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Blanchette: As luck will have it, Johnson back in game for EWU

Zach Johnson is a lucky guy.

He’s played on a national championship football team. He’s started alongside his twin brother for what up until this year seemed like forever. He even caught a break from the NCAA, which puts him in a minority as small as the right wing of the Socialist Workers party.

But it’s hot and cold running luck.

A knee injury wiped out his entire 2009 season at Eastern Washington University, and a recurrence took seven more games last year. After petitioning the NCAA and winning an extra season of eligibility, a badly pulled hamstring basically cost him eight weeks of his senior do-over.

Any time he’s suited up as an Eagle, Johnson has started at linebacker – 33 times. But he’s also missed 25 games, and that doesn’t even include the 13 he watched as a redshirt freshman.

So don’t think it wasn’t a comfort to the Eagles to see their captain back ranging sideline to sideline Saturday, a rainbow to brighten a leaden afternoon.

“I’m a lot better coach,” said defensive coordinator John Graham, “when No. 10 is out there.”

And the Eagles are a better defense – a better team – as they showed in a 34-17 thrashing of Cal Poly at Roos Field in that titanic Big Sky Conference showdown that didn’t even count in the standings (thanks, expansion!).

Sure, it was still an important victory. The Mustangs came to the Blood Stain 7-1 and ranked 16th in the country, and a loss could have compromised Eastern’s hosting bona fides for the FCS playoffs.

Still, Big Sky rivalries are not going to sprout with new members if the only stakes are going to be some vague tiebreaker.

As for Zach Johnson, he’d have considered it a big game whether the opponent was Cal Poly or Polly Wannacracker.

There are few enough left, and he’s been robbed of too many.

After securing that sixth-year exemption and sitting out spring ball to strengthen his surgically repaired left knee, Johnson returned in the fall with great anticipation, and a dominant win over FBS member Idaho on the season’s first weekend only reinforced that.

But on the last play, Johnson pulled his left hamstring. He played the next week against Washington State (“and I probably shouldn’t have,” he said), nursed it through a bye week and then popped it but good in the first defensive series against Weber State.

That was back in September.

“Of course it’s been frustrating,” Johnson said, “but I’ve had friends, family and teammates keep me positive, and the way we’ve played has helped keep me in it.”

Yeah, the Eags have been pretty good, climbing to No. 1 in The Sports Network poll, albeit briefly. A loss at Southern Utah last weekend took care of that, and among the revelations was that Eastern’s thinned linebacking corps got run ragged. So the return of Johnson and Cody McCarthy were more than welcome Saturday, especially against the Mustangs’ triple-option machine.

In the triple-overtime carnival these two teams staged in San Luis Obispo last year, the Mustangs ran the ball 95 times. Eastern’s approach this time wasn’t much different, but it was more effective.

“The line did a great job of keeping the linebackers clean, and the outside linebackers tried to feather them out and make the quarterback keep it more than he has on film,” Johnson explained. “Just keep it out of the hands of their running backs where they get it and have open space.

“The quarterback is good, but you want to make him hold it so you can get guys to him.”

Never did Eastern do it so well as in a red-zone stand in the third quarter, Poly’s last shot of making it a game. Johnson slammed Andre Broadous to a halt at the one on third down, only to have the play wiped out by an EWU offsides. So Broadous tried again and again ran smack into Johnson. On fourth down, a Poly lineman got in the quarterback’s way before T.J. Lee and Ronnie Hamlin covered him.

What does Johnson’s return bring to Eastern’s stretch run?

“What doesn’t he bring?” said Graham. “Size, speed, tackles in space, smart – everything. But mostly, everybody on our team just feels better when he’s out there.”

No doubt Johnson finds that gratifying. But that extra year he sought was for his own sake.

“The way my career went and missing all that time, as long as I had a chance I was going to go for it,” he said. “As long as I can play football, I really want to play.”

And this may well be one of those years the Eags keep playing and playing. Looks like Zach Johnson’s in luck again.