They’ve been joined at the hip for almost five years now, the overachieving football coach and his record- breaking group of seniors at Eastern Washington University.
They’re Beau Baldwin’s ringleaders, if you will, who’ve won three Big Sky Conference titles in the last four years. Throw in the giant brass ring they seized in 2010, and no other class in the Big Sky has accomplished more in the past four seasons.
“It’s been an awesome experience,” senior captain Ashton Miller said this week. “I love, love my teammates and I love my class.”
And they’re not done. After 21 seniors are introduced this afternoon at Roos Field, they and the rest of the third-ranked Eagles (9-2 overall, 7-0 in the Big Sky) will try to beat Portland State and win the school’s first outright conference title since 1997. That in turn would guarantee at least two more home games in the upcoming FCS playoffs and a chance to burnish that legacy even more.
“It’s been a tremendous group, on and off the field,” Baldwin said, adding that this year’s seniors have led the Eagles since off-season training last winter. “It’s that leadership they’ve shown since February, and the joy they bring,” said Baldwin of the fruits of his first full recruiting season in the winter of 2009.
Win or lose, they’ll play at Roos Field again this season, but a loss to the Vikings could mean a first-round FCS game next weekend instead of a week off for Thanksgiving.
“It’s exciting, and I hope our fans will come out and support us,” Miller said earlier this week before a chilly afternoon practice, much like the mid-30s temperatures expected for today’s kickoff.
In their way are the Vikings (6-5 overall, 3-4 Big Sky), who have a top-tier running back in D.J. Adams and a savvy quarterback in Kieran McDonough – just like the weapons Toledo and Sam Houston State employed to hand the Eagles their only losses this year.
“I think for us to finish the season and send our seniors off right, that would be a big deal,” PSU coach Nigel Burton said earlier this week, after Sacramento ruined the Vikings’ own Senior Day, 43-42, with a last-second touchdown pass.
The Vikings offense is the most prolific in the Big Sky, averaging 535 yards a game, 3 yards a game better than Eastern’s.
“They have a great offense, and it’ll be a challenge,” said Eastern senior cornerback Bo Schuetzle, who prepped at Shadle Park.
But while PSU has sputtered at times – scoring just seven points in a loss at Southern Utah and 14 in a narrow win over lowly North Dakota – the Eagles have been almost unstoppable of late. Eastern has scored at least five touchdowns in every game except the 33-21 loss at Toledo, and have kept opponents off balance with the passing and scrambling of quarterback Vernon Adams and a running game that’s seemingly getting better every week.
After averaging 8.7 yards per rush against Montana State on Nov. 13, the Eagles defied a run-focused Cal Poly defense last weekend. Though averaging only 3.9 yards per carry, Eastern got long scoring runs from Quincy Forte and Marion Brown despite losing Adams to a shoulder sprain early in the second half.
Adams saw fewer reps than usual this week as he recuperates, but Baldwin said that Adams – the prohibitive favorite for Big Sky Offensive MVP this year – should be fine by kickoff.
That’s important, because while the Vikings are the worst in the conference against the pass (giving up 273 yards per game), they’ve yielded barely half that on the ground.
“They stop the run really well; they fly around and they always put six or seven hats on the football,” Baldwin said. “It’s a huge challenge.”