When Eastern Washington lines up against Toledo on Saturday, the Eagles may see a team and a program much like their own: Overachieving, yet flying under the radar at the same time.
And all the while playing with a chip on its shoulder.
The question this week as Eastern faces Toledo: Who has the bigger chip?
Is it unbeaten Eastern, which is playing an FBS school for the second time in three weeks, or the Rockets, who are 0-2 despite two respectable outings against the Southeastern Conference?
“They know how to win, and they play with tremendous effort,” Eastern head coach Beau Baldwin said of Toledo after watching game film.
“They showed it against two SEC teams, and they didn’t look out of place in either of those games,” Baldwin said.
Much like Eastern’s schedule, the Rockets’ is fueled by the need for money. On game days, the Glass Bowl is more than half-full, but capacity is only 26,234. Fans and media are drawn to the Browns, the Lions and the Big 10, leaving Toledo drawn to the big paychecks from power-conference schools.
On the field, the Rockets and their young defense have held their own. At Florida, they trailed 17-6 and had the ball late in the third quarter, but senior quarterback Terrance Owens threw an interception and Toledo lost 24-6. A week later, Missouri clung to a one-point lead late in the third quarter, then scored two touchdowns to pull away to a 38-23 win.
“It was a little bit of a frustrating game for our players and coaches,” second-year Toledo head coach Matt Campbell said. But when asked if there would be a loss of confidence after the Missouri game, Campbell replied: “Not this team – they’ll continue to fight.”
Campbell has the weapons, including running back David Fluellen, who had 111 yards rushing and another 100 receiving at Missouri. Last season, Fluellen helped the Rockets to a 9-4 record and their third straight bowl appearance, rushing for 1,498 yards and 13 touchdowns.
“That running back is for real,” Baldwin said of the powerful, 6-foot-0, 210-pound senior, who averaged 5.7 yards per carry last year.
Said Eastern cornerback T.J. Lee III, “I saw that, and I wonder what we can do to stop it. But just like any other running back, you got to know what angles they want to take.”
Eastern defensive coordinator John Graham conceded that Fluellen is “explosive,” but said “we can’t focus on one guy.”
Owens’ biggest target is senior wide receiver Bernard Reedy, a 5-9, 175-pound Biletnikoff Award candidate who last year caught 88 balls for 1,113 yards and six touchdowns.
On defense, the Rockets lost eight starters from last year, but held Missouri to 385 yards of total offense.
“They’re 0-2 so they’re going to try to take our heads off,” Eastern quarterback Vernon Adams said. “So we have to come out even harder.”
Campbell returned the favor. “I think the first challenge their program is built on a winning culture, there’s a great sense of continuity,” Campbell said of Eastern.
“They expect to win.”
So does Campbell, who won five Division III national titles at Mt. Union as a player and coach. He was the offensive coordinator at Toledo for three seasons before taking over at the end of 2011 for Tim Beckman, now the head coach at Illinois.
Campbell’s first game as head coach was a 42-41 win over Air Force in the Military Bowl. Last year, the Rockets knocked off No. 18 Cincinnati.
In 2008, the Rockets defeated Michigan 13-10.
Eastern Washington isn’t the only Big Sky team with a chance to go 2-0 against the FBS. Southern Utah moved to 2-0 with a 49-0 victory over Division II Fort Lewis in Cedar City on Saturday, and takes on Washington State this week in Pullman. The Thunderbirds are 2-0 for the first time since 2006, and are seeking their first 3-0 start sinc 1980. Southern Utah opened the season with a 22-21 win over FBS South Alabama of the Sun Belt Conference.
No lack of offense
Although it’s very early in the season, Big Sky Conference teams hold down the top three spots in the FCS in total offense. Portland State is averaging 612.5 yards of total offense per game, while EWU is at 611. Both teams have played Pac-12 teams. Idaho State, which opened its season last week, is third at 580 yards of offense. North Dakota ranks eighth and Montana is ninth.