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EWU tosses out Plan A, uses Plan B to stay alive

Spokesman-Review contributing sports columnist John Blanchette.  (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

In these dicey times, everyone’s supposed to have a Plan B.

A career alternative. A financial fallback. Some folks find a backup romance to be necessary, too, though that’s the case during the good times, too.

In any event, the choice is clear: adapt or perish.

When it’s about choice, that is.

On Saturday, it was more about instinct and inevitability, and in the final judgment Eastern Washington’s survival instinct was just that much better than Jacksonville State’s seemingly inevitable implosion.

Perhaps this landscape is looking awfully familiar by now.

Three years ago, the Eagles won themselves a national championship, groping for what they didn’t just grab outright – sometimes summoning miracle plays, sometimes improvising with duct tape and determination and always willing themselves beyond any shortcomings or temporary pratfalls.

Whether the destination winds up being the same, these Eagles appear to have a similar quality and put it on display in a 35-24 victory over the Gamecocks in Saturday’s Football Championship Subdivision quarterfinal – a fun bit of theatre that cried out for a bigger audience.

Four-two-seven-seven? That’s it? Really?

Costco must have put out an extra-special spread of free sample snacks this weekend. Hard to compete with that.

Well, the Eagles have a knack for giving their peeps an encore.

In this case, they got some help on Friday night when second-seeded Eastern Illinois got drummed out of the bracket by Towson. That means another home game for the Eagles next Saturday – head-to-head against the first bowl game in a decade for the college down the road. Same time, different channels.

Hmm. Somebody at ESPN didn’t have a Plan B.

As for the events of this particular Saturday, the Eagles ferried themselves to the FCS semis not with their “A” game but with one still good enough to make the honor roll – with the extra credit of a long and improbable door-slamming interception return by freshman linebacker Albert Havili, who could hardly believe it when he reached the end zone.

More central to the plot was a twist of fate – or the twist of a knee – late in the first half that sent J-State quarterback Eli Jenkins hopping to the sidelines on his right leg.

The Gamecocks had been giving the home team fits to this point, when the Eags weren’t giving some to themselves – losing one fumble into the end zone, and seeing quarterback Vernon Adams heave a here-you-go pick in there two possessions later. But whatever the Eags did, J-State matched, thanks mostly to Jenkins’ spirited running and accurate arm.

The freshman had 118 yards rushing and had hit 12 of 14 passes when he ran into EWU’s McKenzie Murphy after juking free for a 13-yard gain just before halftime. J-State coach Bill Clark dispatched Max Shortell in his place, but whatever aspirations the Gamecocks had of a tiebreaking score before intermission were scotched when Clark kept the car keys in his pocket.

Shortell is no chump. He was, in fact, voted to the All-Ohio Valley Conference second team, and started seven games. But he’d also lost the job for good before JSU’s regular-season finale.

And there’s this: Jenkins, with a similar completion percentage, rushed for nearly 900 more yards.

“You build a package around your starter,” Clark said, “and as different as those two guys are, the packages have to be pretty different.

“We became a running-back-and-passing team.”

Complicated by the fact that 1,400-yard running back DaMarcus James limped off himself with a thigh bruise shortly after halftime.

The change was not lost on the Eagles.

“You do things differently,” said EWU coach Beau Baldwin. “There were differences last year when people faced (Kyle) Padron versus when they faced Vernon. The whole game might have been different.”

Havili was a little more blunt.

“We could tell that they were thinking this game was over,” he said.

Shortell kept the Gamecocks in the hunt, but couldn’t get them in the end zone, as the second half de-evolved into whose failures would be less catastrophic. Adams threw another pick and the Eagles whiffed on two fourth downs; Shortell threw the bell-tolling pick-6, and EWU’s Bo Schuetzle came up with a brilliant strip on a throw into the end zone that could have made things interesting again.

“There’s a reason one guy plays,” Clark sighed. “I would have liked to have seen what happens.”

Well, we know what happens. What matters is what happens after.

“It is just the nature of the way our guys think and the way our guys believe on the sideline,” Baldwin said. “We know we are going to be in different types of ball games and it will not exactly go as planned.”

And that’s why the Eagles are still playing – which was Plan A all along.