Sports

Blanchette: It’s tough for Fighting Whatchamacallits

Fifty and a few more proud elders from Eastern Washington’s 1997 football team that won plenty and had plenty of fun were coaxed back to campus Saturday to be fed and feted and ushered into the school’s athletic hall of fame. No fibs were told at the pre-game tailgate, sources report, though perhaps not reliably.

But in the interests of symmetry, maybe Eastern should have reached back another 10 years and added the ’87 team to the guest list.

That was the school’s first year in the Big Sky Conference. Times were tough, the budget was slashed, wins came hard – and not at all after this date on the calendar. It would get worse before it got better.

That bunch could relate to the struggles of Saturday’s punching bags.

Maybe there’s an about-face in North Dakota’s immediate future, but any more decleatings like the 55-17 job the Eagles inflicted under the lights and all the players will have, come November, will be a mangled song lyric.

We’ve been through the Big Sky on a team with no name.

You’ve no doubt heard that the NCAA’s narcs have finally strong-armed UND into surrendering the Fighting Sioux nickname, though presumably they were allowed to keep fighting, Saturday’s score notwithstanding. The state’s higher-ed overseers have in turn slapped a three-year moratorium on the school using any nickname – even the delightful Flickertails, the original mascot.

Let’s try out a few possibilities for them in this space as we go along.

(Fighting Water Shrews? Fighting Prairie Dogs? Or one of those singular concept names? Spite might be apt, given that Sioux business.)

In any case, identity is the least of their worries at the moment.

Eastern hadn’t beaten an FCS opponent this badly since 2004, and looked nothing short of sensational, from quarterback Vernon Adams throwing four touchdown passes in the first half to freshman Shaquille Hill blazing a kick back 99 yards and Brandon Kaufman making the season’s most impossible catch, even if it was wiped out by pass interference.

It was the perfect way to build up a head of steam for next Saturday’s date in Bozeman with second-ranked Montana State, and in fact to establish an arc to the season.

“Everyone starts out 0-0,” said EWU coach Beau Baldwin. “Then teams get to 3-1 or 3-2 and they’re the good teams – no one’s great yet.

“Ability and talent can get you to the top and then you fall back down again. The great ones, players and teams, have the ability to consistently hit that high level every week, week after week.”

Funny, then, that his 2010 national championship was mostly consistent in living on the edge.

But his point isn’t lost on the Fighting Paddlefish.

There are four newbies making their way in the expanded Big Sky this football season. One, Cal Poly, is unbeaten and ranked 20th with a bullet. The other three – Southern Utah, UC Davis and the Fighting Durums – are sputtering, though they’ve had their moments.

“All of them are competitive,” said Big Sky commissioner Doug Fullerton, who watched the carnage at Roos Field. “But I think all of them learn that in a league like this, you have to be ready every week and it’s a tougher deal.”

You don’t have to tell UND coach Chris Mussman. Dead ahead on his schedule are No. 18 (and moving up) Northern Arizona, Montana (likely to be back in the Top 25 this week) and MSU.

“The hard part for us is that there’s a lot of unknown,” he said. “We don’t know some of these teams. We’re not familiar with the officials in the league. But we have to get used to it. We’d better suck it up or we’re going to get beat up pretty good.”

The Fighting Moose are only in their fifth year as an FCS team and played only Idaho State and Montana among the established Big Sky teams during the first four. The learning curve can be steep, the talent gap pronounced. This night, the Fighting Squirrels were gashed for 290 Eastern rushing yards, and ran a quarterback shuttle with little rhyme nor reason.

“It was awful,” Mussman said. “This was as bad as we’ve looked, ever.”

And as good as the Eagles have looked for a while.

“Our most complete game to this point,” agreed tackle Will Post. “But next week is a tough one, too. We don’t have any easy games on the schedule.”

The Eagles are 25 years into this Big Sky business. The no-easy-weeks deal surely doesn’t come as a surprise to the Fighting Spleen, but still it must be experienced, absorbed and reconciled.

Once it is, they’ll have more of a Fighting Chance.



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