October 26, 2013 in Sports

Blanchette: Eagles have become Sky’s special team

John Blanchette Correspondent columnist
 
Colin Mulvany photo

Spokesman-Review contributing sports columnist John Blanchette.
(Full-size photo)

MISSOULA – That’s the great thing about football at the FCS level – it’s all in perspective.

Before kickoff here at Military Appreciation Day, the hosts brought out a gallant old soldier who, judging from the trove of medals attached to his name, won World War II. Cue sincere tribute applause.

In the next breath came the introduction of Marc Mariani, on injury leave from the Tennessee Titans, whose glorioski punt runback all but beat Eastern Washington on this field four years ago. The response suggested an Elvis sighting.

World War what was that again?

Yes, football is especially important at Montana. It’s just for the better part of Saturday afternoon, it didn’t seem especially special anymore.

And don’t be fooled by the skinny margin of Eastern’s 42-37 escape – which, yes, goes down as such, preserved as it was by the Grizzlies’ dubious choice to kick (and miss) a field goal, a two-point conversion stop and recovering an onside kick.

Lots of fourth-quarter sturm und drang, as is tradition in this series.

Not much sense that the Grizzlies were really in the fight until then, which is definitely not tradition.

In fact, everything special going on was happening on Eastern’s side of the ball.

Special? Probably not a strong enough descriptive for Eastern quarterback Vernon Adams, who tied his school record with six touchdown passes (and, yes, kept it interesting by throwing two interceptions). The obligatory shake-my-head sampling was a perfect heave downfield while getting drilled by Montana’s Tonga Takai – but still having the clarity to recognize Shaquille Hill one-on-one against a linebacker. That one went for 86 yards before the six.

“I’ve got a guy who has the guts to take shots, and go for it in terms of making a big play,” said EWU coach Beau Baldwin, who won in Washington-Grizzly Stadium for the first time. “If there’s a pick or two, so be it. He has the guts to win games, and the guts to stand in there.”

Special, too, is freshman receiver Cooper Kupp, a very different animal than Eastern’s big-strike receivers of recent vintage, but who will leave every bit as accomplished. Or maybe get there sooner, if he’s going to outwrestle defensive backs for 11 balls every game.

But what remains truly special about Eastern football under Baldwin is the sort of gut-feeling, what-the-hell bearing that makes a well-prepared team intriguing, dangerous and fun.

It’s reflected in his belief in his mercurial quarterback, third-and-short calls that wind up going for the end zone, and a level of trust in his defense that has him opting against abridging the playbook just to protect a lead.

Yes, it allowed the Grizzlies to make the day look respectable, when it wasn’t any such thing.

That Montana, No. 10 ranking notwithstanding, is no longer the Big Sky’s bad news bear is no bulletin. The social, legal, NCAA and administrative turmoil that left 70-year-old Mick Delaney to preside over the program’s first losing season since 1985 was a schadenfreude special that nourished every rival fan in 2012. These Grizzlies are better than that, but there will be no championship this year.

They’re short on speed, receivers and perhaps even a sense of themselves.

To see all the public hoohah before the game about decibel meters and goosing crowd noise seemed slightly desperate, but no more than to see the Grizzlies pumping its arms to inflame its fans among the 26,082 on hand – on their very first defensive snap.

Didn’t seem like a team ready to grab a game, or a season, by the throat.

But neither did the signals from the sideline. For all the endgame drama, the most important juncture may have been in the third quarter after Adams threw his first pick. Trailing 28-17 and with a momentum change, the Grizzlies went backwards on three straight plays, displaying no invention or derring-do, unless the creative spark was supposed to be represented by yet another flanker screen.

“Even in a shootout, there’s always a few times when it comes down to getting a few stops,” said Baldwin, whose defense deserves some of the credit, too.

When they got down 42-17, the Grizzlies finally opened it up a bit – but, hey, what’s the hurry? And when he had a chance to keep the late surge going, Delaney opted for that field goal with 5:20 left – later explaining that “we needed to get some points and it was fourth-and-eight, which was a little too much yardage.”

Except it was fourth-and-one, and all the momentum – and that noise – belonged to Montana.

It was a moment of special urgency. There were several on Saturday. Eastern Washington embraced them all.

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