished seventh in FCS in total passing offense.
The Eagles finished only 81st in total defense, but 54th in scoring defense. They also forced 26 turnovers – 10 more than a year ago.
The biggest improvement? Kickoff returns, which ranked 89th in 2011, soared to 14th this year at 23.5 yards per return.
It all added up to a championship season, something a few folks may take for granted.
“I think people don’t realize that the Big Sky championships are really hard to win,” Baldwin said. “And to reach the (FCS) final four – it’s a big deal.”
And now that the page is turned, national letter-of-intent day is barely six weeks away. In the meantime the Eagles return plenty of depth at nearly all positions.
Offense: The Eagles lose three present or former All-Americans in wide receivers Nicholas Edwards and Greg Herd and right tackle Will Post. The other eight starters return. Quarterbacks Kyle Padron and Vernon Adams will continue to compete for the starting position. The running back corps will be even deeper if Mario Brown (redshirt) and Jordan Talley (concussion) return.
Wide receiver Brandon Kaufman, who set an FCS record for single-season yardage with 1,850, is expected to return, along with Ashton Clark (650 yards), Shaquille Hill, Daniel Hill and several redshirts.
Defense and special teams: Despite the departure of six starters, All-American place kicker Jimmy Pavel and long snapper Jake Potter, the Eagles return talent. The departures of starting linemen Jerry Ceja, Evan Cook and Paul Ena are partly offset by the eight- to 10-deep rotation employed all season. Jeff Minnerly will be missed at safety, but the other three spots are intact.
The biggest losses are at linebacker. Not only do the Eagles lose starters Zach Johnson (an All-American in 2010) and Tyler Washburn, they will be without super-sub Grant Williams and backups Chase King and Rusty Haehl.
Ronnie Hamlin, easily the team’s leading tackler with 136, is back at the strong inside position; J.C. Agen and Cody McCarthy also are expected to return.