College football starts here, all right – in the third week of August. Which means the road to the FCS national title game is that much longer for two programs who will settle for nothing less.
It also means that the big picture in today’s nationally televised game between top-ranked Eastern Washington and No. 17 Sam Houston State isn’t the one on ESPN – it’s about seizing the moment, then building on it, win or lose. Says Eagles coach Beau Baldwin: “I won’t undersell that it’s just another game, but we can’t get overhyped … we have to go in loosely and just play.”
And do it again next week, perhaps all the way to the title game on Jan. 3 in Frisco, Texas.
That’s one reason the Eagles veterans long ago flushed the memory of their 15-point loss at Sam Houston State last September, but still can’t shake the disappointment of a 45-42 loss to the Bearkats in the 2012 semifinals.
“It’s personal for a lot of us,” Eastern offensive lineman Clay DeBord said this week at practice. “We still have a chip on our shoulders.”
But if today’s nationally televised game is more sizzle than steak, it offers plenty of entertaining subplots:
—Eastern quarterback Vernon Adams, the preseason favorite for the Walter Payton Award, hopes to open his junior season the way he did last year in an epic 49-46 win at Oregon State.
—New Sam Houston State coach K.C. Keeler hopes to show early progress in his rebuilding process, less than four years after he and the Delaware Blue Hens lost to EWU in the 2010 title game.
—The Eastern defense will have something to prove after giving up 556 yards, including 450 on the ground, last year in Huntsville.
At the center of the spotlight stands Adams, who is coming off an All-American season that included 55 touchdowns, 4,994 yards and a pass-efficiency rating of 183.13. He also ran for 605 yards, stretching the field and leaving opposing defensive backs struggling to maintain coverage.
“It’s a pretty simple formula,” Keeler said. “If we rush three or four or five or even all 11, we had better stay in our lanes.
“You have to be disciplined,” said Keeler, who went on to praise Eastern’s receivers and offensive line.
On defense, the Eagles will contend with a variety of sets, including as many as four wideouts. Running back Keshawn Hill (81 rushes for 548 yards and 12 TDs last year) is back for his senior year, adding some experience to an otherwise green offense.
“We can pound the ball and we will be physical,” Keeler said.
The action will unfold quickly – Keeler’s goal is to run 100 offensive plays per game – meaning that Eastern will have fewer opportunities to substitute.
“When they’re in that mode you have to be real careful,” Eastern defensive coordinator John Graham said. “If the ball goes out of bounds, we might have an opportunity to get guys in, but it creates a challenge.
Fatigue won’t be a problem, Baldwin insists, because his defense is accustomed to the fast tempo of the Eastern offense.
Along with North Dakota State, EWU and Sam Houston are the only FCS teams to reach the postseason in each of the last three seasons. … Eastern is 24-4 all-time at Roos Field, with two of the losses coming the past two seasons in the FCS semifinals. … Eastern is 0-3 all-time against Sam Houston going back to a 35-34 FCS quarterfinal loss in Spokane in 2004. … The Bearkats have won seven straight against the Big Sky Conference, the latest being a 51-20 first-round win last year over Southern Utah.