Weather turned red turf blue, but Eags love it
Silk longjohns. Extra socks. Parkas rated to minus-45 and flasks filled with 100 proof.
All the usual methods were trotted out and any number of new ones devised to deal with Wind Chill Madness at Eastern Washington’s Roos Field on a Saturday so cold that even the red turf was turning blue.
“Maaaaannn,” Eagles defensive end Anthony Larry shivered, “every time I came off the field I ran straight to the heaters. I was bundled up and I was still freezing.”
Almost tempts a guy to swap home-field advantage for a high-pressure front, no?
“Not at all,” Larry insisted. “If our awesome fans can take it, it’s all worth it.”
Besides, there’s a simple solution for the Eagles.
Just turn up the heat.
There was not a lot of mystery about what turned a FCS playoff white-knuckler (underneath those gloves and mittens) into another carefree celebration for the Eagles, who get to try it again next week at home in the quarterfinals against Jacksonville State.
Yes, there was the usual magic from quarterback Vernon Adams and more eye-popping achievements from freshman receiver Cooper Kupp and even a 200-yard rushing performance from Quincy Forte, who isn’t the ghost of Taiwan Jones but whose running has turned strong and resolute in a different way.
But until the Eagles decided to adjust the defensive thermostat at halftime against South Dakota State, a 41-17 outcome was looking like a frostbitten hallucination.
Not that it comes as a great surprise anymore.
What a good blast of the sun’s yellow rays does for a Superman, the start of the third-quarter clock does for the Eags. It isn’t the nagging ring of a morning alarm, but more of a security blanket – or the pride of ownership.
Since the Eagles’ last loss way back in September, they’ve outscored opponents 134-8 in the third period. They haven’t surrendered a touchdown in eight weeks.
This hasn’t always put the game on cruise control – Montana and Portland State were still able to make Eastern sweat it out, and more. But it at least puts the onus on the opposition, and slices their margin of error pretty thin.
“We rotate a lot of guys, keep chopping wood,” offered EWU defensive coordinator John Graham.
Well, sometimes they take a chainsaw to the wood.
The Jackrabbits, ranked 13th among FCS teams to EWU’s No. 3, had used an odd gambit to pull even with the Eags at halftime on Saturday. Twelve of their first 20 snaps were running plays, all handoffs to workhorse Zach Zenner, who by the fall of darkness had become just the second FCS back to complete back-to-back 2,000-yard seasons – though it was no jog in the park.
But the Jacks had fallen just a touchdown behind when that strategy was abandoned. SDSU’s next 16 plays were called passes, though quarterback Austin Sumner turned a couple into scrambles.
“All of a sudden, teams realize, ‘We can’t keep up with their offense if we just try to pound it,’” Graham said. “Once our offense gets rolling, I think other teams panic a little.”
Maybe just the knowledge of what Eastern’s offense is capable of is enough. In any case, SDSU went right back to the air after halftime, even in a tie game. So Graham ordered up blitzes on the Jacks’ first four non-punt snaps. Two sacks, an incomplete pass and a one-yard loss by Zenner stopped the visitors in their tracks, and not long after the Jacks botched a fake punt it appeared they were trying to call off, the Eagle offense had turned the opportunities into two touchdowns and a 27-14 lead.
“Sometimes,” said safety Todd Raynes, “you have to let the defense loose.”
Still, the Eagles had to make that necessary by making Zenner an afterthought. The back that rushed for 202 yards against Nebraska got just 71 this night, with a long of 13 and two others of 10. While the Jacks didn’t seem to mind letting Forte beat them, stubbornly sticking to three-man fronts, the Eagles were going to load the box against Zenner and “make them beat us doing something else,” Graham said.
“Especially after Portland State, we weren’t going to sit back anymore. Even with the lead, we’re going to be aggressive and more physical, whether it’s blitzing the quarterback or getting after the receivers.”
If this sounds like an echo of head coach Beau Baldwin’s resolution after the scare at Montana to keep the go-pedal down, well, it is.
“You can learn a lot from Beau,” Graham said with wink. “Into the playoffs that’s the only way we’re going to win – just keep attacking, both sides of the ball. What do we have to lose?”
On this day, only the feeling in their extremities.