Years from now, Eastern Washington football players will gather to reminisce about the 2013 season.
They’ll talk about the landmark win over a Pac-12 team, the perfect run through the Big Sky Conference, the staggering numbers and the book full of individual and team records.
That will come later, after a season-ending 35-31 loss to Towson in an FCS semifinal game last Saturday at Roos Field.
“We wanted more,” linebacker Ronnie Hamlin said in a sullen locker room.
They wanted another 2010, a year as charmed as the Towson rally that ended this year’s Eastern season one game short of the FCS title game.
Instead, they got a year that ranks as the second best in school history, a 12-3 record that brought attention from national media and local fans alike. No disrespect to the 12-2 team of 1997, but that team reached the semifinals on a schedule that bore no resemblance to what the Eagles faced this year.
That schedule, more than the team itself, was the biggest concern going into 2013, but the Eagles shrugged it off.
“We want to play the best,” coach Beau Baldwin said before the Eagles stunned Oregon State 49-46 in the season opener.
Corvallis was the launching pad of a new web site, “bigplayva.com,” which featured the exploits of sophomore quarterback Vernon Adams.
After losses to Toledo and Sam Houston State, the Eagles repurposed themselves for a stunning run through the Big Sky Conference season. Instead of the nail biters of 2010 and 2013, they produced halftime adjustments that usually made the fourth quarter moot.
In their last nine games, the Eagles didn’t allow a third-quarter touchdown and outscored opponents 113-9 in “the coach’s quarter.”
Baldwin and his staff never took credit for a rousing halftime speech, merely for “a few adjustments” that made the difference in key games. That included a showdown game against Montana State. Leading 26-21 at halftime, the Eagles pulled away to win 54-29.
That game was witnessed by 10,223 fans, boosting regular-season attendance to a school-record average of 9,522.
A big part of the success on the field was Baldwin’s emphasis on the running game, which got stronger as the season progressed and culminated in Quincy Forte gaining 392 yards in playoff wins over South Dakota State and Jacksonville State. For the year, the Eagles averaged 181 yards a game on the ground, and their 5.3 yards per carry ranked third in the conference.
Not bad for a program that was the most pass-heavy in the nation just two years ago.
But the run was set up by the success of the Eagles’ passing game and the mobility of Adams, a Walter Payton Award finalist who was the most efficient quarterback in the FCS. Adams completed 319 of 486 passes for 4,994 yards, 55 touchdowns and 15 interceptions. Adams, the Big Sky Offensive Player of the Year, gained another 565 on the ground, keeping plays alive and finding his receivers, including Cooper Kupp (1,691 yards and 21 touchdowns) and Ashton Clark (1,233 yards, 10 TDs.)
Kupp, winner of the Jerry Rice Award as the top freshman in the FCS, set a national record by scoring in 14 consecutive games.
In all, the Eagles set 48 school records, 22 Big Sky records and 12 FCS records. The most noteworthy:
• 592 points scored, breaking the conference record of 537 set by Montana in 2009;
• 83 touchdowns, topping Idaho’s 72 scores in 1993;
• 8,002 yards of total offense, shattering the 6,735 posted by Eastern in 1997.
When it was over, Baldwin said, “We hold our heads up high knowing we are going to continue to come back fighting, and I am so proud of this 2013 team.
“I know the end result is not what your ultimate goal is, but in terms of the way the players competed, stayed together, fought, scrapped and left it on the field, it was all out there.”